Writers are wrong to think imagination is all their own

Film goers, look away now. Book worms, continue reading. You know that feeling you get when you hear the name of a book you love? And the feeling that follows when you hear the words ‘film adaptation’? It’s a bit like a pang of sadness, disappointment and fear, rolled up in a tight ball with intrigue, anticipation and wonder. You read a book and fell in love with the words on the page. Words that someone worked hard to create in just the right order, at just the right pace. And now some hot-shot Hollywood producer has put their dirty hands on the pages and announced that they’re filling in the blanks.

Of course, the only blanks on a page of a book are between the words, which is where the imagination is placed. Here is where images form in our minds; where we mentally develop characters, settings, objects, and who knows what else, until we have a perfectly formed image in our minds of the book in colour format. Film producers do this too, but force us to see the images they have created, and dispel those of our own.

I can never help myself watching a film adaptation of a book I’ve loved. I’ve never once liked one more than the book itself, and more often than not, not really rated it at all. The reason for this being the point above: films dispel our own uniquely created images.

Pencil drawing, charcoal or ink? Ask the audience, not the artist.
Pencil drawing, charcoal or ink? Ask the audience, not the artist.

What I never thought about until now is how willing writers must be to allow this to happen. Not just by film producers, but by every single reader. When someone writes a book, characters, settings and scenes are developed in their mind and conveyed on paper as much as their creative ability will allow. Something I am told I do in my fiction writing is give too much detail; I don’t allow enough room for readers to fill in their own imaginations to the extent that they should. When I first heard this, although I agreed (it was plainly obvious in most cases), I couldn’t help but feel I should be defensive. It’s my writing, why shouldn’t I point out that the floor of the room my character in is grey with stains from spilled wine on it? But by refusing to allow room for imagination, I’d be just as bad as a film producer making a film for the reason of wanting to force their own interpretation of a book onto others.

How had this never occurred to me before? By offering a book for others to read; a carefully crafted story you have spent months, maybe years, writing and perfecting, you have to be completely and totally opening to the idea of people reading it and picturing an entirely different novel than the one in your own mind.

I do love the fact that if you take any given book group in the world, you will see the hard evidence of just how differently a book can be read and seen in the mind, but this is something I have only ever considered from the point of view of a reader. Would I be alright with overhearing a discussion of a book of my own being discussed from twenty different angles? I don’t know. A part of me would surely be impressed about angles I hadn’t considered myself, but a larger chunk of me might be shouting, ‘No! That is not the point of that scene!’

I wonder if every writer has considered their work like this before, and how many have been put off writing their story for this reason. Surely only a really good person could be completely alright with it?

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3 thoughts on “Writers are wrong to think imagination is all their own

  1. I agree that the best part of reading is exploring what the book means to you (which is what makes studying literature and the thousands of different interpretations so difficult!) But I have seen several films which I feel did the books justice…last years adaptation of Great Expectations, for example, or Rebecca. I just feel that it is a shame when writers sacrifice their precious texts to producers because, sadly, it is normally the only way writers earn the money and get the recognition they deserve.

    1. For the authors that sell film rights purely because the book alone didn’t profit well, it is sad. If I were an author and I was approached for film rights though I think I wouldn’t be able to help feeling pretty damn pleased that someone thought the story was that good! And you’re right in that not all films are bad. The Harry Potter series was undoubtedly phenomenal, but I feel they sit completely apart from the books as a whole other experience, which is actually quite a good thing. Again, it’s just the whole idea of letting your story go to whoever wants to do what with it in their imagination.

      1. I suppose that’s what they are designed for though, like you say, they are for people to interpret in their own way and a film adaptation is simply the director’s interpretation of it, I think the films should be taken apart from the books because they’re not the same medium and are therefore going to come across differently. Actually, I think I would enjoy film adaptations of books a lot more by looking at it this way!

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