Reading the Movies

I love watching movies almost as much as I love reading books, and I, along with millions of people this Sunday will tune into the Oscar telecast to see which movies are honoured as the best of the year. Just like a book, a good story and interesting characters draw me in, and I’ll actually put down my devices for a couple of hours and just watch. (A big thing for me since I have the attention span of a gnat most of the time)

I particularly get excited about movies based on books because I’ve either read the book and can’t wait to see it brought to life on the big screen, or I haven’t read the book yet, and am auditioning the story to see if I find it interesting enough to read.

Movies based on books present an interesting conundrum however.

Loyal fans of the books upon which these movies are based (Young Adult movies in particular) are a discerning bunch, and if the movie doesn’t watch the book exactly, they are angry and disappointed. Take Beautiful Creatures for example. Fans counted at least 11 major differences between the book and the movie, and as a result, it tanked. My first reaction to the movie was annoyance. Characters were eliminated or combined, important details changed or left out, and it was very different from the book. But I happened to see it with a friend who hadn’t read any of the books yet, and she really enjoyed it.

This got me to thinking about other book to movie adaptations I’ve seen, and what my reactions were to them. The Never Ending Story by Michael Ende has long been one of my favourite books. It’s also one of my favourite movies, even though it does deviate from the original book. The Princess Bride has been one of my favourite movies since I was a kid, and some people argue that the movie (also written by William Goldman) is even better than the original source material.

For me, there doesn’t seem to be any simple answer as to whether or not it’s better to read the book before or after seeing the movie. If I see the movie before reading the book, I have someone else’s vision of what the characters look and sound like in my head. If I read the book first and the movie isn’t faithful, I’m disappointed that it wasn’t like the book.

What I’ve come to realize is that the expectation that a film be a carbon copy of the book is unfair, and I have to look at them and enjoy them as separate entities. When I can separate the book from the movie, I can enjoy the movie as a movie, and appreciate if the essence of the author’s work has been captured. (The Charlotte’s Web movie is a good example of this.)

When questioned about the major (and I mean major) d(ifferences between his book Under the Dome and the popular tv counterpart, Stephen King responded with a letter in which he makes some excellent points. Film/television is a completely different medium than a book, and sometimes, for the sake of the fact that it is being something viewed and not read, changes have to be made. Even the most faithful adaptations (Harry Potter, Hunger Games and The Book Thief to name a few) have to make changes from page to screen. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But as Stephen King points out, we are always free to take the book down off the shelf and the story within the pages of the book will never change.

So how about you? Do you prefer reading the book first, or seeing the movie first?

7 Responses to Reading the Movies

  1. Cheyenne Feb 26 2014 at 5:19 am #

    Great post! I did a film degree and spent 3 years dissecting films down to their tiniest components, both aesthetically and theoretically, so I’ve argued both ways on this topic.

    I wrote my dissertation on Tolkien and how his approach to fantasy feeds into the success the LOTR trilogy had. As huge a Tolkien purist as I am, I could not love those films more. My husband and I argue this endlessly — he has a very vivid picture of how the characters should look, from childhood, and I do as well but I personally found the casting for LOTR to be flawless (w/the exception of Frodo). When I read the books, it brings the world alive that much more. And while Tom Bombadil doesn’t appear in the films, I can pretend he DID, and they just didn’t include that part.

    It’s very personal, though. If I’d disagreed with their choice of Aragorn, say, I think the whole concept would’ve fallen for me. I can understand the changes they made knowing both the limitations of film and expectations of an audience — an audience that includes both hardcore fans and people who’ve never touched the books. It’s so, SO hard to entertain both, almost a losing battle, but at the end of the day, that’s what the studio execs *demand*, and I raise a glass to Peter Jackson for pulling that off. (But don’t get me started on the Hobbit!!). Unfortunately, the fact stands that no matter how much the director wants to stay faithful, money comes from producers and those demands can’t be ignored. I’ll see a film and if I love it, read the book, but I’ll often try to read it first if I have time. I think the Hunger Games for me might be more enjoyable as films because I love Jennifer Lawrence way more than I loved Katniss of the books… (controversial! 😉

  2. jeffo Feb 26 2014 at 5:52 am #

    I find that if I see a movie before I read the book, I’m better able to judge the film on its own merits, without saddling it in comparisons or looking to see what they changed (and sometimes being outraged by those changes). It’s easier for me to judge a book independently of the film version than the other way around for some reason.

