For all the joys of movies, it’s books that train the imagination.
When I was growing up in the 1970s in Kansas City (sometimes called “the buckle of the Bible belt”) my father, a Baptist minister, did not allow our family to go to the movies. It was too likely we’d encounter lots of larger-than-life sin on the silver screen. Better safe than soiled. Even the squeaky-clean Disney movies that played on television every Sunday night were beyond my reach — Sunday nights were spent at church.
Books were my refuge. Daily Bible-reading was expected, but it was an endless stream of novels and biographies that provided the great escape from our modest corner of the Midwest. My parents opened this door when I was a toddler; my mother read to me every day, often until she was hoarse. Soon I could handle the early readers and “Little Golden Books” by myself. Later, chocolate-voiced Mrs. Wright would entrance our fourth-grade class with a chapter a day from classics like Tom Sawyer and Robinson Crusoe, and I was reading and rereading the brick-red volumes of The Childhood of Famous Americans (Babe Didrikson, Gus Grissom, J. C. Penney) that filled the shelves of the Harry S. Truman Elementary School. I owned most of Louisa May Alcott and all of Laura Ingalls Wilder and read them till the spines split and pages fell out. Dickens and the Brontës joined the line-up in middle school, and I can still recap the plots of all the Sherlock Holmes stories for you, if you’d like. Television was allowed, but The Beverly Hillbillies and Speed Racer couldn’t compete with Mark Twain and Josephine Tey.
Other influences beckoned, though. When I found out my church friends had gone to see Star Wars over and over again, I was confused and dismayed: confused that they’d make a choice other than the one my father urged upon the congregation, dismayed to be left out of the fun. This was a familiar feeling, given the additional prohibitions against dancing, drinking, playing cards, and women wearing pants.
There’s nothing like forbidding something to make it enticing. Very predictably, upon heading to college a thousand miles from home, I started making up for lost time. I soon discovered the Student Union’s free movie series. My new college friends were happy to go with me to see almost anything, appalled at my ignorance (“You’ve never even heard of Doctor Zhivago?!?”) but delighted to experience the thrill of the big screen all over again, through the eyes of an alien newly arrived from Planet Fundamentalism.
The first three movies I saw were Singin’ in the Rain, The Sound of Music, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I was enthralled.
Within days of finishing that strange trio, though, I came across the John Fowles novel upon which the latter was based. As mesmerizing as the film adaptation had been, all crashing waves and moss and dark woolens, with the ravishing Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, the book was much richer and more finely detailed. I did not have to learn this lesson twice. I resolved not to see any film based on a well-reviewed book until I’d read it for myself. I want to possess the characters and ideas thoroughly before surrendering to someone else’s imagination.
This isn’t a consistently applied rule. I did not bother to read The Wizard of Oz before seeing it; in fact, I may not have known that a book came first. But I skipped The Hours because I hadn’t read The Hours or its inspiration, Mrs. Dalloway’s Party. I’m so relieved when a great movie comes from an original script. It removes the burden of reconciling my two passions.
It’s for this reason that I did not see Cold Mountain until nearly a decade after its release. I had somehow missed the best-selling novel at its 1997 publication, but I picked up a nice paperback one night in the early aughts while standing in line at Borders Bookstore. This wasn’t the usual long wait to check out; I was there with my kids and hundreds of others, counting down the minutes to the midnight release of another Harry Potter tome. Usually I take reading material with me everywhere, ready to fill unanticipated delays, but getting my two younger children into black capes and pointy hats to celebrate their literary hero had displaced any thought of my own reading. With high-pitched exchanges of Potter trivia ringing in my ears, I looked around the bookstore for something up my alley — not “Diagon Alley,” I’m pretty sure I was thinking — and my eyes fell on Charles Frazier’s Civil War odyssey. In a Potter-mania din, the sober opening of Cold Mountain was daunting. I started over at home but just couldn’t attach.
One evening, when I’d begun dating, post-divorce, the man I would later marry noticed the abandoned Cold Mountain lying on a shelf near the kitchen table. “My dad provided the drums they used in that movie,” Andy remarked, fanning through but not taking it.
