Why SciFi Movies Disappoint SciFi Readers Who Read The Book
(Same Goes For Fantasy And Comic Books)
Same goes for pretty much any movie that was a book first, really. Ask a Stephen King fan. But this phenomenon of disappointment is so much more pronounced for fans of SciFi and Fantasy and Comic Books. Why?
Partly because of the nature of movies bundled with the nature of the average moviegoer. In the dawn of the moving picture era, the movie itself was a novelty and a spectacle, just by being itself. A few elementary stunts, a visual gag here and there, and a good story were all a director needed to sell a movie.
But the novelty has long since worn out; movies are now a venerable art form. Seen at the theater, they’re still a spectacle and an experience in and of themselves – but that’s less about the movie and more about going out to the theater.
Today, nobody wants to pay to see a book translated directly into film. Film was never suited to that, because an hour and a half, or even three hours, just isn’t enough room to tell a story it takes 100,000 words to tell. Or even 50,000. If you made a movie going point by point through a story as written, you’d be lucky to relate 10,000 words in a standard 90 minute film.
And a lot of that film would annoy the crap out of the audience. Internal dialog doesn’t play very well in a movie. At least, not at any length. Nor do narrator commentary or flashbacks and flashforwards and radical scene shifts, or background and world building.
SciFi and Fantasy and Comics are REALLY BIG on all of those things. Because to one degree or another they hinge on things that don’t exist in real life and have to be explained or at least established as to how they fit into the world and how people deal with it. Often, that’s the whole point.
(Graphic novels, by the way, are the bisexuals of the movie-literature divide, usually able to work just fine on either side of the divide – they translate well into film because they’re already organized around a visual presentation, and novels are not.)
The whole point of a movie, though, especially recently and especially in SciFi and Fantasy and Comics, is WOW.
WOW is the visual pop that people want out of movies in general and want ten times more out of genre movies. What sells those tickets is what I think of as “special effects pornography.”
Just enough story and character development to string the special effects spectacles together. Like a porn is just enough to string the sex scenes together. Explosions and falling buildings and super cool aliens and robots are the money shots the average moviegoer wants in exchange for the ticket price.
As much as fans of the books and comics want the background and the worldbuilding and the multiple plot threads to be faithfully represented, they simply aren’t numerous enough to drive the market. Without the SFX porn the movie doesn’t make a profit and the DVD doesn’t sell and the action figures and Halloween costumes and t-shirts don’t move off the shelf.
So the producers and the studios and the writers follow the money. That’s what they’re there for. Oh, they love pleasing fans and making people happy – or at least, the best ones do. But the bottom line is the bottom line: folding green. If it doesn’t make money, in the end its dead to the theater.
But it’s also possible to go too far chasing the money, too deep into the SFX pornography scene. Look at the DC films lately. A Batman who is also a rifleman. A Superman who casually snaps necks and doesn’t give a shit about knocking down the heart of a city. The lovers of spectacle may love it, but the fans of those character in comic books are the ones who are most likely to buy the DVD and the Blu-ray and the Special Director’s Cut too.
Even casual fans of the characters, even the people who read the comics as kids and put them away when they ‘grew up,’ know that Batman isn’t a gun kinda guy and that not killing people or wrecking cities is Superman’s thing.
It may be all about creating the spectacle and setting up the special effects, but if you rip the cores out of familiar characters in the process, what you end up with is empty schlock. And while really awesome schlock may draw a crowd of one-time ticket buyers, it won’t inspire fans to love the franchise, buy the merch, see it multiple times or buy the DVD.
Even the unperceptive can feel when something is empty, even if all they really know is that it was “cool, but I’m not looking for the next one.”
As for the book-readers, they generally loathe the empty schlock movie versions. But even the really well done ones, once stripped down to fit them into a movie format and bent around the cool special effects scenes, are missing the cores that novels spend tens of thousands of words building.
No matter how great the movie version, a movie will never be a book. And that leaves the book fans unfulfilled – unless they go in eyes open, expecting what they see to reflect the strengths and weaknesses of a completely different medium.
Some art that made me say, “cool!” and a few tweets led to some bigger thoughts on genre writing – which is a pretty normal thing, small ideas leading to larger ones, if you’ve done some writing or pretty much any art I can think of or serious thinking.
