Britain's dilemma: Read the book or watch the movie?
LONDON — It was billed as an eight-month-long national "read-athon." But the "Big Read," a quest to find the favorite novel (and encourage reading) in the land of Shakespeare, had a somewhat counterproductive effect.
Yes, copious quantities of the shortlisted classics will be lying gift-wrapped under Christmas trees in Britain this year. The catch is that the majority will be DVD film versions of the novels, not the books themselves.
The BBC-sponsored event definitely spurred book sales. But in this visual age, it also generated a huge spike in purchases of DVD film and television versions of the favorites.
Take Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" (No. 2 behind the winner: J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings"). The 19th-century tale of courtship and conceit saw a 73 percent jump in book sales over the period - and a 977 percent rise in DVD sales of a television series based on the book, according to data from Amazon.com, the online vendor.
"In today's busy society, it is very difficult to find the time to sit down and read a book," says Ray Johnson, professor of film heritage at Staffordshire University. "People with jobs and children often find themselves dipping in and out of books and it takes them weeks to reach the end."
The film-to-book purchase ratio was mirrored across most of the top vote-getters, which included J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" (No. 5), Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird (No. 6), A.A. Milne's Winnie The Pooh (No. 7), George Orwell's 1984 (No. 8).
Britain's list of favorite novels was based on more than 750,000 votes cast. The top 100 were selected in April through the nominations of 140,000 members of the public. Participation built, and further balloting produced the final 21 in October.
Of the yarns on that short list, film sales rose 1,500 percent - more than three times the uplift in book sales.
The final vote was conducted by text message, e-mail, telephone, and other voting methods, with the top 10 picked earlier this month.
Official data shows that illiteracy in Britain hovers around the 15 percent mark, depending on the precise definition. More than 1 in 10 were unable in a test to understand instructions on a packet of seeds, according to the National Literacy Trust.
Given such data, publishing executives, critics, and experts say that the Big Read, which was orchestrated by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and widely followed around the country, was a worthwhile endeavor.
Schools set up special reading groups and events. Book clubs - a growing phenomenon here - took up the challenge, incorporating works from the top 100 into their reading schedule. More than 2,000 new groups registered with the Big Read database.
"The good thing was it got lot of people into shops, talking about books they wouldn't have talked about," says Robert McCrum, literary editor of The Observer newspaper. "It raised the whole debate. That's a good thing."
He took issue with some of the choices, which were heavily biased towards the 20th century, and found no room for some of the forefathers of the modern novel genre such as Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Daniel Defoe.
But there was a general recognition that the exercise was about finding the "best-loved" book, and not necessarily the finest work of fiction.
"No one was pretending that this was a list of the best books ever, just the books that meant the most to them," says Nicholas Clee, editor of the Bookseller, the leading publishing industry trade magazine. "It was a bit mainstream."
A more serious complaint was the way the books were presented in a grand TV finale earlier this month. By showcasing the works through film snippets, the television producers may have inadvertently neutered the emphasis on reading.
"They didn't satisfactorily crack the problem of how you present books on television," says Mr. Clee. "The books could seem at worst a mere adjunct of the films and television series that were made out of them."
But is watching a film any less valuable than thumbing through the pages of a book? Films require less effort and the plot and ideas may not be as thoroughly absorbed, but some educators say they're not worried about film usurping books and leaving a generation of illiterates in its wake.
David Wray, an expert in literacy and education at Warwick University, says that coming to literature through films is a more sociable way of getting to know about cultural heritage.
"In some ways there are pluses [to the film medium]," he says. "We are always hearing about the need to be sociable, to discuss our experiences, and yet there is nothing more solitary than getting lost in a book.
"I'm a reader, but I'm also a member of the 21st century," Professor Wray adds. "We have lots of ways now of immersing ourselves in other people's affairs, which is essentially what literature is all about."
In any case, experts say, books are not about to be eclipsed by more cutting-edge media and art forms. The volume of books borrowed from libraries in Britain has grown steadily over the past two decades; books continue to make headlines and provide a steady stream of news stories; and publishing industry executives are always quick to note that despite all the diverse competing pastimes, the most successful cultural phenomenon ever in children's entertainment remains a book. Or rather a series of books.
"The Harry Potter books are bigger than the films, so it shows the effect a book can have," says Clee. "Books are as prominent in people's attention as they have ever been."
1. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
3. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullma
4. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
7. Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
8. 1984 by George Orwell
9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Source: BBC "Big Read" site with the top 100 books: www.bbc.co.uk/arts/bigread/top100.shtml