Book Before Movie? Or Movie Before Book?

Most lovers of literature have a firm stance on adaptations: read the book before seeing the movie.

There are many justifiable (and accurate) reasons for this philosophy:

A) 99.9% of the time the book is better than the movie in detail, plot, and character development. Hardcore fact of life.

B) Most readers want to imagine the world and visualize the characters their own way without Hollywood interfering and (often) whitewashing.

C) The joy and elation that being able to discuss and prove point A provides.

The reaction every bibliophile has when they’ve been betrayed.

I’m sure there are other reasons for readers out there (and I’d love to hear them in the comments below) but these three seem to form the trifecta of reader angst.

And I fully understand the pain. My go-to example is The Goblet of Fire (2005). Goblet of Fire is one of my favorite Harry Potter books. The rich details of the tournament itself, the expansion upon the wizarding world to include other schools, the Quidditch Cup, and of course the dramatic final chapters where Voldermort does indeed return. Such a pivotal book in the series and I’ve always felt the movie grossly mishandled the original material.

Every reader out there has one of these movies that completely botched their favorite books. We as readers tell our tales of woe as if they were harrowing events that we have not fully recovered from.

Just a tiny example: In the book, the first event of the Tri-Wizard Cup has the students facing off against dragons in order to gain tournament points and collect the valuable clue for the next round, which is a golden egg. Harry pulls off this amazing dive on his broom from a great height, swooping down and pulling out of the dive at the last possible moment, garnering serious points and proving himself equal to if not better than Viktor Krum, a fellow competitor and professional Seeker. It’s a riveting scene in the book.

In the movie, the dragon breaks free of its chains and chases Harry all around Hogwarts, destroying many a turret and collapsing a few roofs, before Harry manages to outfly the dragon and gain the egg. There is so much wrong with this scene in the movie: the whole point of Harry diving and swooping was to gain the egg quickly for points and for the parallel between Krum. You get none of that in the movie. You get some CGI porn that shows how cool the animators thought their dragon looked. Never mind that it should have created story problems like why is no one trying to save this kid from a dragon on the loose? or how does Hogwarts handle their severely busted castle while they have guests no less? Nope, movie doesn’t even hint at these problems that to my mind are quite serious.

That, my friends, is a small, contained rant about one scene translation from book to movie. I have more where that came from.

But you get my point. The intense feeling of violation and betrayal from a bad adaptation lingers and spoils any enjoyment of what might otherwise be a fun movie.

After many years of horrifying disappointment I have often subscribed to a theory that might be somewhat controversial: go see the movie before reading the book. Hear me out.

A) I’m fully aware that the book will be better, so the movie gives me an inkling whether or not I’d like to further explore more fertile territory.

B) I’d like to think that my imagination is a more powerful beast than the movie mill that is Hollywood. Ergo, though I sometimes visualize a character as they are cast, if I think the person doesn’t fit with the book description, I can still imagine the character how I see fit.

C) I manage to lose the righteous indignation of having read the book and can enjoy the movie as a separate entity. When I read the book later, I can heartily debate the differences but I am no longer angry. My appreciation for both mediums is left in tact.

D) Though there are certainly spoilers in the movie, many more twists and turns await me in the book. The higher level of detail helps retain the level of suspense. Plus the way books are being adapted these days, so many drastic changes are made there is no guarantee that the movie you’ve seen accurately reflects the book’s ending (which, again, angst). Case in point: The Giver (2014) and Fight Club (1999).

This is how I manage not to have an aneurysm at the theater. I swear I’ve been a happier creature since adopting this method. Not convinced? OK let’s try some anecdotal evidence.

Prepare yourselves: I saw Pride and Prejudice before I read the book. And it was the Keira Knightly, Matthew Macfayden 2005 version, not the Colin Firth 1995 mini-series. And I loved it. I was in high school when the movie came out and I saw it with a group of girlfriends. I went through the whole range of emotions. Loathing Mr. Darcy for his pretensions and superiority while rooting for Lizzy’s wit and determination. Then gradually and somewhat unwillingly falling in love with Mr. Darcy and wanting to scream at Lizzy to just go for it already.