I found Travis Durden’s Star Wars Greek statuary through a tweet I saw a couple of hours ago (on the 27th — this post first appeared on my Patreon page (would you like to support a not-quite-starving writer? Please do! Because every penny helps tear down the budget worries that often occupy my mind when I’d rather be writing) in the wee hours of the 28th) (tweet posted below). Durden’s art is seriously neat stuff.
Which lead to this tweet:
And this one:
And finally this one:
After I graduated from kiddie books so many years ago, I cut my reading teeth on science fiction. I tried reading the paperbacks my father brought home from used bookstores and quickly learned to look for the short story collections and anthologies — I’d recently learned to read, it was hard enough to work through all the words I didn’t recognize without trying to figure out what was going on in a whole novel. But the shorter short stories, in those early years, I could wrap my mind around those. And remember (well, you might not have known, so I’m telling you) this was in the mid-70s, when certainly many authors in science fiction and elsewhere may have been experimental in their writing, but the mainstream in short science fiction stories was heavy with straightforward plots, traditional story arcs, and mysteries resolved with a single final twist. There’s plenty of that now, to be sure. But either there was more then or those are what I remember because they’re the stories I understood as a child.
That’s a long way to go to say that science fiction seemed huge to me, but it did. It seemed huge and very distinct because it was my entire fictional world then. Nursery rhymes and the little stories found in early reader books — if you’ve had or been around small children just learning to read much, you’ll recall them — hardly counted.
And science fiction is distinct, or at least distinctive. The definition has been endlessly debated over, but most of us who read much of it recognize it when we see it. The same goes for the other genres I mentioned in that last tweet. Horror is distinct enough that we notice the difference, for example, when we read a Stephen King horror story as opposed to a Stephen King something else. Legends have a pretty distinct definition. Magical realism blurs the lines — sometimes it’s fantasy, sometimes it’s science ficiton, sometimes it’s literary, sometimes, sometimes, sometimes.
That’s the genre that really makes the point, with its blurryness.
They’re all blurry, really. Think of Star Wars: get a SW fan who calls it science fiction and a SW fan who calls it science fantasy in the same room and watch the genre boundary argument fur fly.
We love to dicker over what story counts as which genre and who’s that writer whose work is called X but really it’s more Y don’t you think?
To say they’re all fiction is too simplistic. But there’s that in pointing out that genres are small things that cannot really contain a story, not the large and well-defined things we’re tempted to think of them as, that we often reflexively think of them as after a scholastic lifetime of being taught the boundaries of genre.
They’re all stories. They’re all about human beings and what human beings do and think and feel and wonder. All of them, even the genres where there is debate as to whether or not they’re fiction or nonfiction: mythology, legend, religion.
They’re stronger when they wander, stories are. When we get it into our minds that we can’t write in X event because we’re writing science fiction or that Y character doesn’t make sense because we’re reading fantasy, we weaken the stories that we might otherwise love, whether we’re reading them, writing them, or representing them in other forms of art. For centuries fiction and poetry have derived inspiration and imagery from religion and mythology and legend (assuming you divide stories that faith has grown up around into those rather than lumping them together). Star Wars is beloved science fiction in part because it incorporates elements of fantasy and legend and even, at least in the beginning, of the Western movie.
Try picking out a few of your favorite stories that have won wide acclaim or are considered enduring classics. Give them a read with this in mind, and look for where the genres blur. You don’t need a story that glaringly throws seventeen genres together; one that’s mostly in one but draws in bits of others is just fine — even better, in fact.
Much like the ancient advice that a single stick alone is weak but a bundle of those same sticks is strong together, I think you’ll find that stories that gather together elements of different genres are the strongest.
And I also think that it’s more than worth the effort to seek them out as a reader, and to try to create them as a writer.
So, there’s a utopian little article over at Vice with the headline you see above. I’m not commenting on it because it’s bad. You should read it. It opens in a new tab or window, so after you’re done (it won’t take long, it’s short) you can come right back here.
So, what did you think?
Mm-hmm. Me being the opinionated sort, I’ll tell you what I think now.
It’s a nice thought. Science fiction and fantasy (and speculative fiction, for those of you who like that term (it has its uses)) have been long regarded as the goofy cousin of the literary world. Writers of serious fiction and creative nonfiction acknowledge his existence, but wince a bit while admitting it.
