This week’s New York Times Book Review features two articles — “Dead Again” & “It’s Alive” — about the possible demise or longevity of the printed book. Authors Price and Silverman pepper their separate arguments with predictions and descriptions made hundreds of years ago — my favorite of which includes a future where no one walks to the public library anymore; there’s an airplane drop-off service.
Silverman quotes Thoreau to make the distinction between books and other forms of art that can connect us with humanity: “[The book] is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; — not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.”
Words on a page may not be as striking to look at as a painting like Munch’s The Scream, but a book can produce just as much, if not more, emotional stimulation and connection with life as we experience it everyday. Some have argued that film would take the place of books as the primary storytelling medium. And yet, more and more films are based on stories told in books first (The Help, The Bourne Legacy, The Hunger Games). Films are indebted to books; they would never replace them entirely.
What about e-readers & e-books overtaking the printed book? Again, the electronic version of books are indebted to the printed version. The e-readers simulate the turning of a page. One mimics the other. Trains did not disappear when planes were invented; you still “board” both. Farms didn’t disappear when scientists learned how to make food entirely in a lab. Sure, MP3s have trumped CDs, which have trumped tape cassettes, but music has no replacement. The format is not the issue; it’s the medium that matters.
After catching the film “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Turner Classic Movies the other night, I was blown away by the performances and the writing. Now an American classic, I wanted to know more about the film, its background, the process of production, and anything else about the actors, the story, the director that I could discover. I especially wanted to find some criticism that could help clarify some questions I had — for example, What is really true about Blanche’s past and her dead husband? Does Stanley actually rape Blanche? Is Stella really going to leave Stanley? Why does Blanche so eagerly kiss a strange teenager but won’t kiss Mitch? I could probably formulate my own answers if I watched the movie several times more or carefully analyzed the play, but I was interested in what published critics and academics had to say.
I went on the ProQuest database and did a simple search of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Lots of the results were review articles for recent stage adaptations, not exactly what I was looking for. I then added “AND film” to the search box, which gave me better results. The first article I read was truly eye-opening. Dowling’s “The Derailment of A Streetcar Named Desire” in Literature/Film Quarterly (1981) gave insight into the differences between the play and the film script and the role of the censorship board of the Motion Picture industry in the watering down the film’s sexual tones.
For example, a key component was left out of the story of Blanche’s previous marriage. In the play, it’s alluded to that her husband was gay and she actually walked in on him with another man. But this was completely left out of the film, with only his poetry as a single clue (and that’s not even a strong one.) This is the reason why Blanche lashed out at him and he therefore killed himself. It’s a much more well-rounded picture of the situation and of her past, something that I was missing from the film.
I also discovered that the censors wanted to completely do away with the rape scene at the climax of the story, which, thankfully, Tennessee Williams was vehemently opposed to and wrote a letter in protest of. In the play, this scene is much clearer with Stanley actually taking Blanche to his bed. The film, however, just uses the symbolic image of a shattered mirror, which was vague enough to have me wondering if the rape even happened at all.
Ultimately the producers of the film wanted to get as wide an audience as possible and therefore bent to the will of the censors who wanted to keep the public away from some of the most poignant and meaningful elements of the story for fear of the degradation of society. If I had not done a little research and read this article, I don’t think I would have found elsewhere such a detailed account of the censorship forced upon one of the greatest films in American cinema. The real tragedy of “A Streetcar Named Desire” is that it was never allowed to take its original language and intent to the silver screen.