The Page is Mightier than the Screen


Alan Hollinghurst, David Hare, Neil Jordan and Richard Flanagan in conversation with Chandrahas Choudhury 


By Arjun Bhatia, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger


The onslaught of digital media in the last decade has made printed fiction an endangered species. With technology redefining entertainment experiences at break-neck speeds, and a glut of content competing for attention, the novel finds itself in a precarious position. The ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival hosted a stellar panel of novelists and screenwriters as they compared film and television to the novel, and discussed the impact of an accelerating digital shift on its future.

Reflecting on his 45 years as a screenwriter and playwright, BAFTA Award winner David Hare observed a change in novelists’ attitude towards movie adaptations of their work. There was a time when they felt Hollywood would ‘mess up’ their work but ‘they no longer condescend it,’ he said.

Man Booker Prize winning Australian novelist and screenwriter Richard Flanagan felt that the debate about novels versus movies stems out of an ‘American’ attitude: ‘The public wants the didacticism of TV and films… its wants works that flatter its stupidity.’ Emphasizing that it is the communion between a writer’s words and the reader’s interpretation that makes the novel so powerful, Flanagan called television the ‘crystal meth of art’ for giving a ‘sudden whack’ but not enduring. ‘I would rather work in the republic of letters than the tyranny of image.’

Alan Hollinghurst thinks differently. The 2004 Man Booker Prize winner loves the ‘immersiveness’ of cinema and the stage: ‘I adore the sense of complete surrender for the duration for the performance.’ However, he also appreciated the novel for the way it is recreated every time it is read. Extending this idea, novelist Chandrahas Choudhury observed that people cherish novels for the ‘intimate contact and the time spent with the mind of the writer.’ Hare disagreed with this commonly held belief in the superiority of novels, arguing that films are equally engaging, and viewers still exercise their imagination when they judge the authenticity – or the lack thereof – of the screenwriting. ‘It’s about what out leave out as much as what you show in a film,’ Hare added.

‘Not many great movies have been made out of great novels,’ Neil Jordan observed, citing the example of The Great Gatsby. Speaking about the difficulty of cramming a novel’s plot into a feature film, the Oscar Award winning Irish filmmaker and novelist discussed how he could write a novel without thinking about its end, but not so with a screenplay. He described how when he wrote movie scenes, he had to consider concerns such as the impact of the movie’s duration on its profitability. Hare cited this as a reason for the rising popularity of TV series. Whereas films end up being rather formulaic and therefore predictable, long form TV, powered by the freedom of extending for a greater duration – much like the novel – can afford the luxury of surprise.

However, movie adaptations, while frequently criticised for being inferior to books, often boost their popularity. Hare used the example of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway: ‘As a result of the film, more people started to read Virginia Woolf than they had in the 80 years before it.’ With this, Hare expressed his immense ‘satisfaction’ with the completion of this circle, much to the applause of the audience.


Photo Credit: Chetan Singh Gill



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