Watching, Not Reading

Movies mean big business. They are popular, far-reaching, and, with any luck, entertaining. The movie industry, though, does far more than entertain us—it plays an active role in shaping our collective consciousness. Of course, this was not always the case; the written word once reigned supreme as the chief means of influencing public opinion. However, motion pictures are increasingly becoming the primary modes of spreading information and educating audiences. This phenomenon, despite the accompanying demise of the supremacy of books, is a tremendous boon: It offers the potential to effectively educate society and add to our shared culture.

Gone are the times when a simple pamphlet like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense could incite a revolution. Hard as it may have tried, Newsweek was never able to achieve the authority that print publications used to command, and has, as a result, become be the latest casualty in the industry. Even online written content, with the possibility of reaching billions of viewers, fails to influence public perception as words once could. The only pamphlets capable of provoking rebellions today are largely restricted to 140 characters in length.

In many respects, movies are usurping written works as the primary means of spreading ideas and educating the public. Films do not merely entertain; they educate. The public, for instance, was first truly exposed to King George VI, the British monarch during World War II who struggled with a stutter for the entirety of his life, not through a history textbook or popular novel, but by the Hollywood hit “The King’s Speech.” I learned more about the six American escapees during the Iranian hostage crisis by watching a two-minute trailer on YouTube for Ben Affleck’s new flick “Argo” than I picked up from years of history classes and their accompanying textbooks. Educating the public is always a benefit to society, regardless of the means by which information was imparted.

The effectiveness and influence of movies may be at least partly due to their inherent nature. As visual, rather than textual, stimulus, they display content much more quickly than can a book. Movies, then, are better vectors to reach and inform a vast audience. Moreover, the concrete images of film are easier to remember long after their display than the imagined ones required for reading. A picture, we are told, is worth 1000 words, and most films play at a rate of at least 24 frames per second. At that speed, Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” running 120 minutes long, is worth well more than 200 King James Bibles.

I do not mean to imply that a movie is qualitatively better than a piece of literature merely on account of its ability to display more content. Rather, this characteristic may explain our tendency to prefer and learn better from films than from books. Watching a motion picture is an inherently more passive experience than reading a book. Yet it imparts content in a much more easily consumable way than a book of commensurate length. Movies are more tangible, visual, and compact than comparable written works, and are therefore easier to remember. To lament the popularity of films relative to books is to simply ignore the potential benefit they offer society.

Critics point out that the potential for misinformation in movies is great: Not all historical films are necessarily accurate. The creative liberties taken are not always as obvious as those involving mutants averting the Cuban missile crisis. Politicized documentaries, such as “2016: Obama’s America” and Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” are characterized by the unabashed misrepresentation of facts. But history books, too, have never been completely accurate. One elementary school textbook claimed that thousands of black soldiers fought for the Confederacy, a definitively false claim. In fact, enough uncredible history books abound to warrant an entire contest sponsored by the History News Network.

Factual inaccuracies aside, the film industry goes beyond entertaining and even teaching the public; it reshapes the historical narrative in the public consciousness in a way books no longer do. When people think of the RMS Titanic, they remember Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet fighting for survival in the icy waters of the Atlantic. Similarly, Spielberg’s Lincoln will surely reshape the narrative of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency the way Oliver Stone’s JFK retold Kennedy’s assassination to the American public. These films demonstrate the potential of film to popularize history, educate the public, and reshape our collective culture.

Film is nothing new. Hollywood’s influence on American culture and consciousness is long established. However, the industry is expanding its influence beyond the confines of the United States and reaches a broader, more international audience than ever before. In our era of globalized culture, we may someday see motion pictures eclipse the written word as the primary means of education everywhere. Movie theaters are, in some ways, becoming global classrooms, and movies bestselling books. Some may be upset that films are replacing written works as cultural agents and education tools. But Argo looks pretty darn good.

Jacob R. Drucker ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Mather House.

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