SciFi and Fantasy? He’s… special if you know what I mean. But you gotta love him. He has such… enthusiasm. If only he could get his act together. Why don’t we leave him to play with his toy rocketships and go somewhere adult so he’s not horning in on the conversation.
That’s how it has been for several decades now, pretty much since heyday of the pulps and Hugo Gernsback.
It hasn’t always been like that. Frankenstein went over pretty well as a literary work, and it is clearly both science fiction and literary. And somehow it never really got caught up in the Genre Wars. I think because, before science fiction was really seen as a separate thing, it was firmly pigeonholed as literary.
People LOVE pigeonholing things, defining categories and subcategories, putting the things they love and enjoy in those pigeonholes, and guarding them fiercely. Don’t look innocent. You do it. So do I. You may not, and I hope I don’t, rise to vehement levels of assholish gatekeeping in defining what belongs in what category. But many do.
That is why there will always be Genre Wars. Perhaps the lines between literary and SFF have become blurred. But a DMZ doesn’t mean there’s no conflict over what belongs on what side of which line. Just ask the Koreas. If the conflict stops being about whether SFF themes and settings make something innately not literary (and I think, as the article’s writer seems to think, that this is coming to pass), the people invested in the argument will move on to a new point of categorization. They’ll still argue over which side of what border multigenre stories properly lie on. They’ll argue over what defines literary and what defines science fiction and what defines fantasy (people still argue over whether Star Wars should be considered science fiction or fantasy, for example. Yes, they do.). They’ll argue about whether “cli-fi” (climate fiction, dealing with the potential repercussions of climate change — look up Paolo Bacigalupi’s work if you’re curious) is also sci-fi, or if it’s something distinct.
There are always things to argue about, and humans will find them. That’s a big part of what we do with these big primate brains of ours. Or have you not been watching the news?
Recently, I got hold of a copy of Year’s Best SF 17 from 2012. I’m about halfway through it. Judith Moffett’s The Middle Of Somewhere brought up some old thoughts from the venerable ‘genre wars’ — the eternal debate as to what constitutes a science fiction story, a speculative fiction story, fantasy, mainstream fiction, literary fiction, and… and… and…
Well, writers and readers are always debating about which story counts as what. The ones who aren’t are apt (but not bound) to declare, “ah, screw it. A story is a story, and genre is for marketing types, not writers and readers.”
I have a certain sympathy for the ‘a story is a story’ anti-genre-definition point of view. I’d hate to miss reading a good story because it didn’t fit into the ideas of what genre X should be, and I’d hate to miss writing one for the same reasons.
But why, you ask as you read this, am I telling you all this?
The Middle Of Somewhere is well-written. I enjoyed reading it; my experience of it was an ‘easy read,’ meaning it just sort of pulls you in and you keep reading until the story’s over, at which point you’re startled out of the book by the story’s end wishing there was more. It’s the story of a young technophile connected to social media at the hip growing closer to a mildly technophobic ornithology enthusiast elder whose rural Kentucky home is run over by a tornado.
It’s one of those stories that inhabits the DMZ between genres. I have absolutely no doubt that quite a few readers double-checked the cover to make sure “SF” was on it, because this particular story is not quite science fiction as it is often defined: “a story in which some element of scientific speculation is central to the story.” It’s not that. You can call it speculative fiction, a very broad category in which the qualification is ‘something in the story is different than it is here and now’. The tornado is chalked up to the influence of climate change. The elder character remarks on tornadoes having become more common and more violent. The younger character’s parents are climate change denialists, but she thinks there’s something to climate change, especially after the tornado.
That’s the speculative element, in total. The parts regarding climate change aren’t even central to the story, they’re inconsequential asides without which the story would be as strong and would make as much sense. The story might even be improved by removing those small digressions, without any effect on the plausibility of the story, because Kentucky has had no shortage of tornadoes in the past. The tornado in the story is an F3; Kentucky has had F3s and F4s before.
Obviously, the editors of the anthology didn’t feel that the slenderness of the speculative element was grounds to exclude it — because it was there.
