We Suspend Our Disbelief*

Suspension of DisbeliefA recent interesting comment exchange with Melanie, who blogs at Grab the Lapels, and an interesting post from FictionFan, who blogs at FictionFan’s Book Reviews, have gotten me thinking about the difference between books and their film adaptations. More to the point, they’ve gotten me thinking about whether we’re more willing to suspend disbelief for film than for a book.

Most readers will tell you that, for the most part, they want their books to be credible. Books are, of course, fiction, so there’s likely to be at least a bit of suspension of disbelief. But at the same time, most readers do want a sense of authenticity about what they read.

Is it the same for films? Do we want more credibility in books or films, or does it not matter? For instance, John Hart’s The Last Child features thirteen-year-old Johnny Merrimon, whose twin sister Alyssa went missing a year before the events in the novel. He’s determined to find her, or at least find out the truth about her, and one important plot thread is his search for answers. At one point, he’s skipping school for the day, spending time at a local lake. That’s when he sees a car accident on a nearby bridge, and a man’s body hurtle over the bridge and land near him. The man turns out to be very important to the mystery, and it’s a legitimate question to ask whether that’s too much of a coincidence. That’s the question Melanie raised, and I’m glad she did. Each person, of course, has a different response, which makes it a bit difficult for authors. But it highlights the issue.

To my knowledge, The Last Child hasn’t been adapted for film as yet (but please, someone, put me right if I’m wrong). But if it were, would that scene be more believable? Would viewers think it required too much suspension of disbelief? It does have quite a strong visual impact, so one could easily see it adding to the film. Perhaps that might encourage viewers to be more accepting of it. But perhaps not.

FictionFan reviewed Michael Apted’s 2001 film adaptation of Robert Harris’ Enigma. This is the WWII-era story of Tom Jericho, a mathematician who’s working with the Bletchley Park team to try to break the Enigma code. There’s also a plot thread involving his relationship with Claire Romilly, a clerk who works on the Bletchley Park property.  In her review, FictionFan mentions several important differences between the film and the novel. The novel makes it clear how difficult life was in England during the war. Food and fuel were strictly rationed, and most people couldn’t afford more than the very basics, if they had those. It was a time, as you’ll no doubt know, of real privation. FictionFan points out that the film isn’t accurate about that point, and it makes a major difference. So does the weather. In the novel, it’s very clear that people suffered quite a lot during the winter, when there was barely enough fuel available to keep a home warm enough to manage. As FictionFan says, the film changes the weather quite a bit, so that it’s not realistic at all. There are other important differences, too, which FictionFan makes clear. You can read the entire review right here. And you should.

If you’ve seen the film and read the book, do those stretches of credibility bother you? If you’ve not seen the film, would you be forgiving of the need to suspend disbelief? Would the format matter?

The real action in Stephen King’s Misery begins when novelist Paul Sheldon decides on impulse to make a car trip from Colorado, where he’s been staying to work on a manuscript, to Los Angeles. He’s driving through the mountains when a snowstorm strikes, causing him to have a car accident and leaving him with severe injuries. He’s rescued by former nurse Annie Wilkes, who happens to be a dedicated fan of his work. If you’ve read the novel, or are at least somewhat familiar with King’s work, you’ll know that this rescue turns nightmarish for Sheldon. Some readers might see Annie’s finding her idol as requiring too much suspension of disbelief. Others don’t mind, seeing it as something that falls out credibly from the plot and from her personality. The film version also includes Annie Wilkes finding a badly wounded Sheldon and taking him back to her home. If you’ve seen the film, do you see that as too much of a coincidence? If you’ve read the novel, do you see a difference between the way you regard the book, and the way you regard the novel?

And then there are Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Since they’re spy thrillers, most readers expect to suspend disbelief. And some of the novels ask for more of this than do others. If you’ve read any of the novels, does that bother you? Or do you take it as part of the package, so to speak? If you’ve seen any of the James Bond films, you’ll know that they ask for at least as much suspension of disbelief as the novels do. Does that put you off the films?

You’ll notice that I’ve mentioned different sorts of novels here. Part of the reason for that is that I suspect that some of our willingness to give our disbelief a rest has to do with the sort of novel or film we’re reading or seeing. We may allow for more stretches of credibility in some kinds of stories than in others

What do you think of all of this? Do you forgive more lapses in credibility in films than you do in books? Thank you, Melanie and FictionFan, for the ‘food for thought.’ Folks, do please visit their excellent blogs. You won’t regret it.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Mystic Rhythms.


Filed under Ian Fleming, John Hart, Robert Harris, Stephen King

40 responses to “We Suspend Our Disbelief*

  1. This is an interesting topic. Lots to think about. I will suspend my disbelief for quite a long time but some things do make me throw the book or something else at the TV and yes most of the time it is the TV. The muddling of Agatha Christie stories annoys me sometimes when they’ve decide to merge several stories to wiggle in Marple when it’s not a Marple story.
    There are factual elements that annoy me too though. I was watching an episode of a well known murder mystery series and the victim was supposed to have been killed with water hemlock.
    The picture used looked nothing like hemlock and other people ate the food the victim did and had ‘food poisoning’ from water hemlock. To my knowledge water hemlock kills you – full stop! It’s highly poisonous. Ingest any and it’s game over, It doesn’t give you a tummy ache it closes up your throat!
    As you can see I’m still infuriated by this so apologies for the rant but you did ask 😉

    • Go ahead and rant, D.S. Those sorts of things bother me, too. I don’t expect every single tiny detail to be perfect. But basic things ought to be right. And if a TV episode is about water hemlock poisoning, the writers ought to take a bit of time to find out its effects. It’s not that hard to find information. So I know exactly what you mean. And as far as the Agatha Chrsitie episodes and TV films…I really like it so much better when they stay close to the novel. Even if I think a performance is good, it still irks me if they don’t stay true to the original. I suppose it’s because I’m a cranky, fussy, impossible-to-please dedicated purist. 😉

  2. Thanks for the mention, Margot! 😀 Interesting question. I think, in general I can suspend my disbelief more for films. As you know, I’m quite a picky reader, and quite a thorough reader too, but with films I’m incredibly casual and find it hard to maintain my concentration, especially when watching them at home. So I don’t pick up on details in movies the way I do in books. The exception is when I’m watching the “film of the book”, which I actually started doing in an attempt to make me watch films more carefully.

    I don’t mind too much if films or TV make minor changes to suit the different format. For example, in crime adapatations they often cut out a character or two, I always assume because of time restraints. But in the likes of Green with Danger, that didn’t bother me, because they were careful to move the essential plot points believably onto other characters. But in Enigma, I thought the changes were unnecessary and really took away from the authenticity of the great book, plus I think my disbelief would have struggled with some of the things they did even if I hadn’t been comparing it directly to the book. And as far as coincidence goes, I think I’d struggle with the convenient man dying in the The Last Child. Coincidence always starts my disbelief radar beeping, unless it’s really well handled…

    • It’s my great pleasure to mention you and your excellent blog, FictionFan 🙂 – I know just exactly what you mean, too, about that radar going. As Poirot says, one can always admit to one coincidence, and if it’s handled very well, it doesn’t have to take away from the story. But more than one, and not handled well? Nope.

      You make an interesting point, too, about how attentive one is to books as opposed to films. I’d have to think about that in my own case. But I do know exactly what you mean. If one’s not watching every detail, or at least every scene, it’s harder to pick up on those disbelief problems. And as you say, there are some changes from a book that don’t really detract from a story (although I do admit I’m a picky, difficult, cranky dedicated purist as a rule). Still, one understands some changes. But others do suspend the disbelief too much, at least for me.

  3. R. T.

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge would be pleased with the discussion since he coined the term about which you have written. Fascinating stuff when we suspend critical faculties as we embrace entertainment.

  4. That is an interesting thought…

  5. kathyd

    I may get more irritated a disbelief in books. Movies I kind of expect directors and screenwriters to make events more dramatic, alarming, coincidental, etc. I give writers more credit for believability.
    However, I’ve read my share of annoying books — earthquakes that occur just as the villain is about to shoot an investigator (!), people who are long thought dead who reappear just at the right time to save the suspect.
    Even the Belgian detective coming up with seemingly impossible denouements in the movies here, as I haven’t read the books. They can be so convoluted and based on several secrets and coincidences that the mind boggles.
    A relative objected to events in John Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener — the movie — as unbelievable. I remarked that the occurrences came from a novel, a work of fiction, not a documentary. And writers can do what they want — within reason. (And, in fact, that book is based somewhat on a real case of a pharmaceutical company using children in an African country to test a dangerous drug, with bad results; that’s true. But no murders occurred.) So he took a real situation and embellished it. I had no problem.
    But someone else did.
    But in works of fiction writers have a lot of leeway. After all, there’s science fiction, fantasy, apocalyptic themes, etc. I can deal with a lot of different plot devices — but some do boggle the reader’s mind. I have had those moments of wanting to throw a book at a wall.
    And some of these psychological suspense thrillers can induce that feeling. If a twist happens near the end, what happened to the previous story? Is it all wrong? The Woman in Cabin 10 brings this to mind. I’m still figuring this out.

