By Geo Ong
The two book series that everyone seems to be reading these days are The Hunger Games trilogy and the Fifty Shades trilogy. I’d rather not discuss either one, but as this article’s title suggests, we need to talk.
The Hunger Games trilogy is enjoying an extended boost in sales, one that’ll most likely sustain itself for a couple more years, because the first book has just been released as a major movie. Subsequent sequels are of course forthcoming.
The Fifty Shades trilogy, published originally as a print-on-demand title based in Australia, grew popular amidst whispers of mouth regarding the books’ erotic content. LikeThe Hunger Games books, the Fifty Shades trilogy will also enjoy a long stay on the bestseller lists. Unsurprisingly, the rights to the trilogy have just been purchased.
As a bookseller, I see these trends develop. When multiple persons come in asking for the same book, there is usually some sort of authoritative reason. Requests for Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith have been somewhat frequent due to it winning the Pulitzer for poetry. (I haven’t read it yet, but a reliable source of mine deemed the book deserving of the award.) When the National Book Award for fiction was announced, a larger number of people suddenly wanted to read Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones than before the announcement came. (The same source has also informed me that this book ‘ain’t messin’ around.’) But still, both requests combined have been completely eclipsed by the sales of The Hunger Games trilogy and the Fifty Shades trilogy on their own. The authoritative reason for the trilogies? Movies.
This isn’t another article about how a majority of movies based on books generally traverse between ‘not as good’ and ‘downright awful.’ I won’t even discuss the exceptions because, truth be told, there are so few exceptions that every discussion about the book-movie relationship mentions them.
This article is simply about this: there is something wrong with the fact that books can only grab the populace when they are somehow attached to movies. (I forgot to mention that the Fifty Shades books originally were written as erotic fan fiction for another popular book-to-movie series, Twilight.)
I try not to be a snob. I’m happy that more people are reading. But I spend eight hours a day in a bookstore, and if I meet another grown-ass man trying to engage me in a discussion about Catnip Overbeans when he could actually be reading some James Baldwin (or, while I’m ranting, another bearded Brooklynite buying another David Foster Wallace book when he could actually be reading some Virginia Woolf or Joan Didion or Gertrude Stein or Toni Morrison or Rebecca Solnit or Alison Bechdel), I may just lose whatever it is I happen to have left.
I do not believe that film is an inferior medium. Film has seen a brilliant stream of storytellers, whether they are directors, cinematographers, screenwriters, or actors. (I’d even be willing to flirt with the notion that Charlie Chaplin has shaped me more than any printed writer.) Having said that, a large part of the industry has been poisoned, and in turn it is poisoning us with offensively bad material.
What if the umbilical cord between books and movies got severed? I have no reason to believe that, artistically and creatively, the movie industry would experience a jolt of rejuvenation. Rather than vulturing over publishing companies, waiting for that next book (or worse, book-to-be) to be optioned, studio executives will be forced to turn to the thousands of aspiring storytellers, working their butts off, aching to tell you a story. And I’d be willing to bet that the best ones aren’t relying on a book to serve as their platform to success. They have their own stories. And just as there are stories better left off the big screen, there are stories only meant for it.