My friends, it has often been said that I like art. My friends, I like art… No, friends, I love art! I love books. I love films. I love video games. I love music, voice acting, I love modern animation, and hand-drawn cells. Are across canvases, in theaters, on pages, on the big screen, on alley walls, through speakers.
I love player agency illustrating the futile madness of Andrew Ryan. My heart leaps with joy when a line from a poem that doesn’t work on paper suddenly is brought to life when read aloud. And there is nothing, like the first time you notice Holden Caulfield’s misplaced comma. And the feeling that comes when an animator subtly matches a character’s behaviour with the soundtrack, is such an exquisite feeling.
Gentlemen… All I ask is respect for art, a respect only so grand as to not allow it to be tarnished. Gentlemen, I ask you as fellow lover of art, what is it that you really want? Do you wish to read a book, as I do? Do you wish to know a work as the artist made it? A work of art whose beauty is in the understanding of its form? Or do you ask for a book to be read to you, like a child’s bedtime story?
My friends, today on The Anime Harvest, the problem with audiobooks.
When it comes to large projects like anime, the first name I look for on the production staff list is the director. Not because the writer and the animators aren’t artists, but because the director brings everything together. They are the ones who should know and understand the medium the best, and work within it to make a piece as effective, impactful as it can be. A great animation team, a great writer and composer, and wonderful voice cast will create beautiful visuals, story, music and characters, but a mediocre anime if they do not have a good director.
Every medium has its intricacies, tropes and idiosyncrasies. Part of the artist’s job is to know their medium, the form within which they are working. Which senses –sight, sound, touch- does a particular medium affect, and how? Even e-books, in my limited experience, seem to have a grasp on this, but audiobooks just don’t.
Adaptation, the act of taking a story told in one medium or context and telling it a different way, is something I find very interesting. It highlights the differences between different forms of media, and those differences can sometimes lead to a fundamentally different story. For example, the anime Karas was originally released in Japan as a six episode OVA, but when it was adapted for English release by Manga Entertainment, it was edited into two films.
Adaptation here is twofold. First, it was adapted for a different audience, and second it was adapted from series to films… or it should have been. I expect the reason Karas was released as films outside of Japan is because even among western anime fans, it is a niche product. It is an anime heavily steeped in Japanese culture and sensibilities, which sells itself on experimental animation. You’d have a tough time trying to sell that as a series, even only at six episodes. But a movie? People will take a gamble on watching a movie.
Unfortunately, apparently no one working on the project was at all curious about how to make it work. The films are literally English dubs of three episodes of the anime at a time, with the OP and ED cut out between them. How could someone think that is passable? The result is an off-pace confusing mess that offers no indication to the viewer that, at two points per movie, there is supposed to be a separation, decompression, and reintroduction. Episodes generally contain certain themes, side stories, emphasis, and even characters that aren’t supposed to carry over. When one third of the way through Karas new characters show up with no explanation and tone changes, it’s confusing a disconcerting. What should be the separation between two distinct episodes is replaced with a standard scene transition.
We see this also with Shakespearean plays, when they are printed in books that are obviously not meant to be read. William Shakespeare did not write books, he wrote plays, and trying to read them like they’re books makes no sense. They get printed just as scripts, so you have the dialogue and nothing else. No description of events, no narrative, just dialogue. And these are clearly not meant to be read as scripts, as they’re often printed in hardcover, omnibus format; not the type of thing you’d take to rehearsal. But I’ve digressed.
Audiobooks, from what I’ve heard, are an entire medium of Karas films and Shakespeare books. They are adaptations with no self-conscious awareness. And as far as I can tell, there is no way around that.
As I’ve now said so many times you should be sick of it, every medium has its own way of communicating with the viewer/reader/player. With books this is mostly visual, but there is also a tactile element. Page splits can be timed to add tension or curiosity, and how chapter endings are handled varies; sometimes the new chapter can start on the very same page as the last one ended, creating a swift flow; and sometimes they will be put a page ahead, forcing the reader to turn the page and creating a greater degree of separation. But as I said, books are mostly visual.
Punctuation, white space, and of course words. Written, not spoken, and there’s a big difference. Pacing, tone, mood are all determined primarily by word use, and the look of a word can often be more importance than its definitional meaning. Some of this can be conveyed when spoken, but a lot of it is lost.
For example, while poems are generally meant to be read aloud, E. E. Cummings often made the point of writing “I” in lower case. In his poem Humanity I Love You. In fact, the only capitalization that appears in that poem is the “H” at the beginning of “Humanity” every time it is written. One possible reason for this is to signify the beginning of a new sentence, because there is no punctuation in the poem. And while it is meant to be read aloud, it is still meant to be read, not just heard.
Part of Earnest Hemmingway’s writing style was short simple sentences. Without many words or bits of punctuation complicating them. It is a clear and powerful style. But if you don’t see it written and don’t see the periods then it is not as effective. The periods are a stop at the end of a thought.
Why is it that I’m singling out audiobooks though? What about films? Because of the limitations.
When making original work, you make it suited to the medium, and limitations can be made into strengths. Less can be more. Musicians know how to work with the limitation of only using audio, and often times adding video (music videos) turns out to be worse than the song on its own. Writers know how to work with just words, and painters know how to work with paints. But adaptation is not the same. When you adapt a work, more is typically more.
When you make an adaptation, you cannot choose the subject matter, you have to work with the original work. When you have this to deal with, it is helpful to have more ways to communicate with the audience. Audio on its own probably won’t communicate a book very well, but audio and video can. Of course, that depends on two things. The book in question, and the artist. And audiobook orators don’t seem to realize that they are supposed to be artists.
I mentioned the misplaced comma, in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye earlier. It’s an easy thing to miss, very early in the book, but if you catch it then it sticks with you. It gives you a reference for the type of kid Holden is, and also how Salinger is writing. You don’t get that in an audiobook. You really, don’t get much at all.
Don’t Lose Your Way