Adapting the written to the visual

2020-12-10 @Arts

I don’t know about you, but I take increasingly less interest in seeing a visual rendition or a play, a poem and usually, a book. That is to say, a live performance, a film, a series, or a visual interpretation rarely stirs my imagination. And the modern tradition to compress works into ten-minute animations, well, warrants little commentary.

Even a word-for-word audio book - the whole idea, what little experience I have with the format, has felt superficial. Nothing approximates the physical interaction with words, lines, stanzas captured and perceived at own pace.

(I’ve just reminded myself that an audio book used to be called a ‘book on tape’ in a not-too-distant past.)

I guess I need as always constrain the comparative analysis to artistic literature, not purely the informational or scientific (although there I’m likewise not convinced of a too different of a dichotomy).

The whole pursuit boils down to imagination; and the stimulation in the rhetorical exercise inherent to the original written form. Or rather, I fail to see any other point, provided you read for your own inner erudition in contrast to some extrinsic purpose.

You may argue that plays were intended to be seen on stage. And be it an actual live stage (for I do miss occasional trips to small, underground theater performances), there is a unique experience in it. For me, it concerns the live energy at presiding at the theatre in close proximity to the actors.

But that experience bears little relation to the reading experience. The imagination triggered at reading and rereading at your own pace, pondering word usage, decoding allegory, contemplating metaphorical device, visualizing imagery - none of that can I identify outside the written form.

Let me hear the most acclaimed Hamlet soliloquy performed live or on television. I’ve heard a number. And still I would opt to reread those scenes without a second thought.

The live performance demonstrates how impeccably well the performer has memorized those lines and perfected the accompanying body language, but it hardly enables me to tap into the recesses of language, less appreciate it.

Or perhaps my listening comprehension for rhetoric suffers from a severe deficit. Had I sufficient interest for theatrics and acting, and therein allocated the time that I do towards voracious reading, perhaps the verdict would similarly differ.

Then take the visuals. I care not to actually see the enchanted forest of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I rather imagine the elves, fairies, hues, incantations, and all those evanescent organisms in my own way. The latter approach stimulates. The former numbs.

The same with Macbeth, one of my favourite macabre plays (and readings in general).

When I read of witchcraft, ravishing settings, ghoulish interiors, war torn landscapes, blood soaked embroideries, phantasmagoria, the menacing Lady Macbeth, murder, villainy, all described in the language ultra-satiated in imagery - when that happens, some imaginative hyper drive unleashes all sorts of fantastically stimulating neurons that manifest an endless array of realms in myriads of trajectories.

And the same with most of Edgar Poe tales I’ve had the immense pleasure to submerge in. It has something to do with potential energy vs the kinetic.

For when someone visually presents to me that concoction of affair, already packaged and curated, all that fancy melts and condenses into a momentary sugar spike, followed by a lot of disappointing nothingness.

Or take Sir Gawain’s quest to encounter the Green Knight. I could summarize that journey in several minutes. (Someone else might manage in two, but I’m ineffective in compact oratory.) And yet the 2500 lines of verse (or however many) extend that journey to such lengths and with such incredible artistry, enabling each individual moment to consume a lifetime.

Or the tragedy of Oedipus the King. Be the general phenomenon considered fairly common wisdom, it wasn’t until I read the entire play, with all the irony, twists, horridly suspenseful tidings, and emphasis placed on self-paced reading so as to imagine whatever psychological turn arises within each turbulent interchange; not until that did I care two carrots for this story or it’s impact.

Consider it the journey vs the destination paradigm. What reward is there in having the work handled for you, when such splendour lies precisely in the pursuit?

No visual performance can compete with the impact of your imagination, once you sufficiently nurture it and let it spread.

Even written retellings and modernizations of ancient sagas rob the story of the journey. I speak of those Greek, Nordic, Celtic, Biblical, African, Persian, Indian, or whatever framework of ancient legend you prefer.

The further you distance yourself from the original renditions with all their infinite nuances, the more layers to the original poetry you choose to shed, the less of a journey you leave yourself to undergo. All that ancient accumulation of storytelling you leave to interpretation by superficial, encyclopedic means.

Let’s turn back to the visual medium. However you construe it, for real stimulation to accrue, it need represent something unique across that medium.

A film can stimulate and evoke vast amounts of imagination - even films based on/inspired by existing written materials of the sorts I’d spoken. But these films need accomplish that by independent artistic means unique to the medium. Very few films manage the feat.

Whether a visual medium tells an original or a reinterpreted story, it need manifest some kind of a journey to be worth it’s stamp. A mere visual exposition doesn’t suffice, unless it spawns the proper triggers, causing the brainwork to conjure it’s own stimulating exposition.

Lately I’ve taken fondness in the many of the fine art forms - paintings, engravings, illustrations, etc. For they, within a seemingly compact two-dimensional framework, can evoke the faculty I’ve alluded to.

At least I find it a medium more convenient for self-paced perception and unbound journeying, like the written, yet mostly unlike the visually motion-oriented kind.

And I wonder. Anciently, story-telling tapestries, murals, and mosaics were fairly common. I refer to those works of massive real estate that narrated Egyptian, Indian, Celtic myths in their own two-dimensional style. Now that’s a storytelling method I’d much welcome as a form of (re)interpretation more often nowadays.

The eleventh century Bayeux Tapestry provides one such example, with the events leading up to and covering the Norman conquest of England. Okay, the vast magnitude of this embroidery is a bit extreme for my point, but you get the idea.

Alternatively, there’s much food for storytelling and imagination within the Allegorical paintings. See, for instance, the allegorical works of the Renaissance painters Pieter Bruegel the Elder or Hieronymus Bosch.

I’d welcome to see a Neo revival of storytelling tapestries, mass-scale allegorical compositions, or similarly allusive means to project not only the ancient but modern stories, letting the brain spawn it’s own web of imagination.

The storytelling form is at least as crucial, if not more integral than the underlying story. Don’t sacrifice the form.

Questions, comments? Connect.