Monday, February 09, 2009

Too much show, too little tell

Last year I saw the movie Stardust, and I can't emphasise too much how awesome it was. The film was adapted from a book of the same name by Neil Gaiman, though the scripting was done by the movie director. How disappointing, then, after my enjoying the film of the book so much, to pick up the novel and find it was just the book of the film.

I checked on Wikipedia last night (as I was halfway through the book) and found that it was originally written as an illustrated novel. My copy doesn't have the illustrations, but is otherwise the same. The chapters are made up, not so much of words and paragraphs, as of images and jump cuts. Gaiman will set the scene up for one character, jump to another scene in which an event is taking place for another character, jump to a third place to introduce a third character, before maybe returning to one of his two previously introduced characters. Anybody's whose read a popular novelisation of a film or a television series will recognise this technique - it's interesting, although the great trouble with it is that it lacks the precise timing of film.

As for the images, Gaiman sets them up brilliantly. The trouble is that he doesn't often describe them, which you have to do in a novel - it can't just show them like a film or a comic book. He ends chapters with cliffhangers, but the cliffhangers are almost entirely visual - for instance, in one chapter ending he plonks two of his characters in the middle of the sky. But his description is almost pointless, a mere succession of words - 'looking down on the hills and trees and rivers far below them.' There's nothing there to tell us what it feels like, and he doesn't have his characters show any signs of fear. It's a great scenario for artists or actors to flesh out; but as a novelist, Gaiman has only done half the work.

All of which is to say that as a novelist Gaiman seems to suffer from a surfeit of show and not tell. You have to tell in a novel; it's all you've got. Novelists spend a lot of time explaining to, and even arguing with, the characters and the audience - that's part of the fun. It also lets them get away with lots of things that film or comic writers are not able to get away with - to both reflect on events from a distance, and to enter into the heads of their characters and let them explain and debate about their own life. In this book, at least, Gaiman doesn't do any of that.

And there's very little wit, either, which most novelists should have to some degree. The set ups are brilliantly dramatic, but the dialogue is never very interesting in itself. Even those situations where the use of word play is obvious, Gaiman avoids it. The closest he gets to it is the scene where Yvaine (a main character, originally a star (don't ask)) falls to earth and swears, which is kind of cute, but not particularly witty. You can almost see the speech bubble forming out of Yvaine's mouth as she says the words.

Is Gaiman always this bad? Is he only good as a comic-book author or scriptwriter? I'd be interested in hearing from readers who've looked through his other books.


Maria said...

Hi TimT!

I haven't read a host of Gaiman's work.(sorry)

However I DID read AND watch Stardust, and so did Mr Coffee. Mr Coffee actually preferred some parts of the book over the movie - for instance the bit about two Mondays in a week (which wasn't in the movie) and he preferred the use of the transporting candle and the description of it in the book.

I didn't think the book was that bad and I did think the "two Mondays" thing was clever. However I have to agree that the movie was far more engaging - one of the few times I'll say that about a movie over the book. I just felt it did everything right - it was colourful, nicely paced and the actors came out beautifully on screen as did the scenery - something the book lacked.

I also liked the crossdressing sea-man in the movie - that was good!

I found Stardust to be an easy simple read, I read it and understood why someone would think "this makes for a great movie" - but I think the movie did a better job of really getting the imagination to work. Besides ... the Star was so much more gorgeous and Victoria so much more bitchy in the movie ...

I never saw what he saw in Victoria. I would have run a mile.

Tim said...

I love Good Omens, which Gaiman co-wrote with Terry Pratchett (it'd be pretty hard to co-write a bad book with Terry Pratchett) and the Sandman comics I've read are good, occasionally very good. Other than that I've never really liked Gaiman's stuff - it's full of good ideas but I find his writing dull. Perhaps it's the lack of a visual element, as your post suggests. That would explain why it works better when adapted to film, or in conjunction with illustrations.

TimT said...

You forgot to mention that the cross-dressing pirate was Robert de Niro!

It was SO written for a movie, apart from a few small details they didn't take anything out. Retouched it up here and there. It was a good quick read. I just expected a lot more.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

I second Timnus on Good Omens, one of the defining novels of my adolescence (and my only encounter so far with Neil Gaiman).

TimT said...

Cross-dressing pirates, now comments that cross... thanks Tim. I also suspect that Gaiman writes quickly and doesn't bother rewriting or adding too many details - he just provides a simple template for other artists to work with. (Pratchett, artist for the Sandman comics, film directors, etc.)

TimT said...

Some cross people say criss-crossing comments are crass, but I don't. And as for cross-dressing commenters... Baron, I'll have to chase up that Gaiman/Pratchett work.

TimT said...

Not that I'm suggesting you cross-dress Baron. Or that you don't. My sentences addressing cross-commenting and your good self... crossed.

Maria said...

Mr Coffee has Good Omens tucked away somewhere, which I'm dying to get my hands on. I've got American Gods somewhere too, and that's my only Gaiman.

Mr Coffee has Anansi Boys somewhere too. I wouldn't mind at least having a go at that sometime, if only just because I've read old legends about Anansi and I know he's a rather interesting spider-man.

Ummm .... forgot to mention De Niro. how could I forget?

I also forgot to mention that I've read one of the Sandman comics. Rather enjoyable, but I found watching Stardust more fun.
I also liked the puppet dance of the prince near the end of the film!

Maria said...

Another thing I forgot to mention is that my first encounter with Neil Gaiman was when I was out with a friend and he asked me if I'd heard of Neil Gaiman.

I thought he said "Neil Diamond" and replied yes, as my mother has a penchant for mentioning such figures in music.

Imagine my surprise that he should propel me then to a sci-fi bookstore! I looked about confusedly, wondering where the old-pop-CD-section was tucked away, and ... well ...

That's when I first found out about Neil Gaiman.

TimT said...

I think Neil Diamond really is a figure in a post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel and he hasn't told us yet.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

I've just ordered in a consignment of stick-on moustaches.

TimT said...

Me, I'm a crass-dresser. Stick on moustaches sound good though... perhaps that would be just the right type of autumn wear for Thornbury-and-Prestonians such as ourselves.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

You're on. You, me, the Bender Bar, and a couple of ginger handlebars.

Legal Eagle said...

Tim, I totally agree with you on Gaiman. He's much better as a writer of graphic novels, or in tandem with Terry Pratchett (Good Omens is awesome). I think Neverwhere is better than Stardust as a novel, but again, it's a bit like a screenplay (not surprising because it started off as one).

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