This is an intriguing development because a standard prediction of cultural commentators and educationalists since the Fifties and Sixties has been that television and cinema would kill reading; that the movies and soap operas of large and small screen mass entertainment would reduce the appeal of printed fiction. The fact that video shops have become a more guaranteed presence in towns than libraries has further encouraged this doomy view. Newspaper reports of corporations finding school-leavers to be illiterate - and thus, by implication, merely 'tele-literate' - are taken by many as confirmation of this sombre prophecy.
Yet almost every hit movie and television series provides contradictory evidence. Whatever the effects of alternative entertainment on the reading instinct in general, it is the case that audiences come away wanting to experience again in print the very story that they have just been told in pictures. So Jurassic Park the book, far from being rendered obsolete by Jurassic Park the movie, is in fact commercially reanimated by it. Films and series irritatingly lacking a printed source are converted into prose: 'novelisations' of Fatal Attraction or even, in the most extreme case, a version by another hand of Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Listing these examples, I anticipate the snobbish objection that film and television - though admittedly not convictable on the evidence of having killed the novel - are still guilty of literary manslaughter: that the books they sustain and create are inferior fiction. But the turnover in copies of George Eliot and Stendhal will rise sharply in the next few years thanks to BBC 2 adaptations of Middlemarch and Le Rouge et le noir. Whatever Ken Russell might have done to Lady Chatterley's Lover in his BBC 1 version, he put the wind in its sales like nothing since the obscenity trial.
Revivals in the reputations of neglected authors such as Paul Scott and Angus Wilson were the work of television (although the chances of the new, deregulated ITV replicating projects such as Jewel In The Crown and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes must be remote). The reputations and sales of modern novelists such as David Lodge, Jeanette Winterson and Jane Rogers were advanced by small-screen retelling of their stories.
One of the important differences between the British and American broadcasting systems is that viewers and listeners in this country are regularly exposed - through BBC 2 and Radio 4, with its classic serials and twice-daily book readings - to their literary heritage.
Melodramatically billed as literature's undertakers, the cultural successors of the book can in fact be argued to have been its paramedics - although admittedly picky about who they treat: a major operation every couple of years for E M Forster and Evelyn Waugh, while Stendhal has waited until now for his script replacement. But, as I have said, the really intriguing aspect of this relationship is that these visual and aural second editions for some reason lead people back to the first editions.
Why should this be? The first - and most pessimistic - explanation is the book as souvenir. This is the idea that, in the absence of a Howards End T-shirt or tins of Edwardian fruitcake with Emma Thompson's face on the wrapper, people buy the Forster novel, with its pretty still from the Merchant-Ivory film on the front, as a memento.
Another downbeat explanation for the surprisingly strong fight the book still puts up against its predators was suggested to me by a writer at a party recently. Irregular book-buyers, he suggested, were so suspicious of the novel as a form - so frightened of being let down by a random selection - that they were drawn to a title they knew. In this way, cinema and television had taken the risk out of literature, removed the bran-tub element that is part of the real reader's experience.
The third theory about the failure of viewing to eliminate reading is the one that writers and educationalists are most eager to believe, particularly with regard to adaptations of generally agreed literary classics. This is the idea that there is something inherently lacking in all visual distillations of literature. As if through some evolutionary survival mechanism of the written word, this theory implies, the natural reaction of any viewer after a screening is to wish to read or to re-read the text from which it derives. Cinema and television are, in this analysis, the low-fat ice-cream of narrative forms, a tempting but finally unsatisfying substitute.
The first two explanations are, I think, too patronising to viewers. With regard to the novel-as-memento theory, for example, it is perfectly true that the BBC was a little lax in exploiting the merchandising possibilities of Lady Chatterley's Lover - no tie-in line of Chatterley underwear or pots of Mellors's Best Pheasant Pate. Yet the evidence of Jurassic Park (souvenirs for which range from chocolate dinosaur eggs to pterodactyl boxer shorts) is that even the presence of such a range of products would have done little to prevent huge numbers of people from making their souvenir of the film version a copy of Lawrence's novel
The idea that buying a tie-in book avoids the lottery of choosing novels cold finds some support in the popularity of 'novelisations'. It stumbles, however, on the evidence that when one work by a writer is broadcast, his or her other titles (or, in the case of living writers, future books) benefit commercially from the attention given to the screened one.
The third thesis - that visual versions have an accidental built-in tendency to lead the viewer back to the written word - is the most persuasive to me. At least with adaptations of major authors, I have invariably been sent back by the images to the original words.
Indeed, I wonder if the real threat to reading is not the soap operas and video shops of current educational demonology but the latest middle- class fad of novels on audio cassette. These narrative alternatives - for all their benefits to the elderly and blind - seem to be a more potent threat to the conventional book than television and cinema have been. Fears of merely 'tele-literate' young may yet be topped by the threat of merely 'audio-literate' middle aged.
For the moment, readers and teachers should cling to the strange evidence that adaptations seem, in some quite unpredicted way, to assist the originals. If the success of Jurassic Park the movie is a tribute to the power of the vast new industries of cinema and publicity, then the sales of the original novel offer small cause for optimism. In defiance of the worst predictions, the book is not yet quite a dinosaur form.Reuse content