Sunday, May 25, 2008

Memory Games

Here's something kind of scary. In cleaning my house in the way I only do it once every five years--every drawer, every closet, I came across my diary from twenty years ago when I used to post all the books and movies I saw that year. In 1988, I read about 90 books, 38 of them crime novels. That year I also saw 61 movies at the theater. Highly-rated films for me that year included Manon of the Spring, Au Revoir Les Enfants,The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Dead, Wings of Desire, Married to the Mob. I can give you a brief summary of every one of those 61 films. There were no titles where I completely drew a blank.

Maybe it's because the movies play on TV later although I rarely watch films twice since my husband remembers them too well. Maybe it's because putting an actor's face on a character helps me to remember the story.

On the 90 books, I read, I could remember very few plots. Just one or two that became well-known over time. or were turned into movies. Is this true for you? Do you remember movies you've seen just once better than books you've read once.

One further statistic, I saw 13 plays that year. My husband was working on a project in NY and we were there several times. I remember the plots of those plays too. Does the visual component in movies and plays bolster the ability to remember. I wonder how audio books play into this. Do you remember books you hear on tape better than ones read?

Or am I just losing it?


Travis Erwin said...

I never remember plots all tha twell regardless of the media, but I can often recall lots of details about individual characters from both movies and novels.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Just what my daughter just suggested.

Todd Mason said...

It might be in part because the films and plays are short, intense experiences, whereas the novels stretch a bit (and if one reads several similar novels by a writer or even be similarly-inclined writers, that might encourage a blurring between the entities). I find that short stories can stand out more readily tnan novels after the passage of decades, too.

Clair D. said...

There's also learning modalities at play, I'm sure. One theory is that people have a preference for learning either visually, auditorially, or kinesthically (doing/ movement.)

For me, I don't remember movies too well. I'm almost entirely a visual learner-- I can remember scenes, maybe actors/ characters, but words are easily lost. Because the words are auditory. But I can remember words on a page really, really well. Words, pictures, etc. have really high retention for me.

Most people are a mix of all modalities, with one type being the easiest or preferred. Just my two sense.

Lyndi Lamont said...

In general, I remember movies better than books, but maybe that's because I see fewer movies compared to the number of books I read. The DH just flat out refuses to go to the movies any more. I remember seeing The Original Lightness of Being. (Love Daniel Day-Lewis)


pattinase (abbott) said...

Maybe it's because you usually discuss a movie with the person(s) you go with and it cements the memory whereas you generally read in isolation. I dunno. Short stories do have a different resonance.

John McFetridge said...

I think Travis and your daughter are right, Patti, it comes down to the characters. It's why character-driven stories get more respect than plot-driven.

I'd never thought of it terms of most memorable, but it's certainly true for me as well. Many, many plot points - the kind of things the how-to-write screenplay books dwell on so much - are lost to me moments after the movie ends, but characers I remember for a long, long time.

I think we're voices in the wilderness on this one, though.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think I remember the characters in books and the plots in movies. Movies can't climb inside a head like books to, but books can't animate a scene like a movie does.

Anonymous said...

I don't think a book can bring out Indiana Jones or Mr. Darcy like a well crafted movie. Would Casablanca be Casablanca if it were only a book. Same with Gone with the Wind. I read the Godfather before it became a movie. However, it is the movie that I remember. Could anyone be Indiana Jones besides Harrison Ford? I suppose so, but too late for that. "Leave the gun, take the canollis." "It is a far, far, better thing that I do than I have ever done." Close call.

Josephine Damian said...

Uh.. I think you guys have missed something.

What do the majority of movies do that the majority of books don't do? (Hint: It leads to a much more satisfying experience)

Movies follow the three-act structure: well-defined opening, middle and end, character arc, rising action of the second act (just to name a few) These are the basics of storytelling that were established by Aristotle - most movies follow them, most books don't.

I think that has a lot to do with remembering one more than the other.

John McFetridge said...

Hey Josephine, it's okay if I disagree with you, right?

When I was younger I certainly found the formulaic movie structure satisfying, but I probably read/see more stories in a month now than Aristotle did his lifetime. For years now, I haven't seen a movie that can hold a candle to a good book.

I just re-read Roddy Doyle's, "The Woman Who Walked Into Doors," and the follow-up, "Paula Spencer," and I haven't had that satisfying an experience at the movies in... wow, I don't know how long. No three-acts, no rising action (almost no action at all), no well-defined beginning, middle or end - just some great characters and real, honest insight into their lives and the small moments that make differences.

I do agree that most movies need to follow those structures, not for quality story-telling, but for money reasons. Movies simply need to appeal to a much broader demographic to be successful. So, they can't take as many risks, they can't try new things.

I'm just glad that so far publishing can still appeal to people who want books to be like movies and can also publish books for people like me. The movies lost me a long time ago (but really, once you get out of your twenties, the movies don't care if they lose you or not ;)

colman said...

I remember films better than books.There are books I know I've read, loved and enjoyed but could not for the life of me give you a synopsis on.I rarely part with a book I've read and I rarely read anything twice, but I would have to revisit them to be able to recall anything but the barest outline.
Memory in general.......I go upstairs for three things, get up there get two things and stand on the landing scratching my head trying to remember.
My wife sends me to the shops for two things, I write it down or I'll come back empty handed!
HELP.....I'm only 44!

pattinase (abbott) said...

It only gets worse. Soon you'll have a list of your lists.

Lisa said...

The reason that books give me a much longer term sense of character than of plot is that a good book takes me inside a character or narrator's head so that I know the essence of who the character is in a way that's impossible to bring out in dialogue or action.

A movie gives me a much more concrete auditory and visual component that tends to stay in memory much longer than the subtleties of character.

Film purists believe that a good film is one that brings out something about the story that can only be done via that medium. Conversely, a novel can bring life to a character's internal landscape in a way that's impossible to recreate on film or on stage.

I think the reason that films tend to be easier to recall is that most of us tend remember things we've actually seen or heard firsthand, better than things we've read that aren't reinforced with a visual or auditory component.

pattinase (abbott) said...

And remembering doesn't necessarily make the initial experience less or more meaningful. Which changes you more? I think a novel because you spend more time with it. At least, I do. I read the average novel over a week. A movie in two hours. Bigger commitment for a novel.