Saturday, July 3, 2010

Emma, film adaptations, and mental images

So I'm here to talk about Jane Austen again. Sort of, anyway. I rewatched the latest Emma adaptation over the last several nights, because my mother wanted to see it, and by the end I was a bit obsessed and went back and watched the entire four hours in one sitting. And then I started rereading the book. Despite the three other books I am already reading.

People often talk about film adaptations ruining books for them. There's no questioning the fact that sometimes films have a very large effect on how we read and visualize a book, and especially how we see characters. But it's not often that the film was good enough that this is a good thing. I love Romola Garai's Emma. I think it was extraordinarily well-cast. I wrote about it briefly when I first saw it, but I think I like it even better on subsequent viewings. Now, on rereading the book, it occurs to me that Jane Austen is the sort of writer where a very good film can have a very helpful effect on the reading. Jane Austen doesn't spend a lot of time on description. Dialogue is her strong point, which lends well to films and lets the designers have a lot of free rein over how things look. Of course, this generally means there's more chance of them getting it wrong in somebody's view. Sometimes, though, they get it right. And having a film where nearly every character and setting agrees with my mental picture, I can use this visual to help me read the book.

Most of the time, I don't have a continuous mental image of what I'm reading--except, oddly, with directions. I usually know where I think things are on relative to each other, on which side of the street someone is walking, and so on. I've no idea why this is, and it always throws me off when the text contradicts my image. Apart from this, I don't visualize settings or characters in any great detail, especially not if the book doesn't offer much description. When I see film adaptations, I know what looks wrong, but when something looks right it's not generally because it agrees with an image I already have. Once I have seen an image of the scene, however, be it an illustration or a movie, I always have that in the background while reading. I think having an image adds something to the experience. So a film as good as this Emma is a great thing, not only in and of itself, but for the book.

Does anyone else have similar experiences with visualizing books or with the interaction between book and film? I'm curious--I feel like I usually hear people say they do visualize books, but I don't, so I wonder if I'm alone in this.

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