    • You know, that’s an interesting question, Kathy. If there’s a really unexpected plot twist towards the end, it certainly does alter the sort of story it is, and can change one’s whole perception. So on that score, you could say it’s a different story. But one can also argue that it’s the same story, but with added information/depths/etc. that change one’s view of it.

      You make a good point, too, about our expectations for films. We expect film and TV adaptations to be a little embellished, with perhaps some more suspension of disbelief. But I think readers do tend to want their books to be more plausible. So it could be that our expectations impact what we think when a book requires too much suspension of disbelief. Of course, as you say, how much is ‘too much’ depends a lot on whom you ask. Everyone is different about that. But I agree with you about earthquakes and people coming back from the dead…

  6. kathyd

    Not to mention the long lost twin who’s discovered. Or the biologically connected third cousin who shows up for the reading of the will.
    And someday I have to find the answers to the thrillers I can’t figure out.

  7. Ha, great point for debate! I’ve got a counter-example for that: Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, when it was adapted for cinema, changed the perpetrator (well, parts of it and his relationship to others, I can’t say more), because the filmmakers felt there was too much suspension of disbelief, too much of a coincidence in the book, which movie-goers might not accept. However, there were other changes they made, like an initial attempted escape and fight scene, which they changed from a winter to a summer setting, for which I have no explanation (other than possibly needing to film it quickly and on a budget). It would clearly have been far more atmospheric in winter. I remember thinking, while I was reading the book: ‘this would make such a good film sequence’.

    • Thanks, Marina Sofia. I really appreciated the inspiration that Melanie and FictionFan gave to me. And thanks for the information about Child 44. I can see what the producers meant about the perpetrator, but honestly, that’s the kind of change I’m not fond of in adaptations. I’ll admit I’ve not seen the film, but you’re right that winter is a much more atmospheric and effective setting for that scene than summer is. Hmm….

  8. i believe most people read and/or watch movies to escape a few hours into another world than the reality we all face in our everyday mundane existence. It’s the nature of the beast. So, suspending disbelief (or would suspending “belief” be a more accurate word?) is part of our escapism. If the viewer/reader is not willing to enter the fictional world displayed in the film/novel, then what is the point of investing the hours of watching/reading the fictional scenario displayed for she/he? At least that’s my humble take on this subject.

    • You make a really interesting point, Michael, about films. We do go to them in part for escapism, and there’s some sense in just going along for the proverbial ride. I think everyone has a different feeling for how closely they want their films and books to resemble reality. Some people see suspending disbelief as a part of the experience. Others don’t like to do that.

  9. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Suspending our disbelief? Mystery writer/blogger Margot Kinberg delves into this touchy subject at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist!

  10. I think I was so horrified by what happened in ‘Misery’ that I quickly forgot the fact that I hadn’t enjoyed suspending my disbelief, ha! Definitely a horror story for writers. 🙂

  11. I had noticed that comment exchange at the time, and also went and pursued Fiction Fan’s reviews. I think I’m definitely more prepared to suspend disbelief for a film than a book – but count me as another who doesn’t like too many unconvincing coincidences, in book or film. As for James Bond – reading the books this year, I’ve been impressed by Fleming’s attention to detail with plots. From what I’ve seen, that didn’t carry over to the films – parking your disbelief is essential! But that’s fair enough, I’d say – they did what they set out to do very successfully.

    • They did, indeed, Moira. And I really like the way the filmmakers had of keeping people interested in the films, even though disbelief is strictly prohibited. I suspect that you’re not alone, either, in forgiving a lot of suspension of disbelief more in film than in books. As you say, though, even in film there’s a limit. For most people, there needs to be at least something authentic about it. Even for a fantasy or sci-fi film, I like at least the interactions to be credible.

  12. Col

    I’m more prepared to let films get away with the believable/unbelievable factor than I am with a book. Perhaps because I invest a greater amount of time in reading a book than watching a film.

  13. I was just going to say that was from Rush’s Mystic Rhythms! Then I saw your footnote. I am a huge Rush fan and I love that song! What a creative use of that line for your blog post.

    • Thanks very much, Melissa. I think Rush is a great band, too. They’ve got some excellent songs, and I’ve used lyrics from them more than once. So glad you liked today’s choice!

