Mid-Week Poll: Read the Book Before the Movie

Mid-Week Poll: Read the Book Before Watching the Movie?

Hollywood loves to adapt books into movies and TV shows. When this happens, do you try to read the book first, or do you avoid the book to judge the adaptation on its own?

[Note: The following post is spoiler-free.]

I’m a fan of ‘Game of Thrones’. After some friends forced me to watch a few episodes, I decided to read the first George R.R. Martin novel in the series (does anyone actually call it ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ anymore?) before watching the rest of the TV show. I’m currently working through the fourth book.

Recently, I was driving on a road trip with a friend who informed me that he was likely to nap soon. I said that was fine, but that I was going to turn on an audio book so that I wouldn’t get too bored and fall asleep at the wheel. As I listened to ‘A Feast for Crows’, my friend started asking questions about the characters. I answered, and then I asked him, “I thought that you had read all of ‘Game of Thrones’ books?” He informed me that no, he’d actually just read summaries online. I said something like, “Oh, I see…” I hope that my disdain wasn’t too evident.

The thing that I find most enjoyable about the ‘Game of Thrones’ series is how much I care (or possible loathe) the individual characters in the sprawling narrative. I think that the TV show manages to do this as well, but I don’t see an online CliffsNotes version as being anything more than a great big plot spoiler. Anyway, we ended up talking about books, and about how getting a nice visual of a character in a movie can help when reading the book later.

If I want to see a movie that has been adapted from a book or something similar, I try to read the book first. I think this started way back with ‘Starship Troopers‘. I’ve rarely regretted the decision, unless both the book and movie are lousy. I read ‘I Am Legend‘ while in the UK, because I suspected that the Will Smith vehicle would be abysmal. Yet I had seen the previous adaptations of that book, ‘The Omega Man‘ and ‘The Last Man on Earth’. If I still wanted to read the book after seeing ‘I am Legend’, wouldn’t it still have been great?

Similarly, I had never watched ‘The General’s Daughter’, but wanted to read the novel because I like author Nelson DeMille. The book was decent, and presents a fascinating perspective on the U.S. Army among other things. The movie, on the other hand, is mostly memorable for early scenes where John Travolta attempts a terrible Southern accent. The only enjoyment I got from watching that movie was seeing how quickly and decisively the filmmakers had failed to adapt the book effectively.

One last example is ‘Shutter Island‘. I really like author Dennis Lehane, and I avoided the movie until I had a chance to read his book (about a year or two). Unfortunately, even with some interesting spots, I found both completely awful. If I had just seen the movie, I might have saved myself the disappointment of reading a lousy book.

Feel free to expound on your reasons for reading or not reading a book, especially if you can illustrate why seeing a sub-par adaptation could be redeemed by familiarity with the source (e.g. Michael Crichton novels).

How Do You Deal with Book-to-Movie/TV Adaptations?

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  1. I try to judge the movie/show as its own thing. Sometimes that’s easier than others. If I haven’t already read the book, I make a point of not reading it until I’ve seen the adaptation first. Of course, if I’d already read the book previously, it’s much harder to not let my biases and expectations color my opinion.

    I had a really hard time separating the movie version of ‘The Road’ from the book. While a perfectly decent film on its own, it’s not 1/10th as bleak or powerful as the novel. Given that the text of the book is virtually unadaptable, it’s probably not fair to hold the movie to that standard.

    • When I was watching the special features for the ‘The Road,’ I felt really bad because of the huge amount of work that they put into the production.

      Just sticking with one change that bothered me with the movie, was how linear things progressed in the movie. Many early scenes in the movie are presented as flashbacks in the book at later points when they can have more gravity.

      Still, ‘the Road’ is a good example of a book that I might read once, but will re-watch the adaptation in lieu of re-reading the book.

  2. HuskerGuy

    Went with “Watch the adaptation first and then decide whether to read the book”. That said, I haven’t read a full book in quite a while. I own the Game of Thrones set (digital) but haven’t committed to reading it despite absolutely loving the show.

    My wife on the other hand is a read it first then watch it type of person. She refused to go see The Hunger Games until she’d finished all of the books.

  3. EM

    There are movies I have enjoyed enough that I wanted to read the books that spawned them. That has often led to disappointment (Psycho, Stand by Me), but not always (Planet of the Apes, Frankenstein).

    Sometimes I have been sure to read the book first; usually in that case, I enjoyed the book more (The Color Purple, the Lord of the Rings trilogy).

    I once discussed this issue with a friend who offered the theory that whichever one experiences first, one usually likes more. That makes a certain amount of sense: if I don’t like the first version I encounter, I’m less likely to be interested in pursuing the other version; if I do like the first version I encounter, the other version has to compete against my pre-formed positive expectations. And indeed, in the cases in which I have enjoyed the source prose after first enjoying the movie, usually those movies aren’t actual favorites of mine. If the movie is already a favorite, then the book has a much harder time meeting or exceeding expectations.

    I still like the bit that Alfred Hitchcock told François Truffaut about the goat eating a reel of film: when asked how his meal was, he turned to his fellow goat and said, “Not bad, but the book was better.”

    • William Henley

      I can see that, but in my case, I almost always like the book better than I did the movie. Harry Potter, 2001, 2010, Gone With The Wind, Wizard of Oz, all were great movies, but even better books.

      But I certainly see where you are coming from, and this makes sense.

    • EM

      I was not at home when I wrote the above, but now I am. Here is Hitch’s exact quote from Hitchcock–Truffaut:

      You probably know the story of the two goats who are eating up cans containing the reels of a film taken from a best seller. And one goat says to the other, “Personally, I prefer the book!”

      It’s a couple of pages into chapter 6, during a discussion of Rebecca.

  4. William Henley

    I had to go with other. Like with The Hunger Games, I read the book before I knew they were making a movie. With Gone With The Wind, Harry Potter 1, 2001, 2010, and Let The Right One In, and several others, I saw the movies before reading the books (In fact, in some cases, I did not even know there were book series. But with Harry Potters 2-7, Battlefield Earth, and Hunger Games 2-3, I read the books first.

    Basically, I like books, and I like movies. So whether I read the book first or see the movie first depends on when they come up on my radar.

  5. lordbowler

    Depends on the movie, generally.
    If I’ve read the book, I will see the movie:
    Anything Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy I’ve already read the books. Otherwise, I might read the book if I like the movie.

    I read Battlefield Earth, passed on the movie until DVD. Terrible film, ok book (second-half mostly).

    Some stories I’ve seen made into movies so often, It makes me want to read the source material. Philip K. Dick (Total Recall, etc.), Heinlein (Starship Troopers), etc.

    I’m interested in picking up The Barsoom Series because of John Carter.

    I don’t expect the movie to stay truthful to the book, I hope it honors the book like LoTR and Jurassic Park did.

  6. JM

    I always read the books first, because I love writers more than accountants.

    Unless, like ‘The Social Network,’ I only love the screenwriter and not the author. Like with Christopher McQuarrie’s adaption of ‘Jack Reacher.’

    