When I watched this week’s POV program, The English Surgeon, I couldn’t help thinking about Ian McEwan‘s 2005 novel, Saturday. Both are about neurosurgeons, and they’re the best portrayals (Mel BrooksYoung Frankenstein doesn’t count) of those elite doctors that I’ve ever read or seen. It made me consider: how does a novel representation of a character and that of a documentary stack up against each other?

The English Surgeon

Of course, I know this isn’t really a fair comparison: the filmmaker and the author could have had very different agendas. Still, they both depict their protagonists as heroes, and they’re both trying to introduce the public to men who work in a very rarified discipline. So, let me give it a crack…

First, it’s a little eerie that both “characters” have the same first name: in Saturday, there’s Henry Perowne, and in The English Surgeon, it’s Henry Marsh. (Ironically, I find that the real Henry has a surname that is even more metaphorical than the fictional one.) While watching The English Surgeon, I was struck at how the doc conveys so much about Marsh through sound: His personality traits come through in his rich, English accent and the clucking sound he makes when he laughs — or does he make that sound when he’s nervous?

Saturday by Ian McEwan

And that question poses a problem: it appears that McEwan can address his characters’ vulnerabilities, but The English Surgeon, doesn’t — or can’t. On the surface, it’s hard to tell if Marsh is nervous, cold, arrogant or narcissistic when he delivers awful news to his patients. The same cannot be said for Perowne. We always know what’s going on inside.

It’s an obvious distinction: the novelist can get us inside the character’s mind better than the documentary filmmaker can. But that’s not everything to a story. My emotions were stirred more by hearing the sound of the sawing of a man’s skull and by the sad images of a dying girl, than anything in McEwan’s book.

So, at first glance, I’d say a book can get deeper into a character, but not necessarily deeper into a moment — or the human condition. This is my first thought on the matter; I’ll continue to track this comparison, and see if my opinion changes.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen