Soft Edges: The Art of Literature, the Medium of Film

Article excerpt

Is film a branch of literature? I do not think any of us believe it for a moment. Yet we go to most films for pretty much the same reasons that we read most novels or go to most plays. We want to imaginatively participate in worlds different from and more interesting than our own. What we get in most films and novels and plays is similar regardless of medium: characters with problems in stories with themes, hopefully in a work with something to say. Film is not literature, but the reason for being of a lot of films is literary. From that paradox springs the bulk of film-literature criticism, most of which seems dedicated to showing how films are different from literature. Such criticism is frequently unsuccessful because critics tend to treat literature as one monolith and film as another. They forget that literature is an art comprised of more than one medium and that film is a medium for more than one art. Literature and film are two sorts of things, each capable of encompassing part of the other. It is perfectly reasonable to talk of the literary cinema or to call a particular film a work of literature. But because the films we go to for literary reasons are merely one use of film, we cannot argue that film per se is a branch of literature.

Film and literary critics alike confuse literature with its dominant medium, print, and confuse the medium of film with its dominant genre, the narrative. While the latter confusion leads to a futile search for "the" art of film, the former confusion has more consequences for film-literature criticism. Critics accustomed to identifying film by its perceptual mode of apprehension, mistakenly believe that literature can be identified by the conceptual way we apprehend printed verbal language. For example. George Bluestone, in Novels into Film, writes of film and literature as "two ways of seeing," which are "overtly compatible, secretly hostile"; he explains that "between the percept of the visual image and the concept of the mental image lies the root difference between the two media."1 Erwin Panofsky uses words such as "materialistic" and "physical" for film while he calls literature "conceptual."2 Siegfried Kracauer claims that the cinema, unlike literature, "redeems physical reality" and gives us "life in the raw."3 And Jean Mitry contends: "the novel is a story which is organized into a world, the film is a world which is organized into a story. "4 Later in this essay I will argue against the democratic assigning of one art to each medium and against the clear opposition between perception and concepts which these writers posit. But first it is necessary to establish that literature is not the same thing as printed verbal language.

Literature has never been a one-medium art. Literature did not spring fully armed from the head of Johann Gutenberg on the day he invented moveable type; nor did it arise from the invention of the graphemic alphabet which made writing possible. Literature began with poets, not paper, with performance, not print. The great bardic traditions that gave us Beowulf (and probably Homer's work as well) were aural and theatrical. As Alfred Lord has shown, they were traditions of poets who wrote with their bodies and their voices, and who were (as many poets still are) performing artists. Performance is, in fact, at the heart of literature. Beowulf was in the world before a scribe recorded it. Chaucer performed his works. And a printer did not turn Othello into literature. Peformance was the intended medium for all of Shakespeare's plays, and print is but their poor surrogate memory, their second literary medium. Even a single work can have more than one medium. For example. The Wasteland existed in personal performance while Mr. Eliot lived; it exists on paper, and it exists on a phonograph recording. The Wasteland is a poem, a poem is poetry, and poetry is literature, no matter the medium. The Wasteland might be literature if it were filmed, especially if Eliot had (as he did for Murder in the Cathedral) adapted the medium to his intentions. …