  14. We have friends who are historians and a lapse or mistake in an historical fact is painful for them. It is painful for them to have to see something incorrect. It’s only painful for me if it seems lazy to get it wrong.

    • Not surprised that your friends really notice it when the historical details are wrong, Patti. And, depending on the detail, it’s often fairly straightforward to find out a fact. So no wonder it’s difficult for them. I know what you mean, too, about those sorts of mistakes feeling like laziness when finding out the truth is relatively easy.

  15. I’ve never given the question much thought in terms of book adaptations. However, one coincidence is fine (as you know, that’s the rule of thumb in the book world), but anymore than that and it bothers me. This just came up last night, actually, between my husband and I while watching Patterson’s TV adaptation of ZOO. Without revealing too much, one of the main characters was chewed apart by man-made wolves with dinosaur attributes (that alone is a bit over-the-top, if you ask me). But in the previews for next season, a character discovers he’s alive and well. Seriously?

    • Yeah, that would be my reaction, too, Sue. For that sort of adaptation, yes, you expect some over-the-top events. In those situations, I think people don’t mind so much giving up their disbelief, because they know it’s that sort of film. But, yeah, that goes too far for me. And you make a well-taken point about coincidences. As you say, one isn’t necessarily a problem – it could happen. Any more than that and that pushes the disbelief button.

  16. Keishon

    The only thing I ask of fiction – film or otherwise – is they obey the rules of human nature. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief if the author believes in the world they created and is flawless in not letting me see the lie for what it is (if that makes sense). Like Fred Vargas, the last book I read. Of course most of the plot is ridiculous but she keep me engaged and didn’t give me a moment to decide if any of her was not credible (and of course it wasn’t) but it’s all about how good you are in creating a credible world despite the unrealistic parts of it. My two cents. Great topic!

    • Keishon

      Goodness me, missing words and typos. Apologies.

    • Thanks, Keishon. And I do know what you mean about the author getting you to believe, so to speak, even though you know that the world s/he’s created isn’t real. And Fred Vargas is a terrific example of what you mean. As improbable as many of the events and characters in Vargas’ stories are, we’re still willing to go along with them, because she’s very skilled at inviting us to do just that.

  17. Very interesting question, Margot. I am easily convinced in films as long as they move fast and don’t give me time to think about it. I do have a problem with adaptations if I see them too close to reading the book, but only because the discrepancies will bother me.

    I can suspend disbelief in a book and I always think that is due to the author’s skill at convincing me. If I can’t I figure the author hasn’t worked hard enough on that.

    • That’s an interesting way to think about it, Tracy. It certainly does take skill for an author to convince you to suspend disbelief, I think. You make a well-taken point, too, about the timing of seeing a film. I can see why you’d notice it more if a film doesn’t stay close to the book if you’ve just recently read the book. Perhaps it’s less of a big problem when you’ve not read the book in a long time. Thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  18. Pingback: We Suspend Our Disbelief* | e. michael helms

  19. Margot, the old adage, “truth is stranger than fiction” applies here, IMHO. Whether novel or book, without suspension of belief fiction would be a bland world. One of my earliest recollections of the concept occurs in an all-time favorite: THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER. To believe that Tom could entice or “fool” his neighborhood friends into paying him to help in the awful task of whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence is a prime example. When I was a kid, my father was an “auto refurbisher” for a local loan company. His job was to take the repossessed cars, have the necessary engine and body work done, and then detail the autos until they shined like new. My next older brother and I were given the responsibility of detailing the cars. This included everything from cleaning the engine compartments and door jambs of old grease, cleaning every crevice in the trunks, painting or dyeing the flooring, seats, headliners, dashboards, and compounding/waxing the cars’ exteriors. When completed these automobiles sparkled like brand new. This was also the days of the huge chrome bumpers and grills, etc. Needless to say, it took a LOT of work.
    I would often attempt to get a couple of neighborhood “friends” to help me by bribing them with tickets to the movies plus treats, etc. Every now and then it worked. Most times I was abandoned to face the weekend alone with my seemingly endless work. So, Tom Sawyer was my hero as he sat munching his apples and counting his other “hard-earned” treasures while overseeing the labor he so cunningly doled out.
    Yes, whether book or film, suspension of belief reigns in fiction.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Michael. It’s a great example of trying to get others to do your work, just like Tom Sawyer. As to suspension of disbelief, I think every novel has at least some of it. As you say, it’s just about necessary – it’s fiction! That said, though, I think it’s got to make sense given the story.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s