Saturday, March 20, 2010

The W's of Reading: What Should Come First, the Book or the Film?

This topic has been on my mind for a while. Is there ever a time that seeing a film before reading the book or play it's based from might be better? Why do so many films skew what we loved in the book?

A couple of weeks ago, my AP classes finished reading Shakespeare's Hamlet. I then followed it up by showing them the famous "mousetrap" scene, and concluding fight scene in both the Kenneth Branaugh version, as well as the one with Mel Gibson. Admittedly, my students like the version with Mel Gibson a little more, as they felt it fit with what they pictured. How key is it that what we see on screen fit with what we created in our mind?

It does seem that if a film doesn't add up to what we've pictured, or at least come close, it can be bone-crushingly disappointing! I had my student list films that disappointed them after reading the book, and they came up with some of the following: Eragon (that one is always, and emphatically listed first), certain scenes they missed in Harry Potter, Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, Shopaholic, and Les Miserables and The Count of Monte Cristo (for selected scenes). Why did these films fail in part or whole? Could it be that they failed to blow the readers of these books away, because:
  • They didn't follow the same storyline as the book or reordered things in a confusing way. (You know, those movies that you went, "Hey, that didn't happen until later!")
  • The creatures and characters were different than what was described.
  • What we pictured from an exciting scene was left out or diminished. Could it be that creating some of these scenes in real time is just too difficult?
  • The core personality of the character is altered in such a way that they are more devious, stupid, or frail than the actual character in the book. Who wants to see their character made out to be worse or more fallible?!?
  • They left out wonderful, fun scenes that you loved.
  • They tweaked it to make sure it ended a bit more happily than the original. Will we really turn on them if a movie doesn't conclude with a happy ending?
  • It turns something original into something cliche.
On the flip side, there are some films that manage to beautifully capture the essence of a story, and even expand on it through the story, filming, lighting, music, etc. Some that I personally thought did an excellent job of portraying the novel: Atonement, The Reader, many of the Jane Austen adaptations are very well done (which is why we love them so much), certain scenes from Harry Potter (such as the cave scene at the end of the 6th film), Gone With the Wind (not exactly true to the novel, but a great, cohesive film adaptation), The Lord of the Rings (please...half those creatures and battle scenes in my mind didn't come close to what was created on the screen), and more that I can't come up with at the moment.

Here's where we left off in our discussion. What should come first? Should you always read the book first, or are them some films that actually help you understand the book better...or at least don't ruin the book as with some other films? I won't lie, Doctor Zhivago was a difficult book for me to get through at one point. When I hit the train scene, when the family left the city, my mind wandered off. Now this was several years ago, but I threw my hands in the air and went to get the famous movie to help me out. By the time I'd finished the film, I had cemented the story that I'd read so far, and figured out some of the politics that I'd missed before, and found that the rest of my reading was a real delight. In that case, the film helped me love and appreciate the book a bit more.

So what do you think? What books do you think translated well into film? Any definite failures in your mind? Should most books come before the films, or are there a few you wish you'd seen first?


  1. Some movies-from-books that really disappointed me were Twilight (seeing the vampires sparkle was the only thing I was looking forward to, and it was LAME), The Great Gatsby, and The Age of Innocence was really disappointing, even though it followed the book very closely.

    I always wonder if it's better to read the book first or see the movie. Sometimes when I see a movie and then read the book, the image of the characters is embedded in my mind, which is very annoying. Like with Twilight-I cannot read the book now without picturing Edward as RPatt, and I find him to be reeeally annoying. At the same time, I usually tend to forget stuff from movies. Like I watched the movie version of Jane Eyre a few times before reading the book, and I completely forgot about the crazy-wife-in-the-attic thing.

    Also, sometimes movies are better than books because they edit out all the yada yada yada stuff you don't care about. Like with The English Patient--UHG.

  2. I think some films that are based on books fail because they don't capture the essence of the book. Sometimes I wonder if they've ever read the book they are making the movie of. Some books
    made into films that have disappointed me:
    The Da Vinci Code, Shopaholic, PS I Love You, (hated the book, and hated the movie more-they changed everything!!) Twilight. I'm sure I'll hate Water for Elephants b/c Reese Witherspoon has been cast as Marlena, which I can't see at all, and the Janet Evanovich movie being made b/c I can't see Katherine Heigl playing the main character.

  3. I loathed The Seeker which was "based" on The Dark is Rising. So, so bad. And Eragon, of course. I don't know what makes some turn into great movies and others not. It isn't always being strictly like the book.

  4. If you'd ask me the question read the book or watch the movie first I'd answer that you always have to read the book first in an instant, but when I think about it, sometimes it can really work out the other way around. To be honest, I was rather late with finding out about Pride and Prejudice (or any Austen). I'm from a non-English country, so reading the classics in English literature is only done when you're in the upper grades of highschool. I actually found out about the book when my parents zapped past the episode 5 of the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice. Even though I only got to see 10 minutes of the series before my dad got to the remote control again, I instantly knew that I had to read this book and so I got it from the library the next day.

    Also, I think with complicated classics watching a well done movie version can really help. And sometimes the BBC TV series can help in wanting to reread a classic.

    Anyway, I do not think there's an easy one way answer to what to do first, although I think I prefer reading the book first in general.

  5. I usually prefer the book to the movie, but there are exceptions. I couldn't read The English Patient or Gone With the Wind, but didn't mind the movies. If I really loved the book though, I'll refuse to even watch the mover as I know I'll be disappointed. Nothing can live up to your imagination or how you pictured the characters!

  6. Honestly...I discussed this topic a week or so ago on my blog as well after watching the film SHUTTER ISLAND. I had read the book first and thoroughly enjoyed when I went to see the movie my expectations were high. It's not to say that is wasn't this case though, I think that the movie first would have been better, thus allowing both to be experienced with equal joy (especially the ending...that's NOT what happened in the book!). So where do I stand on it? In the really depends on the book/movie as to which I'd rather see first...thanks for sharing!

  7. What a great topic for discussion, Becky!

    I see it both ways. Sometimes I think, like all readers, what did they just DO to my favorite book! Argh! And sometimes I need the film to know what the heck the book is even about.

    My examples of the former (movie was not as good as book) are The Count of Monte Cristo, Memoirs of a Geisha, and The Great Gatsby. All favorite books, all great movies- but they could have been better (in my non-movie director-experienced opinion). :)

    Now, for films that I needed to watch to even read the book? You can just lump all of Shakespeare in there, haha. Also, Doctor Zhivago is one I couldn't get through either, but I liked the movie (I watched the Kiera Knightly version), and actually there are a few films I have seen first that make me want to read the book: Possession by A.S. Byatt and The Boy with the Striped Pajamas to name 2.