It’s All In Your Head

Hey all. Gerry Boyle here, just off the bike and ready to write. Well, this being Maine, you’re probably figuring I wasn’t riding the roads. Like most serious cyclists in this neck of the woods I’ve moved to a trainer, a contraption that turns your road bike into an indoor exercise machine. I clip onto the pedals and log some serious ride time, thanks to Netflix and my laptop. Sometimes it’s stage of the Tour de France, the crowds cheering as I lead the peleton up some mountain climb (I can dream, right?). But more often I watch a movie or a good crime series.

This week it’s been “Wallander,” the PBS series based on Henning Mankell’s fine mystery novels, set in Sweden. Mankell set the stage for the recent “Nordic noir” subgenre and I’d read most of his books, so I figured I’d like the series just as much.imgres

And I do. The TV series sticks close to the novels, and Kenneth Branagh is a talented actor, bringing all of Detective Wallander’s dark moods and moral quandaries to the part. But is his Wallander the one I had in my head as I read the novels? Well, not really. So what did I imagine the detective to be? I don’t know. Maybe a little taller. Maybe less emotionally raw. Or maybe just, I don’t know, different.

It’s fascinating, isn’t it, how we conjure up people and places based solely on the written word?  A written description of a place, a house, a person produces vivid pictures in our minds. And sometimes it’s no description at all.

In one of my early entries into the screenwriting business, a producer stopped in mid-discussion and asked, “What does Jack McMorrow (one of my series heroes) look like? I can’t find any physical description of him in your books.”

Sure you can, I said. But when I started looking, I realized the movie guy was right. I hadn’t, in specifics, described the main character in my novels. But I could picture him clearly in my head.

At first I thought this was a glaring oversight, that I’d better start the next book with a clear description of my rogue reporter. But then I realized that I could picture him just fine. And readers could, too. Which isn’t to say that we imagined the same person. That magical process that turns word into images had taken place in all of us. There was no wrong answer.

imagesAll of us have watched a movie adaptation of a favorite novel and said, “Oh, they got it all wrong.” Well, the fact is they never get it right. Because they can’t. The world of a novel exists in the imagination of the writer and the readers, and those are very different places. You may like Daniel Craig more than Sean Connery as James Bond but I’ll bet neither of them is the Bond you would have imagined if you’d read the books first. (That said, I could have picked a dozen actors better suited to Jack Reacher than Tom Cruise. What were they thinking?). Have you seen a movie adaptation that ever got it just right? If you have, I’d love to know. (Or an adaptation that, in your opinion, got it horribly wrong?)

So this entire post may be stating the obvious but it’s worth saying anyway. Wonderful things go on in your head when your nose is in a book. On that we can all agree.


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5 Responses to It’s All In Your Head

  1. So true! I actually did read the James Bond books first (finding them at my grandfather’s hunting camp at a tender young age) and you’re right — none of the Bond men (although I like them all) is “my” bond — who is kind of a more elegant, blonder, Sean Connery with Daniel Craig’s ruthlessness.

    On another note – I’m a big cyclist too but haven’t ever made the ‘trainer’ plunge. Is there a type you recommend?

  2. Mary Chamberlain says:

    Actually, there is one adaptation that I think got it right – the Miss Fisher Mysteries, a TV version of the Phryne Fisher mysteries by Kerry Greenwood. The actress who is playing Phryne (Essie Davis) is pretty much what I pictured in my head for the character. Either that, or she’s so good at inhabiting the part that I’ve substituted that image for the one I originally had!
    Mary in MN

  3. Robert Bailey says:

    Jerry Boyle thoughts physical description of main character made me think. One, I think a minimal description is all that’s needed initially. If the story is character driven then the reader learns all they need, the character looks like themselves or like their handsome Uncle Bob. Two, my gripe is converting novels into movies. The book, Winter People by John Ehle was successfully translated but so many well written books are trashed. My main character has always looked like my friend Russell.
    Bob Bailey

  4. Jule Dupre says:

    Gerry – Well noted and I agree – writing and reading are about PEOPLE – human beings! With all their various imaginations and concepts and perfections and flaws…..Everyone looks at life through a different and individual set of eyes. That’s what makes a book a really good ‘read’ rather than a collection of facts listed in alphabetical order waiting to be memorized….
    And as for character descriptions, very often there is such a thing as TMI. Readers, when they read, are creating an imaginary world which satisfies some intrinsic and personal need. And any writer who does not do the same thing is destined to not ever be satisfied with their choice of how they spend their time…

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