Movie Makers Need to Read Great Literature, Too

Influential screenwriter and movie critic Barbara Nicolosi applies the insights of Aristotle’s Poetics to the art of screenwriting.

I’VE TALKED QUITE A BIT on this blog about the importance of good stories, and how sad it is that our culture no longer seems interested in stories that enlarge us, that take us out of our petty interests and connect us to the larger human condition. Part of the problem, I believe, is that, by and large, people don’t read any more, and when they do read they read the literary equivalent of Twinkies and Red Bull.

Of course, reading is not the only way to be exposed to great stories. Film can also tell engrossing, thought-provoking stories. The problem is that most American filmmakers are more interested in spectacle than story, as Barbara Nicolosi and her collaborator Vicki Peterson discuss in this video interview:

I applaud people like Nicolosi and Peterson who are trying to educate screenwriters in the importance of storytelling. In an increasingly illiterate culture, visual media such as movies and graphic novels are the only way to engage the imaginations of many people these days. Still, I wonder how much headway they can make if those they are trying to teach never read and ponder significant works of literature.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury’s book prophesied the cultural collapse brought on by the shift from literary to visual entertainment.

There is a tendency these days to act as if the age of reading is passed — as if, before entertainment technology was developed, people read for entertainment because they couldn’t do any better, but once movies and TV came along, the world “progressed” beyond mere words on a page to images on a screen.  (If you believe that, you should read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.) But the fact is that, as moving, resonant, and thought-provoking as visual stories can be, movies simply can’t engage us as completely as literature. Films make us merely spectators, rather than participants, while reading is an immersive experience, in which we inhabit the lives and experiences of the characters. This recent New York Times article discusses a scientific study that demonstrates the ways reading literature engaged our imaginations on a deep level, in a way that lighter fictional fare cannot. Literature can also affect our capacity for empathy and even change the structure of our brain.

I don’t want to pit literature against movies, however. There is room for both in our lives. But I agree with Barbara Nicolosi and Vicki Peterson that the world needs movies that do more than titillate or provide the cheap thrills of a carnival ride — movies that tell good stories. And I think there would be a much better chance of that happening if movie makers spent more time reading great stories.

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