It is a curious phenomenon that so few of our works of fiction inspire great, or even mediocre, works of visual art. Once it was the case that the usual matter for visual artists was the popular stories of the time and of antiquity: Homer, Vergil, Ovid, Dante, and many others provided seemingly endless fodder for painters, sculptors, potters, illustrators, and makers of decorative items. The popular romances of the middle ages—at times their version of our trashy novels—added reasonably to the mix, as well.
One can hardly imagine an illustrator itching to depict all the thrilling scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird (Atticus bravely shooting a sick dog?), The Great Gatsby (an allegorical figure rowing a boat?), Of Mice and Men (Lennie crushing small animals?), The Catcher in the Rye (Holden Caulfield getting punched by a pimp?), or Catch-22 (perhaps a montage of the same event over and over?). Of the popular modern novels, only a few standouts like Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm could provide especially interesting visual imagery, but even those wouldn’t spawn much more than a few interesting scenes (mostly involving pigs).
This is the downside of the psychological novel, as great as it is. The inner drama of the soul does not easily translate into a visual form without a medium of outward action. A great film actor could show this simply with his face, and a great sculptor or painter could do the same with his figure, but that sort of artistic greatness is rare. It is much better in the larger scope of things to have material that even merely “good” artists can clearly depict.
In a sense, the more it has become itself, the more the novel has drifted away from the other arts into isolation. One cannot imagine a great novel like Conrad’s Nostromo making a great stage play, for instance. Only an experimental artist would write a cycle of ballads about Mrs. Dalloway. The madness of Finnegans Wake would not even inspire a mind-blowing film dream sequence. The novel has become too subtle to successfully pollinate the other arts.
There are exceptions. Notably, the fantastic fiction of John Tolkien has inspired visual artists for decades. My parents collected the annual Tolkien wall calendars, all of which displayed twelve paintings or drawings in an impressively large reproduction. While the quality varied from year to year depending on the artist, most left a lasting impact on myself and countless other Tolkien fans. Some renditions of scenes from The Silmarillion were even more memorable than the published stories.
As a child, I often felt the tragedy of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth more tangibly through his illustrators than through his books. Likewise, I fell in love with Greek and Norse myths more through their artistic portrayals than through the often roughly-constructed stories. I became familiar with the Divine Comedy through Gustave Doré’s woodcuts long before I read the poem. And what child hasn’t flipped through his copy of the Chronicles of Narnia looking for all of Pauline Baynes’ drawings?
At the risk of becoming a heresy-hunting blogger, I have to wonder if there isn’t something rather Manichean about this problem. The separation of soul and body, of mind and flesh, is a perennial error we cannot seem to be rid of. The extremes of the psychological novel have something Cartesian about them, being all about internal thought and emotion, and very little about outward action. The less the characters of a story act, the less any visual artist has to work with. One cannot easily paint Hamlet’s internal distress, but any five-year old can draw Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull.
Visually attractive art is a kind of gateway into a great book, attracting readers a novelist might not otherwise have. Someone who has never heard of Orlando Furioso might search out a copy after flipping through Doré’s set of illustrations. The cover art for novels that are popular (or required reading for school) are usually dull or so abstract that a non-fan can’t get even a moderate understanding of the story inside. Stephen King’s novels unfortunately make for better cover art than Harper Lee’s, despite his inferior talent.
If there is some happy medium–or exalted golden mean–between schlock pulp fiction and high psychological prose, it seems that few have found it. There is a natural tendency for any community to become more insular over time, and the high-art novelist community is no exception. But with book sales still on a steady decline in spite of the occasional Harry Potter-esque shot in the arm, perhaps an increased consideration of cross-medium artistic pollination is in order.