That old chestnut?

The one about a picture being worth ten thousand words?

Well, I’ve been thinking about it a great deal over the last several days, and I’m bound to say, I think it’s rubbish.

Take la Joconde for example.  Or the Mona Lisa if you prefer.

We’ve got the picture, all right.  The image.  But how many words have been expended on the subject of that smile of hers?  Or is it a smile?  Is it not perhaps just a ‘pleasantly bored but not wanting to give offence by yawning’ expression?  How many words?

Ten thousand?  Ten million?  Who knows?

Maybe it’s just the way her mouth is shaped?

And then there are all the thousands of words that have been expended telling us what her smile may mean.  But here’s the thing:  We don’t know.  Because we’ve only got the picture.

We haven’t got the words, not her words, not her husband’s words, not the artist’s words.

We don’t know what she’s thinking about to produce that dreamy expression, and will never will.  Because we’ve only got the picture–which in this case is not worth ten thousand words.  It’s only worth three:  “I don’t know.”

Which brings me to a recent trend in film-making–the filmic extension of this picture being worth ten thousand words–the paring down of scripts to their barest minimum with a palimpsest of plot remaining whilst giving the cinematographers free rein to show us scene after scene of gorgeousness, but…well without the words there, they don’t connect to mean much of anything really.

I recently saw the newest remake of Jane Eyre with Michael Fassbender.  It was beautiful–visually lush.  Lots of scenes of the formal garden, its box hedges whited with hoare frost and all that.  Beautiful.  Breath-taking.  But what did it add to our understanding of the developing relationship between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester?

I thi-ink it may have been intended to indicate a passage of time.

In which case, it failed, because they seem to have got the seasons out of sync, with frost followed by non-frosty scene, followed by more frost.  And if the development of their relationship over the winter is meant to parallel an inner thawing of Rochester’s perception of life and a springtide of hope, then that was altogether lost by the disenfranchised scenes of frost and thaw and frost again.

Or maybe it was just there to tell me that it’s really cold in winter up in Yorkshire.  (Here’s a clue, lads: I already knew that…)

bronteAnd thus, although we’d had a delicious montage of beautifully set-up shots–every one deserving a place on a wall in an exhibition of fine photography–and there was lots of ‘big music’ telling us that there were significant emotions swirling about and this was an important scene, a turning point, at the end, we were left with only questions.  The biggest of which was, “Where’s the last line?” or “Is that it?”  [Spoken with voice raised in incredulity.]

Obviously, we were also left stumped by the cluelessness by means of which this greatest of literary love stories with characters who become so united in spirit that she can “hear” him in his hour of desperate need got turned into a travelog for the Yorkshire Tourist Board.

Anyway, as we launch into a new season or even era of costume dramas–some of which are based on novels of significant stature–perhaps it would be well for film and television series makers to remember one vital thing–without a script, you’ve got nothing…so, learn to linger on the words, to love those, the taste those in your mouth and find them good…and you’ll find your audience.

As for me, I think I may reread Jane Eyre, just to remind myself…and after that, A Tale of Two Cities…and maybe after that…some John Donne, or Gerard Manley Hopkins, as in this first verse of his poem, Spring:

Nothing is so beautiful as spring —
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

Because words?  They are paintbrush and a rainbow palette of colours, hue and shade, with which to wash the page altogether…


18 comments on “That old chestnut?

  1. Rappleyea says:

    I HATED that version of Jane Eyre!! Like wanted to take it out of the DVD player and stomp on it hated! I also have the older BBC version with Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton (James Bond, who knew?), whose script didn’t write dialogue at all – it just used all of Ms. Bronte’s excellent dialogue almost entirely intact.

    I think it’s just part of the general dumbing down of society. Look at all of the action packed super hero movies being released this summer – what dialogue?!? CGI, green screens and explosions.

    And have you read many/any of the N. Y. TImes best sellers? “See Jane run. Run, run, run.” That’s the level of prose.


