I recently attended a production of “The King & I,” mounted by one of our local theater companies. While seeing the play, I found myself thinking, “This makes me want to go home and watch the movie.” Not that the play was bad – on the contrary – I thought the theater company had done an outstanding job. I think it lies more in the storytelling approach – same story, different format. Not necessarily better, just different.
It is kind of like books vs. movies. Reading a particular book for the first time is wonderful. You soak up the story, internalize it and envision it for yourself. If you want Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise to be the hero in your personal mental version, so be it. When Hollywood decides to make a movie out of your beloved story, and you find out that Jim Carrey is playing the lead, it puts a damper on your mental version. And then there are the omissions. There has never been a movie made from a book that includes every single aspect of the book, unless you include some of the recent movies made from children’s literature. It is hard to leave anything out of an hour-and-a-half long movie that is based upon a 32-page children’s story. No, I am talking about the Gone With the Winds, the Hunt For Red Octobers or any of the Harry Potters or the Twilights. Any time you read a book, and then later go see the movie, you walk out of the movie with a list of things excluded from the story, whether it is additional characters, side- or sub-plots, or any other such details that the filmmakers omitted for time purposes. It is impossible to take any book that falls into the 400 – 800 page category and winnow it down to 90 minutes and include everything. Something has got to give, and when details are left out, we take it to heart.
The same is true when you make the film vs. live theater comparison. Live theater is wonderful. It has evolved from the ancient times when, rather than being a form of entertainment, it was a way to communicate the latest news or stories to the masses. It became a form of storytelling in the oral tradition, recounting heroic or tragic battles, and continued to evolve to the creative storytelling format it is today – a combination of new and old stories, along with pieces that explore the human condition and, without making judgments, leave it to us to decide what is good or bad, right or wrong. I love live theater, and will continue to do so until my dying day, but movies do have some advantages. Movies can tell the same story that plays do, but they can do it with close-ups and vastly more orchestrated scores. It is one thing to watch Anna and the King waltzing around the stage in my local theater. They seem to be having a lot of fun. It is quite another to see Yul Brenner and Deborah Kerr dancing away, only to be followed by those close-ups, where the sexual tension is palpable. You feel it dripping in the air, and you want to shout out from your couch, “Go ahead and kiss her, already!” Of course, they never will, but there it is. Movies also have the advantage when it comes to location. During a theater production, it is easy to imagine the Maine woods and the old road where the berries grow, but On Golden Pond, the movie, showed us the lake, the woods, and the frightening confusion felt by Norman when he went looking for those berries. In a movie, you can bounce from the south of France to Rio de Janero to the North Pole, if you choose. In theater, you can only suggest those locations. The rest must be left to the audience’s imaginations. And when you come right down to it, imagination is the key point.
In books and live theater, your own imagination is part of the storytelling. You might have a few illustrations or references to point you in a direction, but the rest of the pictures are all in your head. The set designer can place a screen door upstage, and the dialog will tell you the lake is just outside the door and down the hill, but your imagination tells you what the lake looks like, how big it is, and what the shoreline looks like on the other side. It is precisely that inclusiveness that draws us to books and live theater. Watching a movie is passive. We sit, we watch, maybe eat a snack. Books and theater are active. The pleasure that comes from reading is not scanning and interpreting the words on the page. It is the mental image conjured by those words. It is the texture and smell of the paper. Sometimes it is even the margin notes left from the last time we read the book. Seeing a play is interactive. The actors perform and the audience laughs, or cries, or applauds, or gasps, and the actors feed upon that collective energy and use it to give us even more in the next moment. It is a symbiotic relationship. We actively participate when we read or attend live theater. Art can be defined as “The conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty, specifically the production of the beautiful.” And it is this arrangements in our own heads that make books and theater Art.