This cool Threadless t-shirt (Movies: Ruining the Book since 1920) displays a definite point of view on the issue. But can it really be said that the book is always better than the movie adaptation?
In trying to understand why people generally seem to prefer the book to the movie version of a story, I came up with this theory: Perhaps we just like best what we knew first. Which, in most cases, is the book. Here's how it goes: you read a book, love it, find out it's been made into a movie, see the movie, and end up disappointed. Of course in reading the book first, you couldn't help but form ideas about how the characters looked. You loved all the little details that didn't make it into the limited time of the movie. And so you come out of the theater or close the dvd box feeling strongly that the book was so much better than the movie.
The problem with my theory is that it should work in reverse; if you saw the movie first, you should prefer it over the book. But this just doesn't happen nearly so often. Sure, seeing the movie first leaves a lasting impression of how the characters look. But it's usually fine to imagine them that way when you go ahead and read the book. Also, the details in the book usually end up enriching the story you already know, so you can still come away saying that the book is better than the movie.
Can the movie ever be better than the book? One thing against this is that books that are popular get made into movies, which creates high expectations. (Let's face it, if the book is terrible to start with, it probably won't get made into a movie.)
But in some cases, I actually do like the movie better than the book. One examples of this for me is Gone With the Wind. The book and movie are both long, but I am much more likely to re-watch the movie than to re-read the book. Some of the things that got left out from the book (like things involving the KKK and Scarlet's additional children) are not really missed in the movie. The costumes and sets actually enhance the story to me, showing the grandeur of the old South and the devastation caused by the war.
Another example of a movie that I would pick over the book is The Hunt for Red October. I could watch that movie endlessly and probably recite most of the dialogue off the top of my head if you asked me to. I have tried to read the book several times and have just never gotten through it. The extra detail in the book feels tedious as opposed to interesting. Plus, reading the book doesn't give me the pleasure of seeing Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery.
Another case in which I always seem to prefer the movie is when the story is based on actual events. Almost every time I see a movie about someone's life or some spectacular event and it moves me to read more about it, I wind up disappointed. The events, people, drama, excitement, etc. have all been changed for the big screen. Let's face it, life isn't like the movies. Things are left unresolved, things happen that don't make sense in some grander scheme or plot. Real life is better to live; enhanced life is better in the movies.
But I'd like to present a middle ground. Sure, the book is often better than the movie in certain ways. But movies are unique, and can do things that books can never do, which can make them better. Why can't books and movies be friends? Instead of always having to pick a side, let's make it ok to like both the book AND the movie.
On the same subject of books and movies, I found this cool Lit Flicks Challenge from The Bluestocking Society. The idea is simple: read 5 books that have been made into movies and watch at least 2 of the movie adaptations. I wish I would have found this sooner, since I just read and watched The Thin Man (the first time for each) in an attempt to catch up on classics I somehow missed. Fortunately, I've just started another book along those same lines, so I'll make it my first pick.
1. The Grapes of Wrath
There are so many other book/movie combos I've already enjoyed, but I wanted to try some that I hadn't seen or read yet. I came up with:
2. Jane Eyre
3. Matchstick Men
Two more to go, and I think I will go for books where I have already seen the movie and enjoyed it:
5. Build My Gallows High (the basis for the great noir film Out of the Past)
So, that's my list for now, since for this challenge I can change my mind and my books if I need to. If anyone is looking for help on a list of their own for the challenge, let me recommend the following, where both book and movie versions are good: The Princess Bride, Much Ado About Nothing, To Kill a Mockingbird, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.