Why movies are not the peak of storytelling

Written by: Michael Spada

I love a good talking picture as much as the next guy, but I don’t think film is the pinnacle of storytelling.

I don’t think any one medium is. Books, television, videogames, even music hold their rightful places in entertainment and can tell certain stories better than others. Yet the most accepted school of thought is that once it’s a movie, it’s finally legitimate. People are THRILLED when something is adapted into a film. If someone who has found success in music or television start doing movies, their career is suddenly looked at as taking a serious, meaningful turn. Why? Why do people feel that nothing matters until cinema is involved?

Allow me to restate that I love movies. I also understand the massive cultural significance of film and its impact on our world over the years. Movies have touched and inspired, caused controversy, incited social change. I get all of that. And my aim is not to lower anyone’s opinion on movies – it is to raise the opinions of everything else.

Literature is a fine place to start, as most successful adaptations come from books. Some of the greatest movies ever made, from The Godfather to The Shawshank Redemption to Lord of the Rings, are based on books. If they were never adapted, they still would have remained excellent books. Adding the elements of audio and video through turning them into movies is a lovely thing to do, but it’s ultimately unnecessary. It’s as if our imaginations are not up to par with filmmakers’ visions of CGI sets and Skrillex scores. Does every book have to become a movie for the story to matter culturally? It’s okay for some books to stay books!

Jack Nicholson.

Nicholson smiling smugly as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest crushes the literature part of my argument

Even critically acclaimed films based on books still lose something in the process. You can’t tell a five hundred page story in two hours. Sacrifices must be made and liberties must be taken. And people will complain. Forums will light up, fan petitions will spread rapidly, and those who fell in love with the source material will be furious. The whole story was told perfectly already – film adaptations can sometimes be redundant at best. Now, keep in mind, while many films based on books are often a waste of time, there are occasions where the films are better, with movies such as The Godfather and The Maltese Falcon bringing new life to stories that may have simply just had potential on paper. And occasionally films can take a wildly different turn, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest, which is nothing like the book, which can in a strange way justify the existence of a film as a means to explore things the books never could. However, with some extraordinarily examples brushed aside, a large percentage of films based on books simply don’t need to exist.

Television falls into a similar camp. With the advent of TV shows being released on DVD, serial drama (and even serial comedy) has exploded over the last decade. Programs like 24 and Lost are terrific examples of excellent shows that spent years and dozens of hours of televised content telling amazing stories and building heavy, deep mythologies. I would even argue that the best TV has been better than the best films over the last ten years. Breaking Bad alone makes that statement difficult to argue. With technology allowing everyone to stay caught up, TV producers can make shows that require knowledge of prior seasons and episodes without risking much in the process.

And yet, with 24 over, all people care about is a movie. People are still clamoring for a Sopranos movie! These shows that told complete stories over the course of years, with dozens of hours of content, still have people unsatisfied until they get another hour and a half. The Sopranos deliberately ended in a way that implies that the story never ends, leaving the characters’ fates to our imaginations. We don’t need what would amount to another episode and a half to give us closure on something that deliberately and artistically didn’t give us any. Are entire series of television shows not enough? Will the story REALLY be incomplete without a trip to the theaters? It’s touching that people want to hang out with their favorite characters for just a while longer, but it’s an insult to television producers everywhere when you say that an entire television series is meaningless because it didn’t finish up on a movie screen.

Jack Bauer in shock

Jack Bauer cannot understand why someone would want to turn 24 into a film franchise when it would defeat the purpose of the show’s format.

What’s worse is that the cycle doesn’t end. Instead of letting the show rest, a movie comes out, does well, and then it’s sequel time. Suddenly a TV show is transformed into a film franchise. Its identity as a show is gone, and dummies only know it as increasingly awful movies. They’re already talking about the 24 movie being a trilogy. Kill it before it spreads.

Videogames are the most puzzling example. The first Mortal Kombat movie and the first Silent Hill movie are the closest we’ve gotten to good film adaptations of videogames. That’s kind of awful, considering how many there have been, especially in recent years. Yet if a movie based on a game is announced, people still get really excited. Fans are desperate to see silver screen versions of their favorite games. And they have no good reason to feel that way.

While film adaptations of books and add the elements of audio and video, adaptations of games take something away – interactivity. And where a majority of movies based on games are based on titles that don’t have particularly good stories, interactivity is all you’ve got. What’s the point of a Tekken movie if you’re not putting in the combos? And the story of Lara Croft is not especially awesome, it was the shooting and exploring (and… sigh… her) that drew people to the series. Even if you adapt a game with an entertaining story, like Resident Evil or Silent Hill, it’s your interactions with the game world that bring the story to life and make the games resonate with you. That is exactly why the idea of a BioShock or Metal Gear Solid game makes me physically ill – the stories need to stay in a world where you’re interacting with them. Just how are these games finally “legit” once they’re films when the most important part of the experience is gone?

