Friday, 31 December 2010

Franzen’s Freedom: On novels and movies as sources of transformation

I have on at least one other occasion used this blog to comment on a novel, and having just spent a couple of months digesting Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom, I feel the need to do it again, especially as it has renewed my ponderings on the difference between novels and movies and the way they transform us.

Like many offerings of deep value, I did not instantly love Freedom. This is partly because Franzen had already overwhelmed me with his sheer writing brilliance last time around with Corrections (2001). At that point I was so impressed that I had to start writing things while reading it, just so some of his style would intuitively rub off on me. If I ever finished anything I’d know if I succeeded even a little.

So I expected the readable prose that shows you don’t have to be incomprehensible to add layers of depth and the intuitive insight he demonstrates in his characters and relationships. I just took these for granted and braced myself for the middle bits, which I knew from a review would make me frustrated with the main characters – with whom I shared more than just a name (the male protagonist is Walter). Then, right in the middle of the frustrating part of the story, I parked the novel for three weeks while I travelled on a study abroad trip, not wanting to carry a 576 page hardcover around with me.

In the end, I was left with a deep appreciation for the long read. It is, appropriately, too complex to sum up the way I am about to, but by joining the Berglund family through the decades on either side of the dawning of the millennium, you get a chance to ponder the theme echoed in the title. The personal freedoms of recent generations are certainly not a bad thing, but they are a decidedly mixed blessing. Many different freedoms compete with each other, and sometimes the commitments, obligations and compulsions (even those that are or appear unhealthy) are the anchors to meaning and hope.

Movies do not soak you in an eight week experience. In terms of offering personal transformation (and, yes, that is what I’m looking for from a good novel or movie – at least a little), movies are the Saturday seminar compared to a novel which is like a year at a university or college. Transformation takes time and relationship. Experiences need to be reflected on, discussed, re-experienced, remembered – and during this process we need to try on new ways of thinking and feeling to see how they fit.

Yes, movies can do this. I think of The Mission, which tops my personal list of favourites. Several scenes planted themselves deeply into my memory (the penance, the forgiveness, the encounter with the oboe, the divergent responses to the final battle – to name a few). These and other scenes (and the Morricone soundtrack) have made me watch the movie over again several times and use clips in classes. This ongoing interaction can make it a transformative experience.

So here is the question I will end with: Are there too many movies that are not worth this kind of ongoing interaction, or do we simply tend to be too lazy and unintentional, thereby missing the opportunity to allow a good film to transform us? Assuming the answer is some kind of blend, I would like to watch fewer movies if it would help me to have longer interaction with those that are good. I would like to learn more from the humble, reflective confidence of Captain Abu Raed, not forgetting his smile on his hands and knees. I would like to discuss with more people what we learn about our present and future society from The Social Network (is there a danger Facebook will make us as shallow and immature as its origins or is social media just the reflection of a shallow and immature culture? What’s the difference between being truly cool [having integrity and real character] vs. just knowing when to cash in on appearing cool?). Now, if only I can find the right movies without watching too many.


  1. In response to your last sentence: that's what film blogs by reliable sources (like Thiessenbros) are for!

    More later.

  2. Great post Walter, thank you.