We put up with repulsive characters in movies, so why not in books?

A movie I like a lot is As Good As It Gets. It stars Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear. Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, a sexist, racist, homophobic, obsessive-compulsive romance writer who is redeemed by Kinnear’s dog and by the waitress he falls in love with (Hunt).

Make no mistake, Nicholson’s character is truly repulsive. You spend half the movie squirming at some of the horrible things he says and does, and he never truly becomes a nice person. But he does become a better person.

It’s a movie I appreciate on an aesthetic level. The acting is superb, the storyline works for me and the characters all grow and change. I’ll watch it when they re-run it on tv.

And yet, if it was a book I would have thrown it down after one chapter—or maybe even one page—and refused to read it.

Because I didn’t like the main character.

A movie has to be truly bad to walk out of. We tend to give it a different value to a book. We’ve paid our money, we’re staying for the show whether we like it or not.

Some people read books to the end, no matter how bad they are. Most of us exercise our choice and drop a book as soon as we decide we don’t like it. A repulsive main character is a definite turn-off.

Why is it that we’re so ready to drop a book but will stick with a movie? Is it because we’ve paid money to see the movie? We pay as much or more for the book. Is it because movie watching is often a shared affair? Or is it simply that we hold higher standards for books than we do for movies?

What makes a character repulsive anyway? Sand dan Glokta does terrible things to people, yet everyone loves Glokta.

I wonder, if As Good As It Gets had been a book, would I have found something to like about Melvin Udall?

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