The Beauty of a Horrible Book

Welcome back, loyal readers, and today I’m going to compare books and movies as art forms, and how the media of the presentation affects horror in particular. Adaptations of books exist across every genre, and you’ll frequently hear people opine that books are superior to their big-screen productions. I’m firmly in that camp. The obvious reason is that so much is left out and glossed over. I’m told that the screenwriters’ rule of thumb is that a page of script equals a minute on the screen. Of course, scripts are double-spaced in all caps. The 1984 Granada TV series of Sherlock Holmes adventures starring Jeremy Brett in the title role were almost word-for-word adaptations of the stories. They ran about an hour on the screen while most of the original stories filled 12-15 book pages (I’m using the 1930 reprint of The Complete Sherlock Holmes to count pages). By this reckoning, a book page gives four to five minutes on the screen. So, imagine what would have happened if Lord of the Rings had used the books as scripts. We’d still be watching the first showing!

But I don’t think that is the main problem with horror movies. Relatively few of those are adapted from books anyway — I know, a fair number are — but the majority are original works… Or remakes and sequels; God forbid anyone take a chance on an original concept in this day and age. But what ruins horror movies as an art form is, in my opinion, the very “magic” that Hollywood can bring to the screen. See, you know what you’re afraid of, and you conjure it best when you’re alone in the dark with the wind rattling the windows. Hollywood magic tells you when to be afraid and what to be afraid of in agonizing detail, and the more “magic” Hollywood achieves, the more it has harmed the horror movie.

1978’s Halloween provides a perfect illustration of this. There is a nighttime scene in which the protagonist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), watches Michael Myers’ home awaiting his return while Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) goes off to patrol the area. The sheriff returns, coming up behind the doctor, and lays a hand on his shoulder. This gives the doctor and the audience a little start, but it’s of the “no harm done” variety, and the movie continues with no break in tension.

If this movie were to be remade today, there would be a jarring, discordant sound as the hand landed on the doctor’s shoulder, and the audience would jump in their seats, then laugh when they realized that the sheriff was no threat to him. It would also be a subtle suggestion that the sheriff might be the guy to watch out for, but more importantly, the tension is completely broken by that nervous laugh and must be re-earned from scratch from a now amused audience. By the time the final confrontation comes to pass, the audience is emotionally drained from all these false scares, and probably more irritated than terrified. Modern horror movies use this technique to exhaustion, I presume because it’s cheap and easy, and as it requires little skill, a director of lesser talent can apply it as easily as a master.

The way films are marketed doesn’t help, either. The Babadook, Oculus, and even The Village were marketed as monster movies. Millions of people logged in to watch these trailers, and when they went to the theaters, most of them most likely left disappointed.

Now, I won’t say that horror aficionados are never disappointed by books, but a book doesn’t replace your imagination with CGI and musical exclamation points. You decide for yourself where and what the scares are, and what the monster looks like, if indeed there is one. Some of the scariest monsters are, after all, the ones you never see, and the scariest of all are the ones who look like your friends. Your neighbors. Your family.

We live in a time when more and more people have the attention span of a gerbil, and the 80,000-word novel is falling out of favor, replaced by the 140-character Tweet. But if you’re a horror fan, you need to read. The genre demands it. By all means, go to horror movies and enjoy the director’s vision, but don’t neglect books and stories. After all, no one can scare you better than you…

~ Jack

3 responses to “The Beauty of a Horrible Book”

  1. Jack, You made an interesting point about misleading marketing made by some movie companies. Unfortunately, some book marketers are equally guilty. There is nothing I dislike more than buying a book based on the cover and description inside the jacket. Then take it home to find out it was a total misrepresentation. Tom.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Tricky area here. I’m using movies to make a point about books, so some of it is bound to come off as apples and oranges. But I think, overall, book marketing is generally more honest than movie marketing. How many times have you gone to a great looking movie only to find that all the good scenes were in the trailer? Harder to do with books, although short stories may be subject to that sort of nonsense.

      Liked by 1 person

      • True, sir. Definitely more predominant in Movie marketing. I was once involved in a thread that lasted for weeks. The issue… was concerning the use of misleading book covers to help sales. I was surprised to see a fifty-fifty split by authors who insisted it was ‘moral’ to use artwork on their covers that portrayed events that never occurred in their creations. Sad. Tom.

        Liked by 2 people

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