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A Thousand Words: Books Over Films

Steppenwolf threw me a quick look, a look which criticized both the words and the speaker of them—an unforgettable and frightful look which spoke volumes! It was a look that did not simply criticize the lecturer, annihilating the famous man with its delicate but crushing irony. That was the least of it. It was more sad than ironical; it was indeed utterly and hopelessly sad; it conveyed a quiet despair, born partly of conviction, partly of a mode of thought which had become habitual with him. This despair of his not only unmasked the conceited lecturer and dismissed with its irony the matter at hand, the expectant attitude of the public, the somewhat presumptuous title under which the lecture was announced—no, the Steppenwolf’s look pierced our whole epoch, its whole overwrought activity, the whole surge and strife, the whole vanity, the whole superficial play of a shallow, opinionated intellectuality. And alas! the look went still deeper, went far below the faults, defects and hopelessness of our time, our intellect, our culture alone. It went right to the heart of all humanity, it bespoke eloquently in a single second the whole despair of a thinker, of one who knew the full worth and meaning of man’s life. It said: “See what monkeys we are! Look, such is man!” and at once all renown, all intelligence, all the attainments of the spirit, all progress towards the sublime, the great and the enduring in man fell away and became a monkey’s trick!

-Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf (1929)

For as big a devotee and advocate of motion pictures as I am, this passage illustrates one of the powers which the written word will always maintain over the image. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but there is not an actor alive which could convey what is described above. A picture is worth a thousand words, but only if you can find that picture… only if the picture exists. If not, you’re going to need that thousand words. Words may go where pictures cannot go.

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