Why Movies Make Readers

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JOHN CORBITT FOR TIME

My favorite scene in Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone happens off-camera. It involves a supporting cast of concerned adults who decry the fact that a pretty good movie was made from a terrific book. Somehow the success of the Harry Potter movie is used as evidence that a bunch of muggles are ruining their children's ability to imagine for themselves what happens inside a book or tainting their desire to ever pick one up. Soon enough, the thinking goes, our kids will be terminal couch potatoes, unable to conjure up anything more adventurous than an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. This argument intensifies as the holiday movie season kicks into full gear with the Dec. 19 release of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first film in a $300 million trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy cycle.

As someone who, when a child, was fed a steady diet of Mr. Ed and believed that Charleton Heston really was Moses, I may not be in a position to pass judgment on the damage Hollywood can inflict on a young mind. But as the mother of a typical adolescent, I have to say that movies can lead a child to books, though sometimes an adult needs to illuminate the way.

Stanley Greenspan, author of Building Healthy Minds, says a child's imagination develops in babyhood and is enhanced as kids grow, especially if adults pretend with them and challenge them to become "scriptwriters" in their own dramas, with lots of scenarios, subplots and intrigue. In short, we help them make their own movies. "In later childhood, books leave more room than movies for conjuring," Greenspan says, "but movies can bring literature alive and stir the imagination." Greenspan and others say the most important aspect of movie watching is the conversation after the final credits roll, when kids can be encouraged to think critically, be curious and go looking for answers in a book.

Bonnie Kunzel, head of the Young Adult Library Services Association and an expert in fantasy literature, says, "In libraries, the most successful promotion we do is to ask people to 'read a movie,'" meaning a book that kids have first experienced on the screen. The Harry Potter movie has led to a bump in reading of the already popular Harry Potter books, which has led young readers to C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) and Tolkien. "We can't keep Lord of the Rings on the shelf," Kunzel says. Tolkien purists who can't bear to see images of Middle-earth put on the screen should take some comfort in the fact that the paperback version of the trilogy is flying off the shelves. The first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, is currently No.1 on Publishers Weekly's mass-market best-seller list, re-issued for a new generation of Tolkien readers and promoted with a still from the movie on its cover.

You can send e-mail to Amy at timefamily@aol.com.