Most of the reading I've been doing this year has been to rediscover a number of classics that are now back in print via new translations that are far better than the fusty ones I read in college. Much of Dostoevsky, for instance; Anna Karenina, Doctor Zhivago, The Three Musketeers, many others.
One thing that stood out time and again as I read — although the new translations had little to do directly with this — was something I've mentioned before, but which was brought home far more completely this time: There was a time when a book was not written to be anything but a book — or, at the very least, the idea that it could be something other than a book was a tertiary concern.
I get the impression a greater proportion of books today are written with at least one eye turned towards how well they could be converted into another medium. This is not something exclusive to English-speaking territories, either. A big part of Japan's cultural mill consists of properties that are freely converted between formats — the manga that becomes an anime, the light novel that becomes a video game series, or any one of those things becoming all of the rest.
I could not say when this started, although the agencies and publishers have been looking all the more aggressively for such material as of late. They like knowing they're not just stumping for a book, but a property, or better yet a franchise. A book that fits the bill for portability will often have its film rights optioned before it's ever published — another sign that the book (and, by extension, the underlying story) is regarded as a kind of raw material that can be massaged to fit into any of a number of different containers regardless of the damage done in the process.
I don't get my drawers in a wad about this because I want to ruin peoples' fun. I like the idea of a good adaptation of a piece of material as much as anyone else. I hardly think Blade Runner made Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? irrelevant; if anything, it made it all the more vital. What bugs me about this whole state of affairs is how it makes it all the more difficult to write a book that has no intentions of being anything other than a book — to write a book that does things that can only be done on the page, with no thought as to how they would be adapted to something else.
A book that is just a transcript of the potential action for a film, so to speak, is not invalid as book. But it does make use of that much narrower a range of the possibilities inherent in a book. I'm not talking about House of Leaves-style experimentation — not that there was much to do with such gimmicks in the first place; as someone else once said there's only so many ways you can avoid telling a story — but rather the kinds of things that can only be done with tone of voice, or narrative posture, or any of the other things that are more or less exclusive to literature. These aren't even huge, flashy things — in fact, the subtler and more nuanced their deployment, the harder they are to replicate anywhere else, and the more savory they are when encountered on the page.
It's the crowding-out of possibilities that bothers me the most — the same thing that I find so troubling about the Hollywood moneyball machine. That system crowds out different kinds of creativity in favor of a single, monolithic variety, one justified entirely by financial returns and the false diversity of multiple incarnations (the movie of the book of the video game of the ... ). Likewise, narrowing down the search for stories that lend themselves to being ported between franchises means missing out on all sorts of things that fall just outside those lines.
It's not hard to see why this is happening. Books have been consistently losing out to all of the other entertainments that have proliferated over the last century: movies, TV, comics, video games, experiential entertainments (concerts, shows, rides, etc.), and so on. It makes no sense to invest in something that's only going to give you the most closed-ended returns — but does it make sense to do damage to the very things that need to be developed from them in the first place?
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