Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book first or movie first?

A writer I met earlier this year, Stephanie Carroll, recently blogged a review of Kathryn Stockett's The Help -- both the book and the movie. Here's an excerpt:
I have a strict rule that when a book is made into a movie, you always watch the movie first and then read the book to get the fullest experience and appreciate both because reading a book of your favorite movie can be extremely fun. But I read the book before the movie came out. Whenever you watch a movie second, you hate it. But something amazing happened, I loved the movie! I stayed up two hours past my bedtime watching it! Yes, I have a bedtime.

I'm pretty much with Stephanie on this bit: Whenever you watch a movie second, you hate it. In my experience, that's almost always true.

But my strict rule is exactly opposed to hers. My rule is book first, movie second. When a book is made into a movie I'll only watch the movie first if I don't expect to read the book.

True confession: I saw all the Harry Potter movies, but couldn't be bothered to read the books. I hear they got better as J.K. Rowling went on, but I never got past the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

An exception that proves the rule I follow? Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go -- I saw the movie first in that case, but it was a mistake ... and I said so in my post about the movie and book, Dystopias in fiction.

I feel deprived when I see a movie before I read the book on which it is based. If I see the movie first I don't have a chance to imagine my own vision of the author's work ... I can't shake myself free of the movie's portrayal of the story.

The movie director's vision leads me to see, hear, and think of the work in the frame of her/his interpretation. When I think of the characters I see the actors who played them in the movie. When I visualize the setting I imagine from the director's and camera's point of view, inflected by the choices presented to them by a location scout. No matter how deep and rich the director's interpretation, no matter how nuanced the actors' portrayals, no matter how fine the cinematography, or how well done the lighting, the sound track, the costumes and props -- they're not what I would have imagined, given a clean slate and the author's words.

One of the things I like best about reading books is the sheer alchemy of reading: from an author's words -- "black marks on white paper" as a college roommate used to tease me when I spent too many hours scribbling -- through the filter of my imagination and experience, and thus to a world. I love watching movies too ... but, in the case of movies based on books, only after I've had a chance to interact with the book's author, mind-to-page.

What about you?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Shakespeare, power, theme in literature
The Adjustment Bureau meets Paradise Lost
Riding a novel to India's Sundarbans
Dystopias in fiction


  1. I am in total agreement. In fact, I finished reading The Help the day before seeing the film - which I disliked. I might have liked it had I not read first - but having done so, I saw the cowardly choices the filmmakers made, and the watered-down version they showed. I was not a huge fan of the book - but I felt it had much more to say than did the film.
    As to the Harry Potter films, I admit to being a colossal nerd-fan of the books (I listen to them on audiobooks, for God's sake - the Stephen Frye version!) and have avoided the movies after the first couple came out and I saw how they'd gutted the characters in favor of the special effects. Ah well.

  2. @RCB -- So you must think I gave up too soon on the Rowling novels ... so much to read and so little time!!

  3. I agree entirely. For books that really capture my imagination, I usually prefer to skip the movies so as not to obscure my reading memories.