Andrew Ryan with a golf club in his face.

There are many reasons why this mind-blowing scene can only be done in a videogame.

And it’s not just the idea of adaptations that bug me. It goes far beyond that. It’s the whole idea that any involvement in the film industry is a huge deal. Naturally it’s thrilling to be involved in one of the most financially successful avenues of entertainment, but it’s again this idea that making movies is somehow better from an artistic standpoint, that those involved with films are on a higher plane. Self-fellating ceremonies like the Academy Awards certainly don’t help that image, either.

It happens all the time with television. Steve Carrell left his successful role on the US version of The Office to pursue a career in films. While he’s been successful, his movies are almost entirely garbage, yet this is considered SUCH A STEP UP from The Office. As an actor, branching out into films from television is great because it allows you to test your range as a performer, and obviously the money is better. But these TV-to-film moves are always looked at as some meaningful pilgrimage, a sort of maturation. As if Carrell accomplished nothing on television.

Read: A Life on Canvas – wrestlers and their tattoos

On the other side of things, look at the move “down” to television. For the longest time, when big name actors committed to a series, it was seen as one of two things. One, the actor was taking a step down, their career was over, they were no longer relevant. When Danny DeVito joined the cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, people saw the DeVite-Treat as at the end of his career, throwing it all away for a quick buck. People had to see the man in action to realize he was instead breaking new ground in comedy and adding to his already incredible repertoire as an actor. The other way it’s viewed is that the television show is finally legitimate. Forrest Whittaker and Glenn Close each spent a year on The Shield, and were absolutely amazing additions to the cast, but did the show suddenly become an unstoppable powerhouse nearly on par with the untouchable world of cinema? The three seasons before these screen veterans hopped on board were incredible as well, yet somehow these actors took it to the next level in the eyes of the people! Thankfully this view is mostly done away with, as people like Kiefer Sutherland and Bryan Cranston have proven to be gods on the small screen with what they’ve done on television, but it’s still something that pops up whenever a movie actor signs on to a series.

In the videogame industry, as stories in games continue to grow and take advantage of the medium, game developers unfortunately look to film writers to pen games’ scripts. Now that’s not a bad thing, as obviously some great game stories were written by seasoned writers for the big screen, but it’s unfair to people who know specifically how to write for games. There’s certainly a crossover in those skill sets, but this is simply another case of people involved with movies being given special treatment, as if they’re the cream of the crop, ignoring others with equal or superior skill because they didn’t write for the illustrious talking pictures.

Then of course there’s the call for games to be more like movies, which is absolute nonsense. One day I’ll go into greater detail about the argument of whether or not cutscenes are good or bad in advancing videogames. Naturally games like Metal Gear Solid and the Final Fantasy series prove just how effective they CAN be because they’ve told excellent stories using cutscenes, but telling a story through gameplay like Half-Life 2, Dead Space, or Portal 2 shows what makes games unique in their narrative delivery. Using cutscenes in an attempt to make games feel more cinematic or like interactive movies is belittling to what games can do as a storytelling medium, and is another shining example of films being the ultimate brass ring of entertainment.

A movie theater.

Some of my favorite pieces of entertainment are films. I believe that movies are a powerful form of storytelling and many are pure works of art. However, books, television, and videogames tell stories just as expertly, not less. A movie could not deliver an intricately woven story that spans generations with a mind-blowing ending like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude without losing some of its soul in the process. A movie could not build such detailed and well-paced suspense and a massively deep mythology the way Lost did. A movie could not provide such a personal twist the way BioShock did. But by that very same token, there are many films whose stories just would never work if told another way. Things like direction, cinematography, and massive production values are just a handful of elements that make cinema unique. Unique, but not better.

The next time your favorite story is being turned into a movie, or your favorite celebrity is taking the plunge into films, don’t treat it like a step up. Remember the excellent things these stories and artists did to get to this next phase. You’ll often realize the best isn’t always yet to come.

Author: Michael Spada

Michael Spada is a gentleman who plays videogames and then writes about them on the internet. Solid Snake is his hero, but he'd just as quickly settle down with CM Punk. You can follow him on Twitter if you'd like.

Read more posts by

Responses to Why movies are not the peak of storytelling

  1. Rory JoscelyneNo Gravatar

    Bioshock was terrible, and did nothing worthy of note other than introduce the stylings of Art Deco into video games (And it wasn’t the first game to do it either). What personal element did it add? The story was horrendous and was ruined by it’s own insistence of delving into fantasy rather than meek in an underscore of subtlety and depth.

    Video games are usually badly written in terms of story, no wonder people look elsewhere for writers in an attempt to improve them. Heavy Rain is about the only modern game that attempts to combat this, you should have used that as your example.

Leave a comment