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From Ancient Storytelling, to Books, and Then to Films

Rica Dela Cruz's picture

Just as the oral version of telling stories has evolved over thousands of years since Homo sapiens came along, the invention of the alphabet and the development of written words have since evolved into written short stories and novels. Like the evolution of organisms, gradually, over thousands of years, human communication and the transmission of stories (and now knowledge) have continued to evolve.

One of the most dramatic changes that have taken place in the area of storytelling, communication and entertainment has been the transmission of stories visually by pictures. The inventions in technology-the camera, and subsequently, the moving picture projector-have revolutionized storytelling in the 20th Century. Now, people don't even have to read to understand a story. They can watch it on film.

Since the discovery of papyrus and the invention of the alphabet man has put his hand to paper to record history and to tell stories. The invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in the Middle Ages has further pushed and contributed greatly to storytelling and the accumulation of knowledge. One interesting development or divergence has been in the area of film making, which began during the first-half of the 20th Century.

Like novels, films initially began as a form of entertainment. It is the telling of stories using a series of still-pictures that move, through a reel, resulting in the pictures, which move as if real. Books, in contrast, require the reader to first understand what is written. He has to use his cognitive faculty to understand the story being told. This is hard for people who do not know how to read or do not like to read. It is the modern day version of watching, say, a play by Shakespeare. But just as films have similarities to books, as a form of storytelling, they have differences, of course. Personally, I would treat films as a sub-category of literature. It is like beaks on finches that develop to accommodate the needs of modern-day people for entertainment. Films make it possible for people who do not read or do not like to read to be entertained by this visual form of storytelling.

The origin of film dates back to the late 19th century with the invention of the motion picture camera. Before then, the only visual entertainment available was through live theatre. Movies became instantly popular, even when they first started off as silent films. It was accessible to everyone and it reached out to everyone, both rich and poor, reader and non-reader. Unlike the theatre, making a film took less effort to show since it does not require the presence of actors all the time, day after day. Once it is made, it is stored in film reels for showing in movie theatres as many times as you want. Like books, they are now stored on DVDs and are portable and extremely convenient for the viewer to watch whenever he wants to do so.

The question of interest to me is what divergent path did film making take from the novel? Was it a direct "off shoot" of the novel or did it take place by way of another route? Film appears to have developed from both books and live. The triggering mechanism, however, was the invention of the camera. The camera, in turn, had to make two changes: the projector to the project the image to a large screen, and the "moving-reel camera" to make the still pictures "move" as if the pictures are alive. All of these developed, of course, through man's creativity.

Thus, storytelling began with the likes of Homer, orally telling a story that is handed down from generation to generation. The live theatre later came along with the Greeks. Then books came along with the printing press. After that, filmmaking developed as a result of the invention of the camera and the electric light. Thus, theatre first diverged from ancient storytelling. It then converged back with the written form of storytelling, such as the novel. The moving camera later took advantage of both, which resulted in filmmaking. This convergence, in combination with new technology, created film. Movies are in essence live theatre stored and preserved for present and future viewing. But like written stories such as the novel, films are a convenient form of entertainment.

A reason why film can be thought of as a divergent species of the novel and could be considered a genre of literature is because it could be studied and interpreted academically, just like a novel. Today, one can find film classes offered under the auspices of many English departments at universities and even high school. In the Bryn Mawr College English Department alone, there are two courses offered about film in the Fall 2009 semester. There is one at Haverford College and five in the University of Pennsylvania English Department. The University of Pennsylvania even has a department called "cinema studies", which is dedicated to studying films and film processes. Based on these courses, one sees how film has essentially been classified as a genre of literature. Therefore, one could argue that films did evolve from books and oral storytelling.

Another way to treat film is through the transformation of written stories of novels to box office best sellers. Many popular movies made today come from or are based on novels. Just within the last year, about plots of twenty-five movies were made from the stories of novels. These movies include "Confessions of a Shopaholic", "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", "The Reader", "Twilight", "The Reader", and "Marley and Me", to name a few. Within each film made, one sees an evolutionary pathway.

With this recent divergence of film from the novel, many may believe that there could be a decline in books due to the increasing popularity of and emphasis on films. However, it is difficult to tell what is to come of this hypothesis. The opinions of novel and film do differ among generations, among each individual of those generations, and among different social classes and cultural groups. For most children, visual animation seem most appealing while older generations seem to find both, text and film, to be intriguing. Although it does seem that film may over shadow books because of its popularity among younger generations, books will most likely still persist due to its prominence among the academic society. No matter how much a child strays away from a novel, he will eventually be made to read one in school.

What is most interesting would be see the effects if film would completely dominate books. It may seem beneficial to people because it is easier to watch a story on a screen than to read pages of it. However the dominance of film would most likely be detrimental. With novels, one is able to use her imagination and interpret text more broadly than with a movie. The director and actors' opinions of a particular story do influence film greatly. Our "cracks" do play a significant role in creating movies.

The rise of film out of literature has occurred only within the last century. This new evolutionary path seems due to the divergence from the novel in convergence with theatre and in combination with advanced technology (ironically from man's evolution). It can be argued that film is a divergent species of literature since it can be seen within many English departments and is a product of many earlier written novels. Like other evolutionary aspects, it is unknown what is to come of such as divergence, whether it will be beneficial or detrimental. What is known, however, is our "crack" is what directly influences these effects.


Paul Grobstein's picture

books/film, convergences/divergences

Raises the very interesting question of whether books and film fill the same niche, in which case on might replace the other, or are instead fulfilling different functions.  My guess is the latter.