Blue Jasmine: Lesson for Authors

I just saw the movie, Blue Jasmine. The story is a little slow, but the acting is terrific. The character of Jasmine is very interesting to me because she is a person who is not naive or ignorant. Rather, she chooses to look the other way and not see things that would make her life much more difficult. At one point, for example, she tells a friend that she believes her husband is having an affair. Her friend responds that everyone in town knows about affairs her husband has been having for several years. In fact only Jasmine has chosen to pretend they weren’t happening.

Note that this type of character is very different from a common type of American character, the naive narrator. Think of the famous Ring Lardner short story, “You Know me Al.” What the narrator doesn’t understand is very clear to readers. Similarly readers of Huckleberry Finn understand the satire when Huck describes the way decent folk act and we realize Huck is a far better person.

Jasmine in the movie is different, though. She’s not naive or stupid. She’s very intelligent. She just chooses to look the other way and not accept things that would cause her discomfort. I thought about how difficult that would be for an author to capture in a novel. It’s much easier in a film where you actually see the husband flirting and you watch Jasmine look and then turn away.

Most of us have been taught that a main character in a novel should undergo some change and come out changed somehow; perhaps he’s more aware of life or he learns a life lesson or he realizes how mistaken he’s been about something. Jasmine never really learns that lesson. She falls from a very high society position to the end of the movie where she’s homeless sitting on a bench and talking to herself. She still hasn’t accepted reality.

It struck me that if I were trying to convey Jasmine’s condition, I’d have to have at least three separate incidents in which the reader would note how Jasmine’s reaction differed from what would be expected. Each incident would have to be more extreme and more obvious. Only then could I be sure that readers would understand that Jasmine consciously chooses not to see.

But the Book was Much Better than the Movie!

How many times have you walked out of a movie based on one of your favorite novels and mouthed those words? It’s extremely rare that a movie adaptation of a novel surpasses the book. I probably can count those occasions for me on the fingers of one hand. Of course there’s The Godfather. I’d add Gone with the Wind to that after recently rereading the book. Most of the famous American writers (Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald) suffered horribly when it came to translating their novels into movies.

There are a number of reasons why we cherish novels over movie versions. We love to create our own image of the lead character. We also feel a closeness to the character in a novel because often we read that character’s thoughts. We feel we know that character. Nelson DeMille’s John Corey is a character that we follow in several of that writer’s novels. He’s funny, brave, and a guy with a great sense of humor. Still, a movie version would probably fall flat.

I’m reminded of the book versus movie issue because Michael Connelly soon will have a pilot for a TV series featuring his main character, detective Harry Bosch. Connelly fans have been reading about Bosch for over twenty years. During that time the character has aged in real time. Now, he’s within a couple of years of mandatory retirement from the LAPD. The series is slated to focus on two Connelly novels– City of Bones and the Concrete Blond.

No matter how happy Connelly is over the actor chosen to play Harry Bosch, I can’t imagine many Connelly fans watching the show and deciding that the actor was an exact ringer for the image in their heads. It’s a risky proposition for a writer and a potentially disappointing experience for a fan.

I’ve finished a sequel to Silent Partner. The first book will be published this Spring. Since the two main characters appear in both books, I’ve developed my ow mental images for what they should look like. It’s hard to imagine I could find two actors who would match my mental images and even less chance I could find an actress who could match my image of the sexy ghost who appears in both books.

Read Two Books and Call Me in the Morning

Recently the Uk publication, the Telegraph, noted an article published in the Journal of Brain Connectivity that provided evidence that people’s brains are changed by what they read. Experimental subjects read a specific book and their brainwaves showed that, in effect, they experienced what they read.

Think about the implications of that study. If you read about heartbreak, you actually experience the heartbreak. If you read about triumph, you feel triumphant. Presumably if you habitually read books designed to scare the heck out of you, your brain acts as if it has gone through that harrowing experience. So, when someone tells you that reading a certain book changed their life forever, it might very well have done that.

Hallie Ephron has gone a step further and published 1001 Books for Every Mood. This book permits the reader to decide what kind of experience he or she needs, and then read the corresponding novel. Need to indulge your senses? Ephron recommends a number of books including Like Water for Chocolate.  Need to satisfy your desire for revenge? Ephron’s choices include Carrie and The First Wives Club.

The study concludes that just as there is something called muscle memory, the same principle applies to the brain. So, if you practice shooting a jump shot enough times, your muscles remember how to do it and you perform that task from memory. Presumably, if you read enough books about joy, your brain builds patterns and you feel joyful.

Now think about the role of a novelist for a minute. Novelists and screenwriters try to manipulate readers and viewers by causing them to react emotionally. The scientific experiment seems to validate the idea that a good writer can cause you to step into the shoes of a character and react just as the character reacts. If it’s an adventure novel or movie, the reader or viewer might feel exhausted after all the twists and turns and near death experiences. If it’s a romantic book or movie, the reader or viewer might walk away with that warm fuzzy feeling that comes with experiencing romance.

Turn your mind to the dark side for a moment. What if a writer is really good at writing very dark novels featuring all kinds of sadistic torture? Does that mean that readers experience these episodes from the perspective of the sadist or murderer and feel some attachment to the character? Maybe the process is self-selecting and people with a tendency toward cruelty find themselves attracted to such books because the characters reinforce dark forces already within them.

There is still an awfully lot of information we lack as to the permanent impact of reading specific novels, but it should cause novelists some pause when it comes to the characters they create. Who knows? Someday certain novels might be labeled “Dangerous to your Mental Health” much the same way we label cigarettes now.