Book vs. Movie: Is the book always better?

Movies: Ruining The Book Since 1920 - Threadless, Best T-shirts Ever

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:

4. Awakenings
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.


Cesia said...

Great post!

I was really trying to think of some movies that are better than the book ... but I couldn't come up with any. I do think, though, that the Jane Austen movies aren't terribly disappointing. I can think of lots of examples where the movie was better than real life. Like The Pursuit of Happyness, or Finding Neverland.

As for the Lit Flicks Challenge, I soooo want to do that! I will have to blog it. Jane Eyre ... I HATED that movie!!!!! (But then again, I hated Pride & Prejudice the first time I saw it, too.)

One movie supposedly coming out, that I am pretty sure will NOT live up to the book ... Ender's Game. There is no way they can make it as cool.

Also, I was just watching Dune last night ... LOL!!! Definitely not as good as the book, but mainly because the special effects are soooo bad. It seems to stick to the story pretty closely (although I didn't finish it - its 3 hours long).

- Cesia.

Wendymoon said...

Good call on the Jane Austen movies (for the most part) being as good as the books. In fact, in the case of Emma, I think I actually like watching the movie better than wading through the text.

I almost put Dune on my list, just for you! Maybe you can talk me into swapping it in, perhaps instead of Jane Eyre? Although, there are two old movie versions I found, which one did you see and hate?

Maybe I will change Matchstick Men, that is the one I know the least about and so I am preparing myself to not like it.

Looking forward to seeing your list!

Cesia said...

I knew I was forgetting something on my original comment. :) There was just so much to reply to!

Its funny that you mentioned The Thin Man, because I just found out that Denver has a citywide book group, called One Book, One Denver, for the whole year. It includes dramatic readings, acting out, discussion groups, and even a reading with the mayor! I thought that was very cool. And guess what this year's book is? :)

I also for some reason didn't see you mention The Princess Bride ... but I definitely have an opinion there! I watched the movie many times as a kid, and love it. But then I finally got around to reading the book ... and it adds a lot to the story. Especially the whole "S. Morgenstern/abridged" thing. So I definitely agree that both are good.

The Jane Eyre I saw was the one with Orson Welles (1944). He was creepy. And I remember lots of lightning and storms. And overly dramatic acting. But it was a while ago.

As far as Dune goes ... I am in the process of writing a post about that. It got a little long, so I may separate it from the Lit Flicks post.

- Cesia

thebluestockingsociety said...

Thanks for joining the Lit Flicks Challenge. We're not sticklers, you can count any book your read or movie you watched after September 1, 2008, even if you weren't officially signed up at the time.

Also, since you seem to be a movie fan, you should check out the companion challenge (http://bitchinfilmreviews.com/?page_id=93), which has participants watch 5 adaptations and two of the books. (Double your shot at prizes by signing up for both!)

Jessica @ The Bluestocking Society

blakecgriffin said...

Hey! Welcome to the Lit Flicks Challenge. I can't wait to read your reviews, your list sounds like a lot of fun. Remember to check back to the Challenge page around the first of the month for giveaway announcements, and post links to your reviews there too!

Anonymous said...

Great post. In my experience, when I watch the movie before reading the book, the book usually ends up being better, but I think that I enjoy the movie more than if I had read the book first.

For example, lots of people have read Lord of the Rings before seeing the films.

And lots of people have seen The Princess Pride before reading the book.

In the the case of LoTR, there tends to be more anger at the film adaptations, but in the case of TPB, people usually end up liking both very much.

Hope that makes sense. :)

Oh, and welcome to the LAMB. :)

David Bishop said...

Saw you were a new LAMB, so I thought I'd stop by.

I just finished a few books this summer that I had wanted to read because I enjoyed their movie counterparts: The Princess Bride, Stardust, and The Once and Future King.

The Once and Future King is a weird case because it's comprised of four books. The first of which, The Sword in the Stone, was made into a Disney movie. The last couple books were kind of made into a musical titled Camelot. The film version stars the late Richard Harris as King Arthur.

I don't just read fantasy, but I guess this summer, I did.

Dean Treadway said...

A very good post. I think the fact is that whether you like the book or the movie better comes down to whether you prefer your fiction printed or filmed. Me, I fall on the film side. I read a lot, but I read non-fiction--news, bios, reference books, books on art/film/music...that sort of thing. I think there have only been eleven fiction books I've gotten all the way through (and I'm 42 years old): The World According to Garp, Geek Love, Great Expectations, The Fermata, The Cider House Rules, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, Sophie's Choice, Charlotte's Web, and The Shining. I think that's about it. I simply prefer to enjoy my storytelling through film. Believe me, there are many books I've tried to read, but if a writer spends two pages describing someone opening a door...well, can't I just SEE them opening the door in two seconds instead?

By the way, out of the eight books that have been made into movies on my list, only the film version of THE SHINING was better than the book, IMO. Isn't that ironic???

Dean Treadway

Wendymoon said...

Dean, I think you may be right about it all depending on if you prefer books or movies more overall. (Although your contradictions are interesting!)

Perhaps that's why I tend to like both versions of a story, since I enjoy both books and movies in general. It all depends on the mood I'm in.

Also, I find that both versions of a story work together for me. Once I've seen the movie of a book, when I read it, those are the images that come to mind. Like, I can't read The Hustler without picturing Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson.

It works the other way, too; watching a movie when I've read the source material reminds me of passages I enjoyed even if they are not exactly in the movie. For example, watching Gone With the Wind, which I mentioned in my original post as a case where I prefer the movie, I still remember back to specific parts of the book. I liked reading more about the history of Scarlett's parents, particularly her mother and how she came to marry Gerald (which to me explains a lot about this unlikely pair and gives insight into what makes Scarlett who she is).

Recently watching The Grapes of Wrath after reading the novel, several things were fresh in my mind that were not in the book. Like Uncle John's history, and brother Noah's oddities. (In the movie, Noah is greeted and then pretty much forgotten. I don't know when he disappears, exactly. In the book, there's a lot more to it.)

Do I think all these book details belong in the movies? Not necessarily. It's not easy to show someone's history or internal thoughts. (Especially when it comes to a lot of more minor characters.) But even if some things are not the same in the book and movie versions of a story, I am glad they get triggered in my head anyway. Sometimes a movie sends me back to the book to re-read a section. Sometimes reading a book makes me re-watch the movie.

To me, it's like examining different accounts of the same event: overall the story may be the same but the different perspectives broaden and enhance the understanding and enjoyment of the story.

M. Carter @ the Movies said...

Absolutely not the book is always better than the movie. Sometimes it can be equal, like "To Kill a Mockingbird." And sometimes the movie is just plain better. This was the case with "In Her Shoes," a forgettable bit of chick lit that became a wonderful film with Toni Colette, Cameron Diaz and Shirley MacLaine.

Something else to consider is whether plays are always better than the movies. I'd so "heck no" to that, too. Take "Casablanca," based on an unpublished play nobody knew about. Or "A Streetcar Named Desire."

I think it all depends on what the director brings to the screen. Outright copies don't work, and neither do radical departures from the source material, which alienate book/play fans. You have to keep the spirit of the original work while elevating it in some way, whether it's the acting or some plot tweaks or dialogue, cinematography, etc.

Stationary Explorer said...

My favorite film is "Midnight Cowboy" and I found that the book was not nearly as good as the film. I might be wrong in this assessment, but that's just the way I feel.

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