I’m torn, myself. I’m glad it was there because otherwise I might have missed it. But I don’t think it’s a strong example of science fiction and therefore isn’t an example of one of the best science fiction stories of 2012. And I guarantee that there are plenty of science fiction fans who would say that it didn’t belong there, but perhaps belongs in a literary collection, or in a collection of Judith Moffett’s fiction, or in a speculative fiction collection about climate change, which is exactly where this story first appeared.
If I had been among the editors of Year’s Best SF 17, I think I’d have voted against including it. And then I think I’d have started asking, “who can we recommend this story to, so the readers don’t miss it?”
Because regardless of genre, it’s a damn good story.
Occasionally, on Twitter or on one online forum or another, I’ll see writers discussing character descriptions. As a reader, I read plenty of them, too.
The discussions are usually about how much to describe characters. Should I tell the reader what color her eyes are? What color his hair is, how it curls up a bit at the ends, that it’s shoulder length, how it blows in the soft breeze with a curl falling almost but not quite across one eye? Should I tell them how much my badass ex-special-forces mercenary weighs, that it’s pure muscle and hardly any body fat, how tall he is? He’s really tall? Maybe how big around his biceps are… do I use inches, centimeters, or what? Should I tell them how big the female lead’s boobs are? Like, cup size? I’m pretty sure I should.
Oh, no. No, no, no. Please no.
Look, there’s a time and a place for these things. And a lot of descriptions are described for the wrong reasons. As writers, we tend to have an idea of what our characters look like. The more often we use the character, the stronger that idea is. And it’s tempting to want to pass that full vision on to the reader. Hey, did I tell you that Protagonist X has really hairy forearms? I always imagined him with really hairy forearms. But, alas, the reader doesn’t care that much.
Probably because the reader is building his or her own picture of the characters.
There are other reasons characters are over-described, other than the eagerness of the writer to transmit an imaginary photograph from his head to yours. Some of us, especially in the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres, have played role-playing games before, where you describe your character on a sheet of paper — height, weight, typical clothing, distinguishing marks such as scars and tattoos, hair and eye color, and so forth. The ‘character sheet’ is also a writing exercise that crops up from time to time in workshops and classrooms. Character sheets are not a bad thing. But most of what’s on that sheet, in my minimalist-friendly opinion, is for the writer, not the reader. Some of those details might crop up in the progress of the story. It suddenly becomes relevant that Protagonist Y is a tiny woman, not even five feet tall and elfin-thin, because that’s what allows her to shimmy under a low-slung sportscar where the baddies pursuing her would never think a person could hide. Maybe her cup size does matter — if you’re writing erotica. Ditto for the dimensions of Protagonist Z’s schlong. Erotica, goes with the territory. Much of any genre else, you just look like a big fat sexist. Maybe a couple of characters meet via blind date or similar, and a couple of details are the recognition key — “Look for a tall guy with a big afro wearing Western boots with Cuban heels and a vintage white Megadeth concert tee from the late 1980s. I’m pretty distinctive.”
There’s a time and a place for physical description, and in my opinion it’s mostly in the head of the author, outside of some pretty unusual circumstances.
So why do I write characters this way? Thinking of stories I’ve recently worked on, for example, the physically describing details I attached to one character were that his jeans were worn and soft and old, torn, revealing a single thin and bony knee. That’s it for him. He’s a he, his jeans are old, and one of his knees is knobby. And this was a significant character, not a one-scene background throwaway.
My theory goes like this: most of the picture a reader forms of a character is based on what happens in the story. Worn jeans, thin bony knee, some moderately whiny dialogue, a southwestern desert setting, the fact that he and she (the other primary character, the protagonist) drive out of the city where they work writing ad copy… all these circumstances attach to things in the mind of the reader. They attach to templates — southwestern. City folks visiting a rural setting. Might be a bit awkward, a bit sightsee-y. Writers — maybe a bit casual, maybe a little unconventional. Ad copy isn’t the most exciting job ever, doesn’t sound too highly paid — now we have the reader’s vision of class influence on appearance. She cuts a few Spanish words in with her dialogue, he doesn’t. The reader who notices this has a new bit to add as to their appearances. I don’t tell them how — everyone adds their own impression. Maybe for some it influences their ideas about how these two look, maybe for some it influences how they act, how they move, stand, speak, go about their regular lives; in real life, this tells you far more about a person than just physical description, and it’s far more nebulous. Unless you’re Sherlock Holmes, you’re influenced in your impression of a person far more by cues other than things like height, weight, hairstyle, and so on, and you don’t know what specific things produced those impressions. I do use the odd physical characteristic, but I tend not to be precise. I think precision burdens the reader. When I read, I don’t care that some guy is six-foot-five, two hundred and fifty pounds, and has seven percent body fat. When I write, that guy is “Protagonist A stood up; he had shoulders like a bull. The pickpocket cowered, dwarfed.” And that’s how I like to read, too. I tend to skim over long descriptions and move on to what the characters do, how they speak to each other, what their interior monologues are like. That tells me way more about the character.