    With regards to Under The Dome, King is right, a terrible adaptation doesn’t change the book, and doesn’t really diminish it in any way. I watched the full first season of the TV show and was able to swallow most of the changes (and he’s right, totally different media dictates different needs), but the program had problems that went far beyond what the adaptation.

  3. K. L. Martin Feb 26 2014 at 8:48 am #

    It really depends on the movie or book for me. Take Harry Potter for example. I watched the all the movies first before reading the books and I like the movies better (although the Half-Blood Prince was better as a book, if you ask me). The cast was well chosen for the characters just as the CGI was fantastic. And it only got better as it went on. I felt the characters’ pain as they did and I cried when they did, just as I laughed when they did.

    Now, if we’re to talk about the City of Bones, book one of the Mortal Instruments series, I’m gonna have to chose the book in this role. For one, it was the casting choice that tanked the movie for me. Jace played by Jamie Bower? Seriously? Jace is supposed to look like an angel (hence the scar,birthmark on his body) and Jamie just looks plain creepy. I mean Robert Sheehan, who plays Simon, looks better than this and he’s a nerd who’s not supposed to be attractive has more going for him than Jamie. To me, they just didn’t do a good job with the actor choice. Almost every fan page I come across for this series chooses Alex Pettyfer to play Jace. Sure, it’s a young character, but he still looks young enough to play a character at that age.

    I understand how the budget for the movie somewhat controls how they do the casting, I just wished they had tried to go a little further with their decisions. (Don’t even get me started with Twilight on the casting and CGI effects!)

  4. Marc Vun Kannon Feb 26 2014 at 9:28 am #

    I like to watch the movie first, then get the book, then see the movie again. There are a lot of little bits in the movie that can easily be missed (not so easily now in the days of DVDs with subtitles on, which I suppose is reading the movie during the movie), and reading the book after helps to catch those bits, so I can get more from the next viewing. In general a book will have a lot more detail than the novel, so some cuts will have to be made. It’s kind of fun to see what those cuts were, what parts were rewritten, and decide if the changes were improvements or not.

  5. Andrea Feb 27 2014 at 12:12 pm #

    I almost always try to read the book before seeing the movie because once I know the ending, my motivation to read the book if it’s not 5-stars greatly lessens. The other side of that coin is that when I know a movie is being made from a book I want to read, that book or series rises to the top of my to-read list (e.g. The Book Thief and Maze Runner).

    I love what Stephen King said about TV/film vs books, and I completely agree. I also think there’s a chance movies can fix or improve upon some of the things in the book (e.g. Hedwig’s death) and for books like Anna Karenina, which would have never been published today without a lot more editing because of all the tangents and not-vital-to-the-story-line-but-vital-to-understanding-Imperial-Russia aspects, the movie tells a much more compact and entertaining story – and I think both are important.

  6. Alexa S. Feb 27 2014 at 7:58 pm #

    I generally prefer reading books before seeing the visual representation (TV/film)! Even though I have been seriously disappointed by a few film adaptations, I’ve also accepted that there will obviously be difference between the film/TV show and the book. Generally, this helps me be more positive about it and accepting! (Though if it’s a MAJOR change, it’s a little harder to swallow or like or appreciate.)

    On the other hand, I’m always interested in reading a book when I find out that a film is based on one (and I at least liked it). It always makes me curious to see if the written version of the story is better, worse or just the same.

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