Volume 9, Issue 2: Poetics
Which story medium is more realistic and believable--stage, cinema, or the written page? Each of these modes of storytelling has its strengths and weaknesses. Verisimilitude is the word used to capture any story's "believability." We all know stories in any medium that step over the line of believability. When we find ourselves groaning at some point in a story, that point is usually where it has failed in verisimilitude.
Verisimilitude hovers at first like a stern task master, but it is actually quite flexible. Verisimilitude doesn't just demand realistic, nonfantasy stories. Any kind of story--science fiction, fantasy, mystery, comic, romance--creates its own standards of verisimilitude. One story can be quite crazy when compared to another, yet quite believable within the story-world it has built. Believability fails when we agree to live in a story's world for a while only to find that the story doesn't live up to its end of the bargain. It punctures its own capsule of reality.
Less obviously, the form or medium in which we experience a story can add to or detract from its verisimilitude. In a recent essay, John Podhoretz suggested something along these lines when he argued that Shakespeare plays work much better in film than on the stage. For example, on stage, actors have to project lines far beyond natural conversational tones and whispers. "By contrast," says Podhoretz, "the intimacy of film allows actors to speak in conversational tones, which makes the poetry more comprehensible and far more beautiful." Similarly, film techniques "make it far easier to stomach one of Shakespeare's most annoying devices--the way he advances the plot by having his characters overhear important conversations by happenstance or spy on one another in the most obvious ways. These moments play awkwardly on stage--if you can see actors hiding, it's difficult to believe that the characters standing three feet away can't. But on film characters really can hide out of sight." Podhoretz also notes that Shakespeare himself bemoans the limits of the stage. In the prologue to Henry V, Shakespeare refers to the stage as "this unworthy scaffold. . . . Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?" He calls the audience to stir up its "imaginary forces" and envision horizons of horses and soldiers.
These sorts of observations spur a host of other questions. What is the stage good at? Where does film fail? How do novels compare? Certainly the stage is good at portraying stories set in room-like settings with no wild special effects. The characters in a play have a nervous freshness, an immediacy, that can't be captured on film or in a book. We see people on stage the way we see them in life--not cut up and spliced with close-ups. And on stage, we also hear all the footsteps, chair-shifts, and door squeaks that are often submerged in film.
What is film good at? Certainly, film exceeds both stage and novels/short stories in portraying the subtleties of body language. Robert DeNiro can express in raised eyebrows what would take a paragraph to show in a written story. Add to the language of eyes, the subtleties of posture, hands, lips, etc., and the written page can't keep up--and the stage is too far away.
Film also excels at highlighting intricate, quick actions. Consider a sword fight. The stage can do this adequately, but a novel can't capture the exhilaration of sword play in Rob Roy or The Princess Pride. It just doesn't work well. Parallel to this is a film's ability to frighten. I've searched long and hard to find a short story or novel that can really jolt a reader the way film can. Written horror can be eery and unnerving, but it can't make you drop your popcorn on the floor. Film can do that almost effortlessly. The written word can't oppose shocking images the way film can. In print, the words go through our intellect, but film can bypass our intellect and yank directly on our instincts.
Despite all the pluses of film and stage, I still think that written stories are far more conducive to building verisimilitude. Sure, written stories can't show intricate action or produce fright well, but they do capture some more important parts of our experience.
Consider, for example, how much of our world involves our mental life--motives, reasons, intentions, unspoken emotions, self-deceptions, inner dialogue, and all the intricate webs of these twisted around each other for good and ill. Good writers can weave a story between the internal and external worlds that appears seamless, the way we experience much of our lives. They can jump from one character's mental life to another quite naturally. On stage, soliloquies try to express some of this, but only in a one-dimensional, artificial manner. We don't often walk around speaking in coherent sentences to ourselves. And if we do, this only shows our side of the story. Film is even worse at portraying the mental world. Modern film largely abandons soliloquy because it violates verisimilitude so obviously, but body language and external comments and echo-like voices can't do justice to the mind. In the end, film leaves us in a largely foreign world--a mental desert--an unrealistic realm devoid of vast arenas of day-to-day living. And compared to written stories, both stage and film are weak in portraying the wonders of memory. Prose can slide smoothly between past and present, but movies often have to write the date on the bottom of the screen and force older actors into tighter-skinned faces. We can enjoy stories in each of these media (and others), but in a day that simply assumes the visual is more realistic, the deep verisimilitude of novels and short stories certainly deserves a renewed voice.