To Read the Book First, Or Watch the Movie?

I love books. I love movies. What could be better than the two mediums joining forces to visually interpret a brilliant literary work or enjoyable novel with all of the wonderful elements exclusive to cinema, like thoughtfully executed lighting, balanced, striking composition, and illuminating music? One of my absolute favorite examples of this near-flawless transition is Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre cover            jane eyre poster

Jane Eyre is one of my favorite novels, so of course I am going to love its film adaptations. Truly though, Fukunaga does such a great job with Jane’s emotional strife; he emphasize the starkness of Jane’s childhood and later, Thornfield Hall, with the monochrome colors and studies in contrast; and alludes to the mystery at the belly of the house with the warmer colors, the firelight and night lighting, and the sounds that convey the gothic elements restlessly turning at the film’s core. Of course, no movie could ever match the effect of the book because they are two SEPARATE entities, but there are good adaptations and bad ones. And I have seen other adaptations that were good, but Fukunaga’s is a work of art that captures the breathtaking emotion and courage distilled in the pages of Brontë’s novel.

So, back to our original question: to read the book first or watch the movie? ‘Tis an age-old debate, where I believe many fall on the side I will be arguing for. But let’s take a moment to consider the other side.

A coworker of mine claims he prefers to watch the movie (based on a book) first. Otherwise, he watches the movie while internally bashing the characters and events that don’t match up with what he’d imagined when reading the book.  This was appalling to me, but hey, to each his or her own, right?

Reading the book first gives me the chance to envision it in its perfect form, to traverse that precious space only reader of the writer’s work can access: it is a realm where the writer’s story goes to wait (most literally) until the reader comes along to experience it. In that perfect space, it doesn’t matter that what the reader experiences isn’t exactly—or even close to—what the writer experienced writing it. What matters is that the writer weaves his tale to have those threads unravelled by the reader on his or her journey to find the origins of each thread. Let me explain what I mean here, and let me volunteer a nugget of Stephen King wisdom to assist me.

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” On Writing 

This is something a movie can never hope to do, because it lays everything out for you. But when you read a book, you are screenwriter, producer, and director. You are a kind of co-author. It is the highest achievement writer and reader can attain together, that bridge between conception and conceiving.

So, when the book is read first, and the movie seen second, it affords the opportunity of two different kinds of enjoyment, two experiences of one event:

The pleasure of reading it

/

Jane Eyre

\

The pleasure of seeing it the way another person envisioned it when they (hopefully) read it

So given my amateur arguments, do they adequately represent your preference, whatever it is? Do you prefer to watch the movie first or read the book? Maybe you’re at one of the extreme ends of the spectrum. Maybe you’re completely against film adaptations of novels. Or maybe you always ‘wait for the movie’ and never open the book. In closing, I will reach again for the aforementioned cliché: to each his or her own.

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6 Responses to To Read the Book First, Or Watch the Movie?

  1. jomcarroll says:

    Another great example is The Life of Pi – the film brought out the very best of the book.

    • A. B. Davis says:

      I am dying to read that book! It’s good to know that I will be able to feel comfortable for wanting to watch the movie after, as well, since it brings out the novel’s best. Thanks, jomcarroll!

  2. Funny, I was just thinking about this topic. The Book Thief is one of my favorite books, and my mom is trying to convince me to see the movie (apparently it’s really good). I’m super hesitant though, because I don’t like it when a really powerful movie changes my mental movie based off my perception of a book. (That and the fact that in this case, the actual writing was by far my favorite part of the book, which is something the movie can’t hope to touch.) I’m totally with you on this one: book first, movie second (if at all). That being said, if it’s not a book I’m interested in, I’ll occasionally watch the movie instead.

    • A. B. Davis says:

      I completely agree! When the movie is so good or just so close to the book that they start to bleed together in your head–Fight Club and American Psycho do this to me. I am enjoying the writing in The Book Thief too–I like Death, who would’ve thought? 🙂 Yeah, and watching the movie when you don’t really care about ever reading the book, I’ve done that a few times. If you’re just not that interested in the book, it’s not worth that race against time once you see a preview for the movie and decide you must read it first. Ha. Thanks, Annie!

  3. I agree with you on this one. I am a firm believer in reading the book first before seeing the movie; at least if I’m really into the story. If a book seems uninteresting to me, then I don’t mind seeing the movie first. I must admit; I loved reading the Twilight Series but I was really disappointed in the first movie, especially the casting of Bella. I would have never wanted to read the books if I watched the movie first. However, with movies like Pride and Prejudice and Little Woman, I think the producers did a fantastic job of portraying the author’s surroundings and storyline. I didn’t think I would like newest Great Gatsby but ended up falling in love with it=)
    Great post! Will be stopping over here now!

    • A. B. Davis says:

      Yay! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I think I would have done the same with with the Twilight books, never read them if I had watched the first movie first. While I actually liked the first movie as a representation of the book (at the time, now I watch it and I cannot stomach the cheese lol), I don’t think I ever would have been spurred into action to read the book. So I see what you mean there. And yes, I also loved the newest Great Gatsby. I had a couple qualms, but overall I was astonished, and pleasantly surprised, by Luhrmann’s vision of the novel.

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