Although Diana Athill's Somewhere Towards the End is mostly a book about aging, it includes some interesting remarks about fiction. (Athill was a literary editor in England for many years.) One thing she wrote intrigued me:
Even the run-of-the-mill novel of today is much more sophisticated and interesting than that of my early youth, not to mention those popular just before the First World War.
Athill has a lot of these books, originally bought by her parents, lying around the family house she inherited in Norfolk. They were the bestsellers and critical successes of their day, and so Athill is well-positioned to refute the reflexive opinion that today's fiction is always worse than the past's. She finds that the best of these novels "seem ponderous and verbose, over-given to description" and then observes, "what a lot about cutting from here to there we have learned from the cinema!"
From the extracts Athill quotes, I'm sure she's mostly right, but recently, while reading Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1938), I came to a section describing a long, hot drive from Manderley (in Cornwall, more or less) to a village outside London. The four characters making the trip take two cars; one of them wants to implicate another in the death of the title character, and they are all traveling to interview a doctor who treated her and may be able to shed light on the situation.
This trip goes on for a few pages and isn't at all eventful, but it's a part of the book I remember vividly:
People were walking about in cotton frocks and the men were hatless. There was a smell of waste-paper, and orange-peel and feet, and burnt dried grass. Buses lumbered slowly, and taxis crawled. I felt as though my coat and skirt were sticking to me, and my stockings pricked my skin.
And so on. They have to stop for meals and coordinate the two cars. They spend a half a page fruitlessly asking people on the street to point them to the doctor's house. Etc.
Rebecca is a suspense novel, and its cinematic equivalent would eliminate all this tedious getting from one place to another. Consequently, someone writing a novel like Rebecca today, aiming for the higher end of the psychological suspense genre, would also leave it out. Yet it's so effective in du Maurier's hands. The narrator believes that the doctor will tell them something that will ruin her life, so the drawn-out banality of the journey is a kind of torture for her. Du Maurier makes the reader feel that peculiar mixture we've all experienced of wanting to get it over with and wanting to never arrive to hear the bad news. It's a little like what I imagine waiting on the verdict in a criminal trial must be like. A film could never quite pull this off without either coming across as pretentiously experimental or forcing itself out of the suspense genre entirely.
The drive through London makes the novel richer and moodier, and while Hitchcock's film version of Rebecca has its own distinctive atmosphere, it's a different quality. The novel feels more like a lived experience (however outlandish a lot of it is) than a dramatic spectacle, because that's something fiction is better able to do than film.