As Harry Hill’s TV Burp comes to an end, it feels inappropriate to suggest that film and TV actually fight (“Fight!”) to prove which is better, but with Julian Fellowes’s Titanic imminent on the same channel, ITV1, we might stack up some of the evidence.
Film and TV will never settle their differences as media. You can watch films on TV, but it’s unlikely you’d watch TV at a cinema, so by definition the small screen has the edge. Also, it would cost you a lot more money a year to go to the pictures every night, while TV – even the full satellite package – comes a lot cheaper, and is available on demand, 24 hours a day.
But let’s take Titanic. A chapter from history, it has become best known as a movie, where truth has been fiddled with to varying degrees to make it work like fiction.
Whether you cling to Roy Ward Baker’s UK-made, black-and-white A Night to Remember from 1958, or James Cameron’s multi-Oscar-winning Hollywood version of the same tragic event from 1997 (due to be re-released in pointless 3D), your image of the ship going down will doubtless be taken from a cinematic rendition – indeed, many of the iconic images from the earlier film find their way into the later one, albeit turned up to 11.
What possible advantage can a TV adaptation have over these major cinematic “event pictures”? Well, in Fellowes’s version, the lead-up to the sinking of the ship will be told three times, over three hour-long episodes, each from a different perspective, and in the fourth episode, these threads will combine for the maritime disaster itself.
The division into four parts is clearly TV’s advantage. It can build narrative tension gradually, and go over the same ground again, as its momentum builds over a number of weeks rather than a couple of hours.
Of course, in these accelerated times, with a younger generation’s insatiable demand for instant gratification, this can also be a disadvantage. I watched the first three series of The Wire on DVD box set, bingeing on numerous episodes in any one sitting and rattling through them, immersed in the fiction. Joining the fourth series on TV, I felt utterly frustrated having to wait seven days for my next fix. (The same goes for The Killing, which we virtually watched on DVD in one sitting!)
When a novel is adapted into a film, such as – to pick a recent high-profile example – One Day by David Nicholls, much of the detail and texture is lost in squeezing it into 100 minutes. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, meanwhile, became an eight-part TV series, and unfolded at a leisurely pace (using the repeat-perspective device chosen by Fellowes).
For me, it was all the better for it. I hope one day somebody makes One Day for TV and does the epic saga justice. I found the 2008 BBC adaptation of Sense & Sensibility more satisfying than the famous 1996 film version. In three parts, they were able to simply pack more of the book in, with 50 extra minutes to play with.
Let’s address the elephant in the room, too: on ITV1, we shall have ad breaks all the way through Titanic. The adverts come before a film at the cinema. Watching TV is a fundamentally dismembered experience, even if you “Sky+ it” and fast forward over the ads, as I automatically now do. (Sorry, advertisers!)
At the end of the day, both media have their advantages. I tend to seek films out at the cinema that I know will benefit from the sheer scale of an auditorium. Otherwise, I’m happy to wait. Some TV is so cinematic these days – I’m thinking of Red Riding, for instance; or The Devil’s Whore; or, well, anything on HBO, especially Luck or Game of Thrones – I’d love to see it at the flicks, in the dark, with other people.
Although the seats are comfier in my house.