I remember precisely the moment that my mental images of a book’s characters didn’t jive with someone else’s. The book in question was Pat Conroy’s sweeping novel set on the Carolina coast, The Prince of Tides. My family’s next-door neighbor Judy loaned me the book and for a week solid, I ran home after school (I think I was a sophomore?) and tore through its 700 pages with great focus. I had a clear vision of Tom and his twin sister Savannah; I could even picture the landscapes and settings described in the book with exactitude.
Until the movie was released, that is.
I finished the book about a month before the movie arrived in theaters and I couldn’t wait to see the story played out on the big screen. (As a side note, I think it was actually the first movie I went to see by myself.)
The casting of Nick Nolte for Tom struck me as a bit off. I was thinking more a young Robert Redford or Paul Newman type. But when Barbra Streisand appeared on screen as Tom’s psychiatrist and eventual love interest—well, that really threw me off. She was not who I had pictured while reading–AT ALL.
Even though I had been picturing characters in my mind since I started reading books without illustrations, I recognized in that moment the significance of our own mental images in establishing connection and engagement with literary figures. And the fact that someone else’s image didn’t match mine made it difficult for me to enjoy the film. In fact, when I reread the book as an adult, I felt that Barbra Streisand was intruding on my interior reading world!
In fact, in Peter Mendelsund’s (very excellent) book, What We See When We Read, he cautions against this very thing: “One should watch a film adaptation of a favorite book only after considering, very carefully, the fact that the casting of the film may very well become the permanent casting of the book in one’s mind. This is a very real hazard.” Indeed.
Mendelsund also talks about signifiers and notes that “there are moments, when we read when all we see are words” but also points out that “words are like arrows—they are something and they also point toward something.” While we learn this concept in Semiotics 101, the author’s examples are both clear and interesting.
In his role as the associate art director at Alfred K. Knopf, Mendelsund designs book covers (like these) and with What We See When We Read has created a unique and full-illustrated text that investigates the phenomenon of the elision of the visual mind and the literary page. If this idea intrigues you, Mendelsund’s book is worth a read—I loved it.
This was not my casting vision while reading The Prince of Tides. 😉