Zhu Yuan

TV serials are for fun, books for knowledge

By Zhu Yuan (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-09-22 08:11
Large Medium Small

A popular discussion in the media and on the Internet nowadays is whether a new TV serial based on A Dream of Red Mansions reflects the spirit of the classic novel more than the old version made in 1987. Is such a discussion necessary?

The discussion reminds me of Neil Portman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death. Portman firmly believes that TV is not an effective medium of transmitting ideas. Instead, it confounds serious issues with entertainment.

I think TV serials play the same role that storytellers did in the past. Storytellers used to attract listeners for their ability to bring alive the complicated plots and suspense in a tale. TV serials do the same with viewers today. And both have made it possible for the audience to know about history and the ethics they need to follow in their daily lives.

But there's a big difference between the two. TV serials fill a person's room for imagination with images, whereas storytellers (as well as novelists and short-story writers) leave the imagination to listeners (and readers).

Strangely, the discussion on A Dream of Red Mansions is revolving around how loyal the new TV series is to the core spirit of the book. This is like asking whether mashed potatoes mixed with chicken stock taste like simply mashed potatoes.

A book is for reading and a TV serial is for watching. They are two completely different things. A book requires more time and concentration and sometimes enough meditation to appreciate its subtleties and intricacies. It may even require a reader to read some portions more than once to read between the lines. Above all, a book gives full play to a reader's imagination.

A TV series, on the other hand, is for entertainment. More often, viewers do not need to use their brains. Quite a number of viewers often snack and chat with family members or friends while watching TV, which is something a serious reader would never do while reading a book.

No wonder, Portman says TV serials and programs confound serious issues with entertainment. They trivialize, even demean, political discourses by making them less about ideas and more about images.

Every person who reads a novel or short story has to use his/her imagination. He/she can visualize a character in many ways and dream up a whole lot of ideas about a scene. This is the greatest difference between reading a novel or short story and watching it being told (or retold) on TV with the help of sound and visuals.

There is no benchmark for judging whether a TV serial is true to the spirit of a literary work. Any attempt to do so would be gobbledygook. Or, at best it would be the serial makers' efforts to attract more viewers to their production and earn more revenue.

Watching either the new TV serial or the 1987 version of A Dream of Red Mansions, a person will never be able appreciate the literary value of the novel, which has been acclaimed as one of the four classics of the country.

I agree with Portman that TV is not an effective way of providing education, because it provides only top-down information, rather than the interaction necessary to maximize learning. This holds true for intellectuals. But I would like to say one thing: TV does provide a kind of education for the illiterates in the same way that opera and storytelling did before films and TV programs became part of modern life.

The author is a senior editor with China Daily and can be reached at zhuyuan@chinadaily.com.cn.

(China Daily 09/22/2010 page4)