Can movies and TV shows be literary?

Can movies and TV shows be literary?

I would guess that most readers have had the experience of reading a book and thinking, “This would make a great movie!” I’ve certainly had the thought that a book was deliberately written with the thought that it would be adapted into a movie or TV show (after all, that may be how a book author makes the most money). Those books may sometimes be described as “cinematic”.

Is the reverse true?

Do you ever watch a movie or TV show, and think, “This would make a great book!”?

They are certainly two very different media…and arguably, three.

Books are very much under the control of the reader. If people want to read the end of the book first (and I have a reader who has said they do that at least sometimes), they can. The reader can jump around, go back and re-read a chapter, skip over a “boring part”, and so on.

With a movie (at least seen in a theatre), you go at the movie’s pace. Miss something for some reason, and you’ve missed it. Want to stop and think about an element, or even have a discussion with a friend or family member before proceeding? Not happening in your cinema.

TV has become different from movies, in that it can be under the viewer’s control. That’s especially true with the “binge watching” model, where an entire season (series, in UK parlance) may be released at once. Skip ahead, go back, stop and discuss…all an option.

I suspect that’s part of why I am more likely to think of a TV series as “literary” than a movie. Moreover, that precedes the home recording era. I think I pretty much always thought of Star Trek: the Original Series as feeling literary. I knew those characters, and I did discuss episodes.

A TV series being a series is part of that literary feeling, I think. It’s like chapters in a book: time for contemplation, and call-backs and foreshadowing. A movie can foreshadow…but for no more than about two hours.

If that’s the case, have I thought of movie series as more literary than stand-alones?

I’d say yes. For example, the first three Star Wars movies felt literary to me. There was a lot of thinking about what happened (despite what Isaac Asimov, who I admire, saying about the first movie…I believe it was something like that you would enjoy it if you “parked your brain outside”). I’d even say something like The Bowery Boys can feel more literary to me than most stand-alone movies…even though they are pretty visual (but malapropisms being significant shows a connection to words).

Buckaroo Banzai and Casablanca are both movies that are stand-alones, but have somewhat of a literary feel to me. I could certainly see reading the lines in Casablanca in a book. Now, Casablanca was a play first, and Earl Mac Rauch had written about Buckaroo and the Hong Kong Cavaliers considerably before the movie (but those writings weren’t published before the movie…a novel was in conjunction with the movie). I don’t think that’s why they feel literary to me.

For me, there are a few elements which I believe may increase that literary feel:

  • There are a lot of words. 🙂 Books are word-based; movies are generally visual image-based. Casablanca is one of the most quotable movies ever
  • The plot is complex. That doesn’t mean it’s a Gordian knot of double-backs and sub-plots. Many movies nowadays spend almost the entire movie in “crisis mode”, with tactical responses to what is happening now, rather than strategic planning and a variegated pace. I felt that “crisis mode” issue with the latest Star Trek movie, which is part of why it didn’t feel like an episode of the original series to me. That’s an advantage for many TV series, where there are multiple plots and episodes which feel different from each other. A movie which amounts to a single chase scene or battle (or a combination of the two) doesn’t tend to feel like a book to me
  • The audience can speculate about what the “right choices” are, or what things mean…and different audience members may come to different conclusions. For me, that’s part of why Rogue One (the latest Star Wars movie) didn’t feel as literary to me. I’m very careful about spoilers, so MILD SPOILER WARNING, although I won’t reveal any plot points. I didn’t feel like the audience was ever supposed to be in doubt about what the right choices were in Rogue One. END SPOILER In the original Star Wars movies, we could argue with each other that characters might have legitimately made different choices

I would be remiss to omit that there are books made from movies and TV shows. I have really enjoyed some of those. Star Trek and Star Wars have had very successful books which were not novelizations of the movie plots. However, those aren’t the only ones, by far. There were Man from U.N.C.L.E. originals (which I own and liked). It might be surprising to some that the same is true of Get Smart novels I own. 🙂

Amazon has a section for “tie-ins”…they refer to it as movie tie-ins, but it includes TV series and videogames:

Literature & Fiction – Genre Fiction – Movie Tie-ins (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

There are 2,783 titles there at time of writing.

