When Movies Best Books

Why are books almost always more memorable than the movies they spawn? After all, if forced to choose between reading a book and watching a movie on a Sunday afternoon, I suspect most people would select the movie. And if you place the world's worst film, say, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, next to the Mona Lisa, most people would wind up watching the film, if only because moving images captivate us in a primordial way.

But only books let us inhabit the thoughts and feelings of other people. One needn't have owlish glasses, pasty skin and brown hair to identify with Harry Potter—J.K. Rowling shows us the ordinary realm of feeling and fear in which he lives despite his magical life. Movies, however, are often a more passive experience; we only know what a character thinks through the awkward voice-over. Only on occasion can I find a film that affects me like a book; the two that come to mind cast non-professional actors, have virtually no plot and end with images of a character deep in thought. For me, at least, this might suggest that famous faces and plot are not the stuff of unforgettable storytelling. 

The first film on my mind, The Bicycle Thief by Vittorio de Sica, is a classic of post-World War II Italian cinema. The film follows one man attempting to recover his stolen bicycle, his only means of transportation for pasting movie posters to walls. He needs this bicycle to make a meager living for his young son. The final scene closes with him walking by his son's side, struggling to maintain a sense of dignity even as he too becomes tempted by easy thievery. However bleak his predicament, we don't want to part ways with him and his son on that black-and-white street.

I've seen Once, a more recent film set in Ireland, thrice. It portrays a struggling musician and a young woman from the Czech Republic, whom he meets while playing guitar on the street. We never learn their names; their tender relationship unfolds through the music they play and sing, separate and together. The final scene achieves the perfect composition of a Vermeer panting, until the camera falls slowly from the intimacy of a warm apartment window to the cold Dublin streets; all the while, the music once composed by the two main characters plays until the credits begin.

Both films confirm that plot is overrated. Richly developed characters with ordinary problems make a great story—be they bicycle-riders, street musicians or boy-wizards flying away on broomsticks.

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