I knew a bit about their family business: It was a merger of three families’ drum-making shops and dated back to 1859. At least one of the families, the Soistmans of Maryland, had made drums for the Union Army. Sometime in the 1970s, the business passed to the Reamer family, so Andy learned the craft in his teens. What I hadn’t known was that early in this millennium, Andy’s father, Bill Reamer, had shipped some old U.S. Army drums from the family’s workshop in New Holland, Pa., to the fields of Romania, where much of Cold Mountain was filmed. The drums had recently been returned, intact but smeared with some kind of theatrical dirt used to make them look even more antique than they were. It was really hard to remove, Andy recalled. Despite this personal link, he hadn’t seen the movie. As he set the book down, I explained why I’d skipped it. Book first, movie second; book abandoned, movie denied. Even a divorced, movie-going, wine-loving, wizard-embracing, jeans-clad Baptist needs a few rules.
The book must have gotten misplaced during the 2006 merging of our two households. When it resurfaced in spring cleaning a few years later, I decided that this, finally, was the time. And this time, I was entranced. I savored every scene, reveled in the archaic rhythms and turns of speech, and wept at so much loss.
Andy waited patiently for a week or two while I provided frequent, glowing testimonials. When I was done, I placed the book in his hands. It was almost ceremonial. I moved on to other reading, barely keeping tabs on his progress, even though we were reading every night, sitting next to each other in bed.
His father had died a year after our wedding, and then his mother, fourteen months after that. We were still driving five hours each way on monthly two-day trips to keep the New Holland drum shop going, while searching desperately for a new location near our Pittsburgh home. It was on one of these exhausting winter journeys across the Pennsylvania turnpike that I happened to ask, “How is Cold Mountain?”
My stoic husband looked away from the snow-scoured road to glance at me. His eyes were filled with tears. “I will miss it when it’s done.”
Before long, we were both ready to see the movie of the book it had taken us so long to read. And yes, the movie was an enormous let-down. Not even a long, excellent mini-series could have plumbed the book’s depths or captured its characters’ interior lives; Anthony Minghella’s two-and-a-half-hour effort was not adequate to the challenge. But our disappointment went beyond the movie’s failings as an adaptation. We kept waiting for the drums of our Union Army heritage to appear, and one finally did, in a ragtag band marching through town to summon fighting-age men. But when the band crossed our mid-size television, the drummer was out of view for all but a second or two. That was it. We had waited a decade, never to have our Hollywood close-up. We could only laugh.
Somewhere amid our losing, finding, reading, and seeing Cold Mountain, the final Harry Potter novel came out. It was July 2007, and once again our family was at the bookstore at midnight, buying three copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, one for each child. The car was absolutely silent on the trip home, clip-on travel lights scrounged up for the occasion. The hours that followed were the quietest our house has ever known, as all three kids plowed through, sleeping far less than usual and emerging from their rooms late the next afternoon. An hour or two after 17-year-old Alex and 14-year-old Aaron came out, within minutes of each other, to announce their satisfaction, I began hovering around the door to twelve-year-old Emma’s room. Somehow I knew when she was done; I knocked quietly and entered. She was curled up in bed, crying under the comforter, clutching the book. “Please don’t say anything,” she murmured. “I’m mourning the end of my childhood.”
A good story endures, not just through time, but across media, no matter how bumpy the crossing. My kids are fortunate because the Harry Potter movies, though necessarily truncated and varied in style, do justice to the books. Emma in particular knows the series so well that she can tell you which chapters contain certain “facts” or events, much the way I once knew Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Her command of these details, however, has not detracted from the pleasure of the films.
The pace of my movie-going has slackened in recent years, but on-demand technology allows me to keep up at home and to fill in gaps from those deprived years long ago. I feel infinitely rich despite this deprivation, or perhaps because of it. My mind lived first, deeply, in words, before I immersed it in images.
It all somehow feels biblical. Jesus said to Doubting Thomas, “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed.” There is special bliss in not seeing but imagining first, the solitary mind set afire by words. Like spiritual faith, the imagination has its own vocabulary — “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” If someone else’s production proves not quite what the reader had anticipated, the reader can return to the word and wait for faith’s next leap. It is living in a state of hope.