The eternal question

“Compared to a novel, a film is like an economy pizza where there are no olives, no ham, no anchovies, no mushrooms, and all you’ve got is the dough.”

Louis de Bernieres

Here it is – is it better to read the book first, or see the film? Alternatively, which do you prefer – to read a book and then watch it on screen, or see it before you read it?

This isn’t about whether screen adaptations are better than their original source material, or even whether films live up to the expectations of novels. I have seen several adaptations that do justice to the books that inspired them, and I have seen many that don’t. But this is about whether or not a book should come first in your experience of a story, and ultimately, does it matter?

I can see pros and cons for both, but I will say now that after considering this for a while, I think that in the majority of situations it is best to read the book first. This sums up my reasoning quite well:

“I love books, by the way, way more than movies. Movies tell you what to think. A good book lets you choose a few thoughts for yourself. Movies show you the pink house. A good book tells you there’s a pink house and lets you paint some of the finishing touches, maybe choose the roof style, park your own car out front. My imagination has always topped anything a movie could come up with. Case in point, those darned Harry Potter movies. That was so not what that part-Veela-chick, Fleur Delacour, looked like.”

Karen Marie Moning

I think imagination is the key to reading. I don’t want to picture a certain actor or a certain set when I read a book for the first time. It ends up being nothing more of a replay of the movie in your head, only at a much slower pace. I remember seeing the film version of Roald Dahl’s The Witches for the first time, and while it was certainly scary, it was nowhere near as bad as it had been in my imaginaion. Plus, unless the book and the film are radically different, I usually find I have less enthusiasm for devoting so much of my time to reading something when I can see then next scene being acted out in my head before I’ve even turned the page. This happened to me recently when I read the first Game of Thrones novel after watching the TV adaptation, which was so faithful to the novel, it ended up taking me ages to finish because all I kept thinking was, what’s the point?

In some instances, though, a book can add an extra layer to a story and its characters that might have been missing from the film, and lets face it, there have been many adaptations of novels that have stripped the story bare. The best example I can think of this is The Shining. This was a good movie in its own right, but to me, Kubrick just took the title of a novel and used the same character names as Stephen King used in his book to make something completely different.

A bad movie shouldn’t put you off a book, and vice versa. And a film can be an encouraging factor for adults and children alike to pick up a book and read when they had perhaps never dreamed of doing so before. This no doubt is particularly true of classics, which many people find difficult to read without knowing at least part of the plot first. Film adaptations can keep characters alive – how many people today are still familiar with the stories of Charles Dickens, for example, or Jane Austen, or even Shakespeare, in part because of screen adaptations? I could probably come up with a few books myself that I will no doubt never read, but does that mean I won’t watch the movie?

In conclusion, this is still a sticky subject. I did say that I could see two sides to this argument, and I think I will stick with my original thought – nothing beats your own imagination, and so if you can read a book first, I would suggest doing so. But if watching a movie inspires you to read the novel it was based on, don’t be put off. You never know how much it might enrich your understanding and enjoyment of the story.

“Never judge a book by its movie.”

J.W. Eagan



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