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

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Jane Eyre

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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.