[The war elephants] choked men with their trunks, or tore them from the ground and delivered them to the soldiers in the towers; they used their tusks to disembowel them, and threw them up into the air, so that long entrails hung round their ivory teeth like bundles of rigging on a mast. The Barbarians tried to put out their eyes, to cut their hamstrings; others slid under their bellies, drove a sword in up to the hilt and were crushed to death; the boldest clung to their harness; under flame, shot and arrows they kept sawing at the leather, and the wicker tower collapsed like one built of stone.
—Gustave Flaubert, Salammbo, Chapter 8: The Battle of the Macar, translated by A. J Krailsheimer
What might appear at first glance random is, in fact, quite random, selected based on my paltry memory and my paltrier library to display a great incident of violence in literature. You fast-forward through all the boring parts to get to this scene—not everyone is as thrilled as I am at the way James Joyce cooks an egg, but most people probably like war elephants—“the elephants passed through the phalanxes like wild boars through tufts of grass”—and that itself is an example of textual intertwining, recombination, metaphor, whose cinematic equivalent is the montage.
Flaubert draws two images together to create something new: you’ll never look at war elephants or wild boars the same way again, and this metaphor is not only elegant but extremely beautiful, a value judgment with which you hopefully agree; while if you were to translate this quote literally into film, and cut from a war elephant fighting a phalanx to a wild boar passing through tufts of grass, the montage would not only seem egregious, but hilarious, ridiculous! Flaubert brings his spectacular elephant down to earth so we can get a good look at it close up; it’s better read on the page than seen on the screen.
This entire hopeless desire to prove, through a brief explication, that texts are better than films, was born out of an insecurity that was itself born out of a viewing of the new Star Trek film a few weeks ago. Here was a movie theater filled with all kinds of different people who were thrilled with the amazing images they saw bursting before their eyes: very few of them would ever be able to get through more than a few pages of Salammbo.
So, then, if a work of art’s beauty is judged based on the wideness of its appeal, isn’t Star Trek, which has made more money in a few weeks than Salammbo has in an hundred and fifty-seven years, a more beautiful work of art? Or are they just apples and orangutans?