Tuesday, February 5, 2008


When I see a movie based on a book, like Harry Potter or even Wuthering Heights (I just saw the Juliette Binoche/Ralph Fiennes one, and it is a little jarring to see Voldemort as Heathcliff), I often see things that the book doesn't spell out, and that's nice. So much of Cathy and Heathcliff's love is non-verbal. And it's fun to see the magical objects in Hogworts, the Burrow, and Diagon Alley. My imagination doesn't always flesh out every detail I read, so I like seeing how other people imagine the events in these books. That's also why I will occasionally read a horror book, like The Vampire Lestat (which I loved) but will never see the movie. I'm quite content with my limited imagination where things like monsters are concerned. I'm not quite the ideal audience for Alfred Hitchcock, who said that the monster you don't see can be much scarier than any monster he could put on the screen. On the other hand, I am an ideal audience for most movies and plays, because my suspension of disbelief is so great. If the story becomes real to me, I am almost entirely uncritical of special effects and the like. But I get an uneasy feeling in almost any kind of amusement park. Yes, I had a good time at Disneyland when we went to California, and I wouldn't want it to be less sanitized and packaged than it is; that's part of the fun. But at some level, it's slightly disturbing for most adults, or it should be.

Think about what Jonathan Swift says in "A Digression Concerning Madness" towards the end of A Tale of a Tub: "For, if we take an examination of what is generally understood by happiness, as it has respect either to the understanding or the senses, we shall find all its properties and adjuncts will herd under this short definition, that it is a perpetual possession of being well deceived. And first, with relation to the mind or understanding, 'tis manifest what mighty advantages fiction has over truth; and the reason is just at our elbow, because imagination can build nobler scenes, and produce more wonderful revolutions than fortune or nature will be at expense to furnish. Nor is mankind so much to blame in his choice thus determining him, if we consider that the debate merely lies between things past and things conceived; and so the question is only this--whether things that have place in the imagination, may not as properly be said to exist, as those that are seated in the memory, which may be justly held in the affirmative, and very much to the advantage of the former, since this is acknowledged to be the womb of things, and the other allowed to be no more than the grave. Again, if we take this definition of happiness, and examine it with reference to the senses, it will be acknowledged wonderfully adapt. How fading and insipid do all objects accost us, that are not conveyed in the vehicle of delusion? How shrunk is everything, as it appears in the glass of nature? So that if it were not for the assistance of artificial mediums, false lights, refracted angles, varnish, and tinsel, there would be a mighty level in the felicity and enjoyments of mortal men.

After that first flush of reality, when you emerge from a book or a movie or even Disneyland, and you find that your own life has less exciting car chases and no soundtrack (unless you already have your earbuds in), usually you start to shake off some of what you've just been shown so you can reassert what you actually think about good and evil or love and death. As my daughter says, Peter Jackson's pictures of what many of the characters in The Lord of the Rings look like have supplanted her own, but his balrog has failed. Her picture of the balrog is too different from the movie version. And that shows her a different road from the one that leads to madness.

1 comment:

Ron Griggs said...

Thinking of definitions of madness, I am reminded of G. K. Chesteron's comment:

...the madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

This has always seemed especially deep and especially true to me.