Talk Amongst Yourselves: The Book or the Movie First?

Hi, all! We’re going to take a break from overview-style posts today (though never fear, we’ll be back to school ya again soon) and do something a little different. That’s right, friends, it’s debate time!

Today’s topic is that age-old dilemma — when it comes to a new story, is it better to read the book or watch the movie first?

Image Credit: Flavorwire

Image Credit: Flavorwire

Image Credit: impawards

Image Credit: impawards

Now, before the purists among us clamor to say, “How dare you suggest watching the movie first, you philistine?!”, just hear me out. In the past, I couldn’t fathom why anyone would watch the movie before reading the book said movie is based on. The book is, as we know, always better than the movie version; why would you let the chance to interact with a story for the first time within your own mind be taken away from you, to be replaced irrevocably with the filmmakers’ vision of the story? Blasphemy!

But then, something started to happen before I realized it — I started considering the possibility of occasionally watching the movie first. Sometimes the timing just worked out that way and I got invited to see a movie before I’d had a chance to read the book, and sometimes I simply didn’t realize a movie I’d seen was based on a book until after I’d seen it. In any case, though, I soon realized that, rather than detracting from the experience I had with a story, watching the movie first often enhanced it.

I also found (humblingly) that watching the movie first keeps me from doing the whole “That’s not how it was in the book!!” thing that I am (still) so wont to do. Admit it — we all find this irresistible, all the while knowing how annoying it is to whomever is watching the movie with us. But the thing is, doing this is kind of meaningless, when you think about it. Even if a book and a movie center around the same story, they’re still two different art forms, with their own distinct merits. Bashing a movie just because it’s not exactly the way we imagined it would be keeps us from seeing its good points. And since filmmakers can’t see into our heads, and — more importantly — since some things just plain don’t translate to the screen, I argue that what we should be concerned about, rather than how well the filmmakers represent the details of a story is how well they represent the spirit of it.

Another thing I noticed was that seeing the movie first works great when the book version is difficult in some way, whether because it’s a classic that uses unfamiliar language (Jane Austen novels, for example), or because it’s technical in a way I’m not well-versed in, like sci-fi that uses a lot of high-level science. Most recently, I found this to be the case with The Martian — because I saw the movie first, I was able to more easily understand just how Mark Watney is able to keep himself alive, even when the ins and outs of the science he was using to do so went over my head.

The main caveat I do have for the movie-then-book route is that it’s pretty hard to oust the actors and sets (and even the plot, if the filmmakers changed it enough) from your mind when you get around to reading the book. This can be annoying, since it’s harder to make your own decisions about what things look like, but I’ll go out on a limb and posit that it’s not insurmountable.

And there’s also the problem of bad movie adaptations, which, unfortunately, are legion. But with a little research, you can largely avoid these. And when you run across one accidentally, you’ll know — and knowing will keep you from being turned off to the idea of reading the book.

Image Credit: impawards

Image Credit: impawards

Now, I’m not going to go so far as to say it’s better to see the movie first in every case. That would be ridiculous. But my stance boils down to this: read the book before seeing the movie whenever it’s feasible, but if the timing is right to see the movie first (and it’s had decent reviews), and/or if you know the book is going to be a particularly challenging one to get through, then you don’t have anything to lose by going to see it first.

But that’s quite enough about what I think. Now it’s your turn! What’s your preference when it comes to books vs. movies first? Do you mix it up, as I do, or do you hold fast to one or the other? Whatever your method, what is it about it that works well for you? Let’s hear it!


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