Mind Over Medium: How Many Words is a Movie Worth?

16 Feb

I recently watched Percy Jackson and the Olypmians: The Lightning Thief (I had read Rick Riordan’s books well before – go read them if you have the time, they’re a very good read), and was noticing how little of the book’s nuances the movie captured. I then thought about the differences between the two mediums (book and movie), and now have a greater appreciation for those involved in movie production and actually do good work – like the Lord of the Rings movie team as a prime example.

The primary limiting factor of the movie medium is, I believe, the timespan in real-time. Books are not (usually) meant to be sat down and read all at once; movies (generally) are. This gives books a considerably greater amount of freedom in terms of the length of what they are expressing than films do. They can include more scenes, better looks into the actors’ thoughts, and generally develop characters better than most movies, limited as they are to usually about two to two and a half hours. Those that can pull off plot and character development in a movie on par with that of books deserve to be commended. Of course, this is easier with longer movies and especially with series (Lord of the Rings, anyone?), but some shorter films do a good job.

Of course, then, one can’t really effectively compare the book with the movie, simply because unless we wanted a ten hour movie (which most don’t – though I would!), there will be serious cuts that will hurt the final product. Movies that are not based heavily off of books tend to be better, I have noticed, largely because (I think) A) They aren’t being compared to a book, which will be better, and B) They aren’t trying to cram what was meant to be a ten-hour plot into two hours. This certainly was apparent with Percy and the Olympians.

Further thought on this matter led me to consider the adage “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Of course, this then leads to the question “How many words is a movie worth?” The simple answer, of course, would be:

WordWorth = (Frames in Movie) x 1000 Words/Frame



Now, considering a fairly standard number for frames per second is 24 (source), this means that:

F=24l (l=length of movie in minutes)

Which, then, means that:

W=1000 x 24l=2400l

Therefore, the amount of words a movie is worth is equal to approximately 2400 times the length of the movie in minutes – but this does not take into account the motions or sounds! Motions could be argued to have been accounted for in the frames, but I disagree – swiftness and speed of motion certainly counts for something more. Therefore, we add in the motion variable.

W=2400l + m

The motion variable, I have decided, will be equal to a number from 1 to 10, judged by the viewer: a ’10’ being a fast-paced action movie, a ‘5’ being a moderately paced movie, and a ‘1’ being a still picture (this assumes that more movement = more value in words). However, this tiny value should add more – therefore, I propose that we multiply this value by 1000 – which also gives us the effect of, for a single picture (with a length of zero minutes and a motion variable of one) have the worth in words equal one thousand, which is necessary if we are to justify the formula, as this is the assumption that it is based on. So we have, then:

W=2400l + 1000m

And now for sound. There are two types – spoken words and other sounds. Spoken words, counting emphasis and the like, I suggest be equal to a speaking value of s. This value will be equal to the number of words spoken. The rest will be represented by the noise factor (d), which will be equal to the average decibel volume of the noise when the television volume is at 25, multiplied by a number from 1 to 5, representing variation in the sound. In this case, zero will be equal to silence, and 5 to lots of variation, and 1 equal to no variation – let this be called the noise variable (n). Leading us to…

W=2400l + 1000m + s + dn

And lastly, we must account for any words written on screen – not counting subtitles. This is merely equal to the number of words that appear (this can be justified with the assumed adage, as a picture with words on it is worth more than one with none), and shall be w (lowercase). So we have:

W=2400l + 1000m sdn + w

Unfortunately, this formula is based on what I believe is a flawed assumption: that a picture is worth a thousand words. There are things in a picture – and therefore also in a movie without narration, which tend to be awkward, that the written word can convey but the images can’t. Inflection, noise, environment, and inner thoughts and feelings can be conveyed by both, and in some cases (inner thoughts/emotions mostly) be conveyed better by print. Then books can also, through word choice in descriptives, convey implications and symbolism in word better than the film – which makes it superior.

Books also, by virtue of having to interpret words, are an active process, while watching a movie is a passive one – as such, books stimulate more thought and hone one’s mind more. It is also usually easier to read a book in a better environment – which leads me to conclude that the formula is erroneous, and as symbolism can show, a word is worth a thousand pictures.

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Posted by on February 16, 2011 in Philosophical Musings


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