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Form or content ?

mkarol's picture


Does a story itself change when it is transferred to another medium? If a text starts out as a novel, then is made into a movie, does the addition of audio and visuals make the tale something entirely different?

Essentially, the answer depends on extent: Exactly how much of a “change” in medium has the text undergone? If the jump is really only the distance between a printed book and words typed on a screen, then the meaning would for the most part be the same. They are still words being read by a reader’s eyes, with no change in cognition. This is true for most novels and pieces of non-fiction. Craig Mod, the author of the web article “Books in the Age of the Ipad”, calls these books “Formless content”


and applauds the movement to change the printed into typed:

“FOR TOO LONG, the act of printing something in and of itself has been placed on too high a pedestal. The true value of an object lies in what it says, not its mere existence. And in the case of a book, that value is intrinsically connected with content.”

He does however, point out that there is another category of writings that need to be presented in a specific way in order to be understood and to make sense. He says that “Content with form — Definite Content — is almost totally the opposite of Formless Content. Most texts composed with images, charts, graphs or poetry fall under this umbrella. It may be reflowable, but depending on how it’s reflowed, inherent meaning and quality of the text may shift.”



Mod emphasizes the use of new technology to overcome the obstacles that may face the reformatting or re-media-ing of what he defines as “Definite Content”, the foremost of which being the ipad. This new model has surpassed the iphone, the blackberry, and the Kindle in terms of being able to present the most book-like presentation, preserving the text’s comprehensibility. It’s kind of ironic that the most advanced and evolved that technology becomes, the more it can reflect and relate to the original printed form. 


The transition from books to movies, though, is an entirely different story. “It’s about that guy, in that moment, in that space”. In this clip from Richard Linklater’s film, Waking Life, director Caveh Zahedi talks about the difference between what is available through the written word versus what a film has to offer. According to him, the purpose of a movie is not to tell a story “slavishly” like literature does, but to say something coming out of a single moment, “the holy moment”. This belief stresses an inherent difference in how a moving picture, with sounds and direction and focus, affects an audience and the way that a written novel does. But what does that say about novels that ARE made into movies? 

 “Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation” quotes George Bluestone:

“between the percept of the visual image and the concept of the mental image lies the root difference between the two media”


This reflects the basic change that occurs in the transformation of a text from novel to film. When reading, people make up their own characters, voices, images, and so forth, being influenced solely by the text itself and relying on their imagination.

A physical manifestation of those thoughts and ideas, as is provided by a film adaptation, takes away that sense of individuality and freedom to interpret the text in a personal way. 

The slightest degree of inflection in an actor’s voice can completely alter how a reader might have understood an event. And what is a film, but another person’s point of view, their own interpretation of something?

It is clear that while there may be little to no change in a text’s meaning when it is simply transferred from a printed novel medium to an online format, the adaptation of a novel into a film most often changes content. Even if a movie follows the book ‘word for word’, paying attention to every single detail provided, something is bound to be different. The visual and audible manifestation of a story brings to the table what a novel does not provide in itself, but instead what it allows the imagination to do. The rest comes down to personal opinion… Do we let ourselves do the imagining, or buy into someone else’s interpretation?







Shayna S's picture

The Form of Graphic Novels

 mkarol, what are your notions about the form of the graphic novel? Is it like a movie, in that the pictures are someone else's interpretation of the text that accompanies it? Or does this not matter, as it is all about the content and not the form (pictures included)? 



understanding comics


Anne Dalke's picture


I'm so glad to see you picking up on your posting last week -- a novel by any other name would read the same? -- and using your blog to try and think through the implications of the question you asked then: "Is my Alice in Wonderland now different from those of the book-readers, just because I read it off of a computer screen?"

You've assembled a rich array of theorists to help you in this thinking-through: Craig Mod's web essay is useful to you (I found his images  particularly illustrative); as are Linklater’s film and Bluestone's theorizing about adaptation (interesting that your sources also illustrate a range of media!). That sequence moves you nicely from books in print to those in printed small-screen-format, to those adapted visually for the big screen.  There are a number of perceptive moments along the way; I'm especially struck by your comment that "the more advanced and evolved that technology becomes, the more it can reflect and relate to the original printed form" (i.e. the ipad's being so book-like). Also very helpful, I think, is Mod's distinction between "formless content" (in which re-mediating has little or no effect) and "definite content” (where the reformatting matters).

What gets lost in the "adaptation," though, is any sense of where you come out on the series of provocative questions you've raised. Am I to assume that the form of your final question -- "Do we let ourselves do the imagining, or buy into someone else’s interpretation?" -- implies your answer: that we 'should' rely on our own imagination? If so, I'd like to nudge you a bit  past that easy binary (most "yes" or "no" questions really beg the answer, and so are less interesting to me than the gray spaces in between....).Mightn't "someone else's interpretation" inspire us to further interpreting? In the way that TPB1988's posting about Alice on the big screen suggested that Phoebe in Wonderland helped her better to understand Alice in Wonderland, and vice versa?
A propos of this: really, the most interesting point for me in your essay was the claim made in Waking Life that, rather than "slavishly" imitating a novel, a film should create something distinct, "a holy moment." What's particularly striking to me about that claim is not only the notion of the possibility that an adaptation can become an original (?), but the fact that it's made in the very peculiar form that Waking Like takes: as an animated cartoon that explores the possibility of "lucid dreaming" (i.e. controlling the direction of our own dreams as they occur).

For that reason, it should form a particularly striking context for our viewing of the film Persepolis, which doesn't rely on the (imagination-stunting!?) medium of photography, but rather animates the black-and-white graphics of the original narrative. Is that "slavish"? Or the making of a "holy moment," and in what sense? (It pretty much reproduces the visuals of the graphic narrative, but it adds audio. And it represents the contemporary scenes in color.) Will you be calling this, then, a "physical manifestation" of the thoughts and ideas presented in the narrative that "takes away any sense of individuality and freedom to interpret the text in a personal way"? I'll be curious to hear ...