The Reading Life

When books create movies in our minds

Have you ever had this happen to you – where a story is so alive in your imagination that you’re sure you must have seen it with your own eyes or at the movies? I’ll get to the movies in our minds in a minute. But first:

Sometimes, I like to sit on my sofa and look at my books. Especially when I’ve just finished a book and don’t know what I want to read next. Conveniently, my main bookshelf* is directly across from my favorite reading spot. It’s my favorite interior view. Obviously.

Sitting there in my favorite spot, I think about all the places my books have taken me, all the thoughts they’ve inspired me to think, all the questions they’ve invited me to ask. I think about the conversations I’ve had with friends about these books. I think about how many people have read the same book, all around the world. It’s a lovely, cozy feeling.

Today, I was looking at my bookshelves with a critical eye. By this, I mean with an eye toward figuring out where the heck I’m going to put all the books I brought back from the book sale I went to this morning. Let’s not talk numbers. It’s so vulgar.

As I’m strategically moving books around – sort of like those puzzles where you have to maneuver squares to fit a certain pattern – I stumble on a 1920s bundle: Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Nella Larson’s Passing. During a two-week period a few years ago, I read these three novels in succession. My goal in doing so was to experience that period through a range of viewpoints.

A scene of 1920s-ish New York came into my mind as I looked at these books: an African-American woman standing at an intersection with her young son. I remember this about the scene: They’ve walked down from Harlem into a white neighborhood, and the woman is afraid, and she takes her son’s hand.

Sure it was from a movie, I combed my memory for the film’s name. Then I realized something: It wasn’t a scene from a movie at all. It was a scene from Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. The scene lives in my memory in such intense, vivid detail that I was sure I had seen it with my eyes. But I hadn’t. I’d conjured it in my imagination because of Gyasi’s words and the story they weave and the intensity of the emotion.

Have you ever had that happen to you – where a story is so alive in your imagination that you’re sure you must have seen it with your own eyes?

*By “main bookshelf,” I mean the most organized (term used loosely) bookshelf, the one where I still have a 50 percent chance of actually finding a book I’m looking for.

5 thoughts on “When books create movies in our minds

  1. This was so thought-provoking and beautifully written (also, speaking of “beautiful”, is that bookshelf in the picture one of yours?).

    The scene you describe sounds compelling. I’ve also had some “movie moments” when reading, including a very gory Anne Rice description, I think from the book “Lasher”, of preserved heads being touched and feeling like rotting fruit. People can say what they want about Anne Rice, but to me, she’s one of the greatest writers out there when it comes to descriptive writing, whether it’s evoking an historical time period, or, well, describing scenes like I just mentioned.

    Speaking of Anne Rice, another “movie moment” I had with her books was imagining the vampire Armand as looking like the young Leo DiCaprio. When the movie adaptation of “Interview with a Vampire” came out and it was Antonio Banderas playing him, I was like, legitimately mad. And then, years later, I came upon an interview with Rice where she said that she would have preferred none other than Leo to have been cast for the role!

    As I think more about your piece, I also realize that “Cyrano de Bergerac” is a play I’ve seen many times…in my head. No film version I’ve ever seen can do justice to what I’ve seen in my mind’s eye. I think I feel that way about Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” as well, even though I know there’s someone out there who could make a movie version that would probably look like what I see when I read it.

    I’m sure there are many other cinematic literary moments I’ve experienced. This is one of those wonderful posts of yours that is going to keep me thinking and really enjoying mentally revisiting different books. Thank you for that.

    1. Thank you so much, Alysa! What you say about Anne Rice (who I’ve never read) reminded me of something I read about J. K. Rowling: When Daniel Radcliffe was up for the role of Harry Potter, she said he was what she imagined Harry to be. I didn’t feel that way the first time I saw him in the role, though now of course I can’t picture anyone else as Harry. It’s interesting comparing the movie version to the illustrated versions that have recently come out and her descriptions from the books!

      1. I forgot to answer your question! Yes, that is my bookshelf. It one of … many. This one is in my living room, so it has to be somewhat presentable. 🙂

  2. Oooh – I LOVE your bookshelf! You have great taste not just in books and coats (I still remember the super-sophisticated white coat you wore when we did the last OS meet-up), but bookshelves, too! I am jealous!

    That’s interesting about Daniel Radcliffe – I didn’t know J.K. Rowling had any particular views on him being cast, which is weird on my part because I know how close she is to her books and characters and how implicated she was in the films, so why not? But I agree with you at any rate; however I imagined Harry before the movies, now it’s impossible for me to picture him looking like anyone but Radcliffe.

    As for Anne Rice, she’s such an interesting author because she has this rep for writing horror and/or erotica, but the WAY she writes is absolutely stunning. Ever since I first started reading her as a teen, one of my goals as a writer has been to one day be able to evoke an historical period/place the way she does. She’s just so incredibly talented that way. Plus, most of her books tell really compelling stories, especially “Interview with a Vampire” and “The Vampire Lestat”. I hope one day you’ll give her a try, though I definitely understand your having so much else to read!

    1. You’re very kind, Alysa! My bookshelf does make me happy. I sit on my couch and look at it and smile. 🙂 (I can’t believe you remember that coat – one of my favorites.)

      I should read Anne Rice. Mostly, I’ve avoided her for the same reason I’ve avoided Stephen King: I can’t handle gore and violence. Maybe I will try Interview with a Vampire at some point. Thank you!

Comments are closed.