Whatever your feelings on that particular rendition of Pride and Prejudice, that movie primed me for reading the book in a way that teenage-me had not been ready for. If I haven’t mentioned it before, I have a strong reluctance to read anything that is over-hyped or books I “should” read. That movie said, “yes, it’s required reading but you’re going to love it.” And I fell so deeply in love with Austen’s book. The movie didn’t ruin it. It gave me the nudge I needed.

I promise all of these examples won’t be Keira Knightly based, but this film bears mentioning for the sake of my argument and just because I love it. Atonement (2007). I saw the movie with a group of friends who were all sighing over Ian McEwan as a writer and I thought, how good can this guy be? The movie itself blew me away. Beautiful, emotionally trying, and well acted. Atonement the movie made me need to read Atonement the book.

And yes, the book is better. That’s not shocking. But knowing the big secret from the film only made the rest of the book more poignant for me, so seeing the movie first made the read a more provocative one. I cried just as hard at the conclusion of the book as I did at the film. It also bears mentioning that Atonement is one of the most stunningly realized adaptations I have ever seen. Now I’m the one sighing over Ian McEwan.

For my final proof, I submit George R. R. Martin. I’m a big “Game of Thrones” fan. Both book and tv show, and I’ll tell you now that I’m deliberately behind on reading the books because I cannot stand being ahead of the TV series. Part of the logic behind this is that Martin’s giant books cannot be written fast enough to keep abreast of the show for long. The other half of the logic here is that when the show inevitably makes some stylistic changes, I have a tantrum to rival Prince Joffrey.

“Game of Thrones” is an undeniable behemoth in the world of television right now. The production values are great, the acting is stellar, and the twists are about as good/bad as a well-timed knife to the back, of which there are many in the series. I love the show. But I have never hated it so much as when they made certain deviations in season three. I got mad because I had read A Storm of Swords (book three) just before watching season three and could not enjoy the bulk of that season because I was too busy picking it apart to enjoy it.

That’s the crux of the problem of reading the book first: I’m looking for the movie or show to fail. I may say I’m excited about it and make a few jokes about how I hope they don’t screw it up, but I will always nitpick the movie to death if I’ve read the book first.

I love both mediums. Movies and books have been my safe havens and welcome escapes since childhood. They’re both good for different reasons, I know that on an intellectual level. But when it comes to the emotional level of knee-jerk reactions I had better have seen the movie first or the litany of comparisons to the book will tear the film to shreds.

Maybe a few of you will be convinced to try watching the movie first. I know, it feels weird, don’t panic! But if not, I understand. Some wounds are too deep to traverse and movies can cut just as painfully as paper pages, though in different ways.

Do you dare to watch the movie first? Or is that a hell no scenario?

Thanks for popping in!

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7 thoughts on “Book Before Movie? Or Movie Before Book?

      • Everyone said its a classic film and I’m sure it is but compared to the film it’s like a sheet of tissue in depth compared to the tree that is stephen Kings book. I’m actually at the stage where I think why even bother looking at the films when you can get lost in the book

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  1. You have great points, all of which I’ve told myself at some stage in life. There have been very very few scenarios where the book was not better than the film, for me (I had those 2 examples in my head, because I treasure them since they are far and in-between, but I seem to have lost them, sorry!). Yet I keep reading the books before watching the movie!
    I think one of the reasons is that the books are simply written first, so you come across them and then a few years later they are adapted into a film, and it’s because you enjoyed the novel that you watch the film… However, it may also be masochism.

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    • Many times it is absolutely a case of the book comes first. I’ve read some great books that have then promptly been turned into movies and I can feel that tension rising! Haha if you ever remember what those two movies are that were better than their books, I’d love to hear about it.

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