From Books to Movies - Dundurn
Mar 16, 2023

From Books to Movies

Can a book be too cinematic, or is that taking the term literally? 

I ask because a friend lauded my book, The Wild Boy of Waubamik, as being cinematic. It was a compliment and I accepted it as a compliment until that pesky voice—you know the one—jumps in to minimize the praise as though heading it off before it can turn into something resembling validation.

“Hmmm. Yeah…” says the voice in its familiar patronizing tone, “But is cinematic a good thing? I mean weren’t we once told that cinematic writing is a bit forced?”

I suspect the voice is digging up something from somewhere criticizing writers for deliberately creating works that can easily be transitioned into film. It might have been a passing comment overheard, or perhaps a critique I read. It might have been handed down from a well-meaning English professor who forgot (or didn’t appreciate) that author Graham Greene, a former film critic, was open about a writing style fine-tuned to not just suit but influence modern cinema. 

So, with the drive of a hypochondriac chasing the symptoms of a newly found blemish, I take to Google. Gratefully, the rabbit hole doesn’t go too deep. Vindication comes almost immediately. I’m reminded that cinematic writing—ironically—existed long before cinema. Of course, it wasn’t recognized as cinematic at the time but shares cinematic techniques, directing readers to scenes with a focus not unlike a movie close-up, creates an overview of a landscape with the efficiency of a pan or a bird’s-eye shot, and moves from scene to scene like a jump-cut.

I’m vindicated, reminding that inner voice that we already knew this, and these very techniques are incorporated in The Wild Boy of Waubamik, which I credit to my years as a film critic. (I’m no Graham Greene, but I can manage a flashback with the ease of a well-placed fade-out).

And then comes the Oscars. I stick with every second of the Oscar broadcast like the full-blooded movie nerd that I am. My moment comes (vicariously) when the incomparable Sarah Polley wins Best Adapted Screenplay for Women Talking based on Miriam Toews's novel of the same name. A Canadian filmmaker adapting a Canadian novel. The Oscar win comes as a boost for all Canadian writers. I doubt Polley or Toews would disagree.

Toews saw two of her novels become films—Polley’s Women Talking and Michael McGowan’s All My Puny Sorrows. I have seen both films; not yet read either novel. So, I don’t know if Toews writes cinematically or writes to become cinema. I’m thinking the former. Writing—unless it’s a screenplay—should probably be motivated more by the passion to write and tell a story than by the possibility of the book becoming a film. Still, style and intent aside, I don’t know many (if any) writers who would balk at seeing their writing find a second life as a movie.

My inner voice isn’t entirely appeased, but at least its grumblings are not as loud as before.

Thom Ernst is a film writer, broadcaster, and critic. He was the former host and producer of TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies. Thom currently lives in Toronto. Learn more here.