Reading has been around for a long time; by comparison, the cinema is a relatively recent invention. Sometimes, books - both fiction and non- fiction - are made into films. If the books are particularly famous ones, these films are released in a blaze of publicity. Perhaps less frequently, a film is so popular that a book of the film is written from the screenplay.
Films of novels help us to imagine characters; for example, anyone who has seen one of the 'Harry Potter' films has a fixed notion now of what the protagonist, his friends and teachers look like. Settings of books also come to life in the films, whether it is castles, or cities, or lush countryside. Cinematic special effects in adventure or science fiction films - where we seem actually to be seeing car chases, sea battles or spacecraft landing - can be more realistic than even the wildest of imaginations. Films of non- fiction texts can be as informative as the books but they are often more interesting than the books, perhaps bringing to life the achievements of famous doctors or statesmen in a way that their biographies fail to do.
In schools, seeing a film version of a literary text, for example a play by Shakespeare or a novel by Charles Dickens, can help students appreciate the text they are studying as part of the syllabus. An interest in a particular genre of literature, such as science fiction or adventure, might be stimulated, further increasing reading and, consequently language skills. Teachers can help less motivated students by showing the film first, so that knowing the story before being given the book will make the task of reading it easier than it would otherwise have been.
If the language of a book is difficult, the film version can make the language more accessible, and if an international best seller is made into a film, subtitles may be added to the film so that it can be understood by people who speak a different first language. The experience of viewing the film of a novel in a full cinema is a communal experience, very different from the solitary activity of reading the novel. Many people follow up the film experience by buying the book, and thus it can be seen that films increase overall reading. Reading can be seen as being 'cool' by young people who read the book, see the film and buy the merchandise that accompanies it.
On the other hand, it could be argued that, far from stimulating the imagination, watching films of books actually curbs the imagination. Furthermore, watching films of books often make people too lazy to read them. How will language skills be improved in schools, complain some teachers, if students take the short cut to the film and bypass the book? I have, not to name anyone, had friends in my university days who would be appearing at the final exam just having watched the film versions of some novels and classic plays. In so doing, the benefits of reading which include enriched vocabulary, better spelling, finding ideas for writing texts of their own are all lost. This may be a very extreme view but one that is heard in staffrooms in many parts of the world.
Opportunities for watching films of books are restricted to when they are available in cinemas, and the season for each of the films might be no more than a couple of weeks. Compare this to curling up with a good book any time you like! There are also place restrictions when it comes to watching films, as this can happen only in a cinema or, in the case of DVDs, in certain rooms in your own home. On the other hand, books can be enjoyed everywhere - in a cafe, on the bus, in a park. Films can be purchased in DVD form but that is often more expensive than buying the novel. A book can be re-visited again and again and become almost like an old friend; although a DVD can be watched more than once, its owner is much less likely to become attached to it in the same way as one can become attached to a favorite book. Some novels have the layers of meaning or perhaps an element of ambiguity; for example, the ending might be implied rather than stated, and the charm of the novel lies in the reader's personal interpretation. It is almost impossible to capture such ambiguity in a film as the viewer is presented with the director's point of view as being the final judgment.
The writer is a vice principal and O levels English language teacher at London Grace International School
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