There has been some great writing in “tie-in” or “expanded universe” writing, and there is an organization dedicated to them:

The International Association of Media Tie-In Writers

I recommend taking a look at the site, which is copyrighted by prominent authors Lee Goldberg (at AmazonSmile*) and Max Allan Collins ( at AmazonSmile*). They are both successful authors of original works, in addition to their work with IAMTW.

One more note: “fanfic” (fan fiction) is something different, given that it isn’t authorized by the rightsholders. It tends to be self-published, not for profit, and can have both more “freedom” and less quality control for those reasons. Amazon has Kindle Worlds (at AmazonSmile: support a non-profit of your choice by shopping*), which has books in existing universes which are authorized but not curated by the rightsholders. It’s sort of a hybrid version: not unauthorized fanfic, not edited tie-in.

What do you think? Can movies and TV shows by literary? If so, what makes them feel like that to you? Are there particular movies/TV shows which have struck you that way? How do you feel about tie-in novels…are there ones you have read, original stories in a universe first established in a visual medium, that you would particularly recommend? Feel free to let me and my readers know by commenting on this post.

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* When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

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4 Responses to “Can movies and TV shows be literary?”

  1. Karin Says:

    I find your comment about Asimov and the first Star Wars interesting. I had read the first Foundation book before I saw the Star Wars movie, and had such a Deja Vu feeling that I thought Star Wars was based on an Asimov book, until I saw the credits.

  2. Edward Boyhan Says:

    I generally don’t buy/read books tied to TV/Movie properties.

    I suspect your definition of “literary” is different than mine. I sometimes get emails from Amazon touting some “literary fiction” titles; I also get a weekly newsletter from the NYT on Books — they often talk about “literary” titles. For me, whenever I see “literary” about something, I immediately think: “pretentious” (:grin).

    Using your presumed definition, one TV show that had book tie-ins was Dr Who. In fact I think that’s the only time I bought a TV series book tie-in. As it turned out it dealt with a Doctor for whom I had never seen a TV episode — so it filled in a not very gaping lacunae in my Dr Who viewership. I’m not sure which Doctor it was, but I think the companion was called “Ace”, and I think she walked around carrying a baseball bat?

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      What I meant by “literary” in this instance was “feeling like a book”. I wanted the equivalent of saying that a book was “cinematic”, “feeling like a movie”, basically. The literati does like to define only certain books as actually being legitimately books. I’m sure they aren’t happy when they see terms like, “The UFO Literature” (which is not only a phrase I’ve seen many times, but the name of a good reference book by Richard Rasmussen).

      So, I agree with you that “literary” can be used in a pretentious way…can you suggest another term which means, “feels like a book”?

      Ah, Ace! One of the most interesting of the Doctor Who companions! Ace was the last companion of the old series (before the several year gap and the new series began), which makes her a companion to the 7th doctor. The character was arguably somewhat transitional, being more powerful and independent and disagreeing with the Doctor and perhaps more three-dimensional…but other earlier companions had some of those same qualities (like Ace, Leela was also prone to violence/destruction, in opposition to the Doctor, and Sarah Jane wasn’t exactly an unquestioning follower).

      The gap is one reason, intriguingly, why Ace became a fan favorite, I think. Between the first series and the second, there were books published presenting new adventures. Some memorably included and expanded upon Ace…naturally enough, since that was the most recent companion.

      I suspect a few (probably statistically very few) viewers saw some echoes of Ace in Negasonic Teenage Warhead as portrayed in the Deadpool movie (not so much the comics incarnation).

      Ace did use a baseball bat (and isn’t the only Doctor Who character to have used one…despite it being from iconically American baseball and not iconically British cricket. It would be harder to carry a cricket bat around easily), and Ace’s was even enhanced as an offensive weapon at one point. However, Ace was also a skilled chemist (despite being a teenager), and used that ability to create (and then use) explosives.

      I’ll just note that my first Doctor when someone says “Doctor Who” is still Tom Baker…but Matt Smith is a strong second.

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