Shadow puppets on cave walls were one of the earliest forms of visual storytelling, or in other words, the first movies. Visual stories are the simplest and most basic form of storytelling, which is why people love movies so much today.
Writing, on the other hand, is the most complicated form of storytelling, even today. Text is much more difficult to decipher than audio, visuals, movies, music, or paintings. Reading text is vastly more unnatural and complicated for the human brain.
Written language (about 5,000 years old) is still a rather modern invention when you look at the history of the human species (about 200,000 years old). Even though movies are seen as newer than books, visual storytelling is actually much older. We were making shadows on cave walls long before we invented writing—probably before we even invented spoken language. (See Werner Herzog’s documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams) Movies are essentially shadow puppets on cave walls, only the technology has improved.
Writing does not come naturally to the human brain. It must be learned. Any four-year-old child can understand a movie instantly (in any language, or no language at all), but they cannot understand a book until they are taught how to read and write. Even then, they still won’t understand a book if it’s written in a foreign language.
So writing is clearly more complicated than visual storytelling. But does that make books better or worse than movies?
That’s difficult to say.
Is it better to be more complicated? Is complexity valuable in itself? Or is over-complication an unnecessary drawback? Are movies better because they are a more pure, natural form of storytelling, easily absorbed by the human brain? Or are books better because they require more effort and interaction from the reader? Does the complexity of written language add something that audio-visuals cannot?
In a way, writing is completely outside of time. A movie can only tell a story one second per second. The story progresses only by what you see on the screen. But when reading, your brain constructs a movie in your mind. You are the director. You cast and create everything. That’s why reading is so much more difficult, but also—potentially—more fulfilling. Because you have the job of director, actor, set designer, costume designer, composer… essentially all those hundreds of names you see scrolling in the credits after a movie. The reader must do them all, except for writer.
Obviously, it’s also the writer’s job to take on all those roles. A good writer will set each scene in such a way that it’s easier for the reader to envision in their mind. As someone who has written both screenplays and novels, I would say novels are more difficult to write. With a screenplay, you only write one small part of the movie. Actually, it’s a big part, and screenwriters are routinely undervalued by Hollywood, but still. A screenplay is just a blueprint. The director, actors, and all those other names in the credits bring it to life and turn it into a movie. With a book, however, the writer must fill all those roles. Set the tone with words—no music to create suspense or triumph. The writer must create dramatic performances for characters without relying on professional actors to bring it to life. The writer must describe the clothes and makeup exactly, rather than letting a designer figure it out. In books, the author is king, even more in control of the story than the director of a movie. A director must delegate certain roles to actors and production crew. In books, the writer is forced to do it all. Though even then, they can only do so much. It’s still up to the reader to make the words come alive in their head. A book is really a dual partnership between writer and reader.
When you watch a movie, you watch a movie that hundreds of people created together. Everyone who watches the movie sees the same thing on the screen. But when you read a book, you use the writer’s words to create a movie of your own, entirely inside your mind. Every reader’s mind-movie is different.
Which is better?
That’s up to the individual and their imagination.