    Excellent post, my dear, and may I say, this is why I read M. M. Bennetts’s wonderful writing. She’s a wordsmith.

    • Rappleyea says:

      Do you know where this great line comes from:

      “The night was railing against the morning of which it was bereaved, and the cold was cursing the warmth for which it hungered.”

      Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I was very late coming to it, and was very surprised at his prose.

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Well, Tolkien was an Oxford don, after all, so one assumes he could in fact read and write English…I may be wrong here of course, and anyone from Cambridge, would obviously disagree with my conclusion, but I do think it used to be a kind of requirement of theirs, a bottom line, if you will…

      • Sue Millard says:

        And if you read Tom Bombadil’s “prose”, it’s all great rambling couplets that if spoken with emphasis will produce English folk-dance music. Tolkein has been eclipsed by the CGI and NZ scenery of the LOTR films but his actual words are often surprising.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Ha ha ha ha ha ha! I always know when I’ve struck a chord with my readers when they rant back at me. Three cheers!

      I don’t know if the Michael Fassbender version of Jane Eyre was worse or marginally better than that directed by Zefferelli with William Hurt looking like he had a skinful, and a too tall Charlotte Gainsbourg playing Jane with a French accent. Ehem. Though both went heavy on the “big music” and the galumphing horses and skipped out as much of the book as they could get away with…

      The most recent BBC version with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens is rather good though. I’m not keen on all the pre-Raphaelite symbolism of the first episode, but after that, it’s cracking…

      And yes, the old version with Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke was rather fine.

  2. ken hives says:

    some words a worth a thousand pictures. That is what reading books are all about, someone elses words and your pictures

  3. I rather liked Michael Fassbender as Rochester…. but maybe that’s because I knew the story beforehand and found him easy on the eyes. Great post – and being a Gerard Manley Hopkins fan myself, I can but applaud you for your choice of poem to illustrate the art of “painting with words”.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I liked him too (though I prefer Toby Stephens). I just wish they’d thought to give him a script to work with, poor chap.

  4. Debra Brown says:

    I read an article once where they took people’s senior pictures from high school and said to consider the smile. A smile like Mona Lisa’s (though she was not mentioned in the article) meant that the person was likely depressed to begin with and that was what they could manage. I looked through my friends (from ages ago) pictures, and I thought- yes. It’s true. The people who had more trouble coping with life were the ones whose smiles were like Mona Lisa’s. The others managed a jolly good, truly happy smile. So a picture can spell some things out, but the point is not missed. Beautiful words are worth a fortune.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Well, there’s one theory that she just discovered she was pregnant. Or maybe she had bad teeth–people often did in Renaissance Italy–dental hygiene was nil. But who knows? Not me.

      • Debra Brown says:

        If you did, you’d be the only one.

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Well, obviously, I did (why is that obvious? Hmn…) study the particular period of Florentine history during which la Joconde lived–studied their clothes, what was happening in politics, hygiene, society, military issues…So I know a little bit about it…though mostly I don’t think of it much…

  5. Sue Millard says:

    I’m very fond of Hopkins. Though I no longer share his ecstatic religious fervour I still enjoy his intoxication with words.

  6. As you know, M, I’m rather fond of pictures (I don’t mean movies). But you’re quite right. A writer can do so much more with words, convey meaning etc. and still paint a picture for the reader to see in their minds with their own colours and their own light effects. Its, indeed, an old chestnut. As for her up there, I rather like the theory that it’s Leonardo himself. I love that man.

  7. I had extreme difficulty with the latest film of Wuthering Heights for this very reason. I get that it was supposed to be all symbolic and link the characters to the environment but, also, there’s a very good story in there that felt completely obscured within all the ‘art’. I lasted about forty minutes and that’s forty minutes I should’ve spent rereading the book.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Ah! Yes, I’d heard that was “arty” too, so I avoided it. Thank you for confirming the wisdom of my decision. *wink*

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