Storytelling and Risk (Financial as well as Social)

Passing through Alyssa Rosenberg‘s excellent pop culture blog, I found a link to Dylan Matthews’ unfriendly review of Jonathan Franzen’s “Perchance to Dream.” I haven’t read Franzen’s article so can’t comment on Matthews’ analysis of it, but as a novelist I find Matthews’ stated position that “text is an inferior way of telling stories to video” worth a brief comment.

Matthews doesn’t provide any argument to support this position (that’s not the point of his article), nor could I find such in a quick due diligence search of his site.  However, this statement did get me thinking about my love of novels, and what they offer that video doesn’t.

There are a lot of answers to that question, but the difference that struck me the most was cost. An author can write one good book of moderate length in a year. Costs for publishing, distribution, and marketing can rack up pretty quickly, but one estimate I’ve heard puts the cost to publisher for an average mass market paperback at $150,000.

Avatar cost between $300 and $500 million depending on who you read; Firefly cost around $2 or $3 million per episode, and a $10 million investment for the pilot (for sets, costumes, developing initial special effects, etc.), and I’ve heard a price tag of $17 million attached to the Battlestar Galactica miniseries.

People invest money looking to make it back, and the more money they invest, if they’re reasonable people, the more they want that investment secured. If I’m sinking $300 million into a really fun movie about pseudo-Native American space smurfs, I want to be positive it will do well, so I become worried when the movie takes risks and breaks ground in its story. I become worried if the story is slow, or doesn’t have an up ending, or pisses off the pro-military crowd without appealing enough to the anti-military crowd. I become worried if the audience isn’t able to cheer with unalloyed joy for someone at the end of the film.

Please don’t think of this as an attack on Avatar; I watched that film and liked it a great deal. But a publisher can afford to put out individual books that take more risks and push more boundaries because there’s less money tied up with each story. In extremity, if you’re DH Lawrence and nobody wants to publish your Lady Chatterly’s Lover, you can self-publish out of pocket these days using sites like or; by comparison, even a very inexpensive feature film like Rian Johnson’s amazing Brick costs $450,000 and requires the dedication of maybe a hundred people to make it happen. Possible, but well outside many artists’ budget, especially if you’re writing something you feel certain will piss some people off.

Would Faulkner have been able to get a movie that would be an even remotely reasonable and faithful approximation of Absalom, Absalom financed in 1936? Could Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man have been made as a television series or film nearly as hard-hitting as the original in 1952? What about Willard Motley’s Knock On Any Door (1947), my father’s favorite book? That one was actually adapted into a film, and look what happened: the book was the life story of Nicky Romano, a young, innocent boy we follow through the shaping of a rough neighborhood and a rough economy into his life as a hoodlum, hustler, and gay prostitute, and ends with him on trial for murder; the film is a courtroom drama starring Humphrey Bogart as a good guy court defender who stands up for Nicky despite Nicky’s bad attitude, and excludes, to my knowledge, a lot of the true nastiness and social and moral import of the novel.

Okay, Max, you say: so it was hard to make good novels that highlight problems of race and society into equally hard-hitting movies back in the Bad Old Days. Surely we’re better now, right? And besides, you’re a science fiction writer—what does it matter to you?

That’s a fair point, though it’s worthy to note that even in 2003 they couldn’t make a version of A Wizard of Earthsea which accurately portrayed the main characters as people of color, and the forthcoming movie The Last Airbender, based on the other Avatar, has cast white folks in the lead roles of an adaptation of an animated series whose heroes are Aleutian islanders and Chinese analogues, while allowing the villain, who comes from a country that looks an awful lot like Japan, to be portrayed by a South Asian guy. So yeah.

You certainly can shoot an action scene more lovingly in video; blood is bloodier, sex sexier, and you need to be one hell of a writer to convince me that the Death Star is as big in a book as it appears on screen. But a lot of stories challenge too much for people to comfortably invest even half a million dollars in them, let alone $10 million or $100 million, when they are at their most relevant. For those tales, the best medium is probably the one where a small number of people can take a chance, stand up for what they believe, and make a difference.

Heck, that sounds like a cool story. Maybe someone should write a movie about it.

3 Responses to “Storytelling and Risk (Financial as well as Social)”

  1. Bingo

    “Text is an inferior way of telling stories to video.”

    I wholeheartedly agree with Matthews–because there is no value in experiencing the inner lives of characters. Look! A shiny surface!

    (You are far too polite.)

  2. max

    Thanks for the comment! The window good writing offers into the inner lives of characters is a vital difference between fiction & film of course, but that ground has been well defended by others far more eloquent than I. This approach seemed both novel (sorry, I couldn’t resist) and possessed of a grain of truth.

    I’ll endeavor to be less polite in the future. *grin*

  3. Bingo

    Yeah, it’s such a cliche (the inner-life-window thing) that I was a bit flummoxed to read that text is flatly inferior. I’m pretty sure I’d agree that text is an inferior way of telling _visual_ stories (though not entirely sure, to tell the truth), but otherwise the claim strikes me as weak tea.


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