What I find when I read books with characters that stay with me, is that they tend to be described similarly. Bare sketches of physical detail that are more about the characters themselves than their physical appearances. The action and dialogue tell you about the character. Take Frank Herbert’s Dune as an example.Paul Atreides is described on the first page by his age, fifteen, and by his mother and Reverend Mother Mohiam discussing the fact that he’s small for his age. That’s all we get. The Reverend Mother is “a bulky female shape” with eyes that are “bird-bright ovals” and “glittering jewels”. Her hair is “like matted spiderwebs”.
Which brings in another aspect of describing a character: your characters are part of the setting, and your setting delivers the feel of the story to the reader. Reverent Mother is spooky. That spiderweb hair — is it white, gray, straight, curled, really long, slightly long? We don’t know. We don’t care. She’s creepy and Paul is creeped out by her and her presence. What color are “bird-bright ovals?” What kind of “glittering jewels?” So many times we’re tempted to make the glittering jewels tell what color those eyes are. Well, do we care? Eye color doesn’t matter much until later in Dune, and then everyone’s eyes are spiced-out blue. So we don’t care, Herbert doesn’t care, what color the eyes are until it matters. Right now, at the open of the story, Paul is unsettled by those piercing eyes, and so we get two descriptions of them that tell us nothing about how they look and everything about how they make Paul feel.
And feelings are way, WAY, WAY more important to your story than how much so-and-so weighs or what color what’s-her-name’s hair is.
The author, reflecting on the ain’t-easiness of being green.
The other day sometime between now and a thousand days ago, I got a review for a number of stars I won’t reveal, from a person whose identity or online alias I won’t reveal, on one of my stories which I also won’t reveal.
Because writers who call out reviewers, both I and most of the internet believe, are assholes. And I have quite enough assholishness without adding any more, thankyouverymuch.
But that’s not my point. My point is this: the reviewer referred to my story, which I had not written with the intent of making it YA, as YA.
And that made me think.
What exactly do I write?
I’ve already put out some stories that don’t fit neatly into commercial genre lines. Mainstream with a taste of science fiction, science fiction with a taste of mainstream, fantasy that didn’t turn into fantasy until the story was almost over, the ever-popular horror-science-fiction mashup… well, sort of. Not quite.
But I had never given a thought to writing YA, even when I wrote Kitty Itty And The Seawall Broke, which has a preteen protagonist, a family-centric storyline, a sympathetic cat character, and a title that sounds like YA. I didn’t think of pitching it as YA until my wife read it and said, “you should sell it as YA because it’s YA.”
I tend to favor straightforward storylines, which are not a requirement for YA, but which are common in YA. While some of my work is undeniably adult, much of it is in that gray area that can be enjoyed by the teen reader and the adult reader equally.
So I’ve concluded that I write stories, and some of them can be enjoyed as and thought of as YA because I’m pretty sure they’re all-ages-friendly. Most of them are science fiction, probably because most of my reading, for all of my literate life, has been science fiction.
I sort of wish I could throw them out uncategorized and let the readers decide what pigeonholes they fit in. That would be easiest, if there was any practical way to do that. But there isn’t. So I’ll try to fit the round stories in the round holes and the square ones in the square holes, and when a story is both round and square, I’ll just pick one.
The way the market works, we have to worry about genre. Especially when we’re self-published, and have to face the publisher’s jumbo menu of categories your story must fit in — please pick one already and stop stalling! But the way I write, the way most of us write, I think, we tend to write our stories and then worry about what genre it can be called part of.
So keep writing, and keep pigeonholing as needed. And let the reviews and the puzzled comments about what you’ve written fall where they may.