Sunday Sunrise: Read the book first or watch the movie?

Recently after reading my copy of The Hunger Games (coming soon to a theater near you!)I thought of all the times I’ve been infuriated, confused, and pleasantly surprised by attempts to condense a book into a two-ish hour chunk of flickering entertainment. My current motto of “Watch the movie first, read the book later” is not a hard and fast one, or even possible in some cases, but I’ve found that it causes me the least amount of grief overall. That way I enjoy the film (or don’t) on its own merits, whereas if I read first and then watch I tend to become more involved in nitpicking or becoming frustrated with genuinely bad changes to the story.

What do you tend to do, if given the choice to read the book or watch the movie first?

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27 Comments

  1. I still probably would have disliked the movie version of Howl’s Moving Castle, as I find Miyazaki to be intolerably preachy. But having read the book first, seeing the film filled me with rage over how it was altered.

    One where I saw the movie before reading the book was Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (yes that was adapted from a book). Adapted is a rather strong word, as all that was carried over were some character names and one line of dialogue. For instance, in the book, Eddie’s dislike of toons was not from some tragic event in his past but just garden variety bigotry. In spite of a rather contrived climax, I liked the darker tone of the book better.

    I rather like the John Harrison directed adaptation of Dune, though that’s probably because it did a better job of capturing the essence of the novel than the Lynch fiasco did.

    • Howl’s Moving Castle is THE example I use when talking about how bad a film adaptation of a book can be. I enjoy Miyazaki’s films, and thought his style was a great fit for the tone of the book. Unfortunately I’ve never been more wrong.

      Thanks for reminding me about Who Censored Roger Rabbit? I keep meaning to read that.

  2. I’m 50-50 split on the book/movie issue. I do prefer reading all the Harry Potter’s over the movies, but both are excellent in their own rights. The Peter Jackson LotR series can certainly be watched over the books, but there are significant differences in the two.

    I’d usually rather read the books first, then watch the movie versions, but as Duck stated, there are a few that just fill you with rage over the changes. Clive Cussler’s “Sahara” comes to mind, as well as “Raise the Titanic.” Any of the Tom Clancy books have gotten fairly awful screen treatments, except for “Hunt for Red October,” but that’s a wholly different rant.

  3. I think that it’s more of an investment (time, emotional, use of imagination) to read the book than to watch a movie. I tend to watch first then read because of this. It makes it easier to separate the two and therefore give myself a better chance to enjoy both even if they’re not the same. Because by the time you’ve finished a book you have your own vision of what it should be, or a character that you’ve fallen in love with may have gotten cut because they weren’t strictly necessary to the main plot, etc.

    Generally, but not always, I’ll still like the book better even if I watched the movie first. As someone who did see Howl’s Moving Castle before reading the book, I loved the book way more. And going back and watching the Harry Potter movies I cringe at how minimalized Snape is.

    Blood and Chocolate may be the only time I’ve ever actually regretted reading the book first, just because the movie version was so bad on its own legs it didn’t need the comparison to the book (which I loved) to help make it awful.

    • That’s a good point, Eunice, and one I didn’t mention because I’m on the fence about it. Is it better to watch the movie first, and have what you read be influenced by what you’ve seen (actors, scenery) or to read first and deal with how the director’s vision of the characters and settings compare with yours. I think I prefer reading first in that case, so that my imagination is uninhibited when I read, and that just throws my whole “Watch the movie first” stance off balance.

  4. For me, it all depends. If the director is good and competent, understands the importance of maintaining some semblance of the book’s subtlety and nuances, and doesn’t treat the movie as though the whole audience has already read the book, I’m all for watching the flick first and saving the book for another day.

    But then you have the Harry Potter movies, and I’m eternally grateful I decided to read the books before suffering through the visual treatments, otherwise the entire story would have just been destroyed for me, and reading the books *after* seeing those atrocities wouldn’t have carried the same, er, magic (pardon the pun). I held off diving into the novels until after the third movie came out, and what with their lack of explanation surrounding the Marauders, and the way they handled the scene explaining who Peter Pettigrew was (lots of distracting camerawork while we’re straining our ears to hear what McGonagall, Fudge and Rosmerta are saying), I had no stinking idea what was happening toward the end there.

    If I hadn’t read Goblet of Fire and on before their respective films came out, I never would have forgiven myself. Why, yes, let’s have Barty Crouch, jr. smack in the middle of the audience’s line of sight from the beginning! Why, yes, let’s reduce Snape’s Worst Memory to a five-second glimpse of James humiliating Snape, effectively cutting out what *really* made it his worst memory! Why, yes, let’s present each Pensieve scene like an illegal substance-enhanced roller coaster ride so as to distract the audience from important dialogue and details!

  5. Speaking personally, I’m a read-the-book first sort of fella. My reasoning is thusly – while I agree that it can be very frustrating when an adaptation screws up, I tend to go to movies with a sense of optimism. There are exceptions, but generally speaking, I’m not going to see a movie unless it’s one I WANT to see, and that means I’m assuming they’re going to do it RIGHT. That does, of course, make it somewhat teeth-grinding when they do it WRONG, but on the occasions when they DO do it right, I like to have the source material in mind, because that allows me to recognize the little references and go ‘oho – I see what you did there!’
    Also, my general experience with seeing the movie first is that it tends to ruin the book for me, in that I’ll be hearing everybody’s voices as the characters from the movie and so forth. ALSO also, I’m just a completist at heart, so I try to see things in a linear fashion whenever possible – first the original, then the one after that, and so on.

  6. Regarding Harry Potter, I prefer the film adaptation of Order of the Phoenix to the book. The movie does a good job of streamlining a bloated story and cuts out huge chunks of wangst. But for the most part, the Harry Potter movies are uneven. I’ve been most reluctant to see Half Blood Prince as it’s been indicated that much of what I enjoyed about the book was cut, while what I hated was emphasized.

    The Chronicles of Narnia is an interesting one. I was mostly okay with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Though some changes didn’t agree with me, it was a superior product in comparison to the Eighties BBC adaptation (which is a prime example of how it can be a bad thing to be too faithful to the source material). Prince Caspian however was a source of Deep Hurting. Justin does a good job of summarizing the defects of that one in his review (and I’m surprised he hasn’t ripped a new one for Voyage of the Dawn Treader yet).

  7. One fantasy series I hope never gets adapted to film is the Crackpot Hall series by Ysabeau Wilce (consisting of Flora Segunda, Flora’s Dare and Flora’s Fury, which comes out in May). Part of this is because I’m certain there would be a miscast with the titular protagonist. In the book, Flora is short, overweight, and has frizzy red hair. You just know that she would get glammed up.

  8. I rarely go to movies (I much prefer to read reviews!), but over the years I’ve seen a fair number of books and short stories adapted to the big and small screens. I used to be annoyed if the movie version didn’t match the book, but now I tend to have one of three reactions:
    a) praise the filmmaker for a worthy achievement (Lord of the Rings),
    b) scoff at the filmmaker for his ineptitude (Dune),
    c) stare agape at the pointlessness of making a movie that has practically nothing to do with the original story, especially when the original story would have been far better on screen than what the writers came up with
    (I Robot).

    Then there are those anomalies that stand on their own, like the original Planet of the Apes, which had very little to do with the original story but is a classic nonetheless.

    I’ve always loved books. Watching a movie adaptation of a book is an amusing diversion to see what the writers and director did with it (or to it, as the case may be).

  9. The book is the source material for a film. I don’t mind when some details are left out for the sake of time (Like Faramir’s romance with Eowen in Jackson’s LOTR) but I do get upset when the movie goes directly against the source material (Like Faramir being kind of a jerk in Jackson’s Two Towers).

    That being said, I just heard that a new live-action Ninja Turtles movie will be released next year, which got me very excited. Then I learned that Michael Bay is producing it, which got me very apprehensive. Then I learned that he has completely changed their origin story, and the Turtles are no longer mutants, they are ALIENS. Now, for someone who didn’t grow up with the Turtles, I guess it’s no big deal. But I was a literal member of their fan club when I was 8, and this really makes me mad. As Mutant Reviewers, you should all be outraged that Bay has something against Mutants! They are now the Teenage Alien Ninja Turtles! Ahhhh!

  10. Obviously I was never a boy in any decade, but I can say I did all the rest of those things if you switch the nunchucks for a bo staff. My question was prompted by the recent Micheal Bay announcement, that CGI TMNT movie, and that awful time-traveling mess in 1993. I’m happy enough with just the first two, as everything after that has been a disappointment to me.

    • I think what made the first TMNT film so good was that it stuck fairly well to the darker source material of the original comics. It still had some goofy “cowabunga, let’s eat pizza!” themes from the cartoon, but the Turtles used their weapons, argued with each other, and were basically defeated by Shredder. The second film, which I liked more as a kid but now find campy and painful to watch, was pure cartoon slapstick, where they never used their weapons and took out Shredder with a guitar at a Vanilla Ice concert.
      Let’s not even mention the third film.
      The new CGI film had a lot of flaws, but I admired that they focused on a real rift between the turtles (the Leo/Raph fight scene on the rooftop is well worth watching).
      Let’s just hope that Michael Bay doesn’t completely destroy our childhood memories. What I’d really like to see is a darker, PG-13 style remaking of the Turtles that stays true to the original comic, much like The Dark Knight. We’ll see!

      • Yeah, I went back to watch the second TMNT a few years ago and was less than ecstatic about it, too, although it was also one of my favorites as a child. The first one remains a strong film, so much so that I downloaded it on my phone so that I can watch it any time. I’ve pretty much been of the mindset of “Well, if no one’s made a decent one of these in thirty years, it’s probably time to abandon ye all hope.”
        Yay pessimism!

        As for Bay’s treatment, I’m just going to ignore it and ignore it hard. I’ll always have the first two (but mostly the first) TMNT movies and the cartoon series. *Dirty secret you’re not allowed to exploit: I haven’t yet read the comics*

      • While I can’t comment on the second and third ones, not having seen them, I agree that the first one was good. I’d be up for a darker TMNT movie, but I do think that there were certain changes made for the cartoons and such that made sense and should be kept – the different-colored headbands, for example; it was way too confusing when they were all red. Also, it would be nice if the Turtles still had FUN like they did in the adaptations – I haven’t read much of the original series, but I kind of got the impression that they didn’t enjoy themselves as much. I enjoyed that sense of brotherly camaraderie and joking around that the cartoon had.

  11. As for the comics, I am a bit shamed by not having read them yet, especially since I consider myself a big Turtles fan. It’s good to know not everyone would seek to have me tarred and feathered, though.

    I agree with what you said about the changes made from the comics. Although I haven’t read them, I know enough about what was changed to be on board with the more fun-loving nature of the turtles and different-colored headbands knee wraps.

    • I’m guessing that, purists aside, most Turtles fans have an image of them that draws from several different sources. They may prefer them to be in darker stories and the like, but their mental lexicon still includes such tidbits as “Michaelangelo is the party dude” and “Cowabunga!”

  12. You’re certainly forgiven for not reading the original comics. I only read them as an adult, out of sheer curiosity. They are NOT for kids. I would recommend that you read them now, as a lifelong Turtles fan, if only for the historical value. Eastman and Laird never thought they’d even write a second comic, much less begin a cultural empire.
    That being said, the original comics are BLEAK. The turtles cuss, they kill, and they’re bent on revenge. Shredder dies at the end of the first issue (something the creaters had to retcon, but again, they never thought there’d be a second issue). He is stabbed repeatedly by the turtles and is then offered an honorable suicide by Leonardo. Uh…. cowabunga?
    I guess I wouldn’t want a new film THAT dark, but to allow some gritty realism like the first TMNT film had.

      • I have seen Turtles Forever, but I came away with a different view of it. I was not a fan of the way the old crew was treated. It seemed the writers were bending over backwards to paint the old crew as inept caricatures. I got the feeling that we were supposed to see the new crew as superior in every way, to the point that I could almost feel the movie telling me to roll my eyes every time any of the old TMNT came onscreen. Sure, the old show was goofy and lighthearted, but the 80’s TMNT were still intelligent and kicked major butt. I didn’t get that feeling in Turtles Forever.

      • I agree completely with that statement, but it didn’t taint the entire film for me. I enjoy when they poke light-hearted fun at the old series (“…but first, we’ve got to save April!”). They did go overboard in making them look inept, though.
        What I did like is how the entire film portrays the “newer” cartoon turtles as the tough, serious ones, and then when they meet the original comics Turtles, they get their shell handed to them.

  13. Yeah, there were some redeeming bits about Turtles Forever. Your first reply had reminded me of something I mean to mention: What the shell is up with them constantly saying “What the shell”? Is that really the catchphrase they’re going with? Granted, “Cowabunga” is incredibly dated, but “What the shell” just rubs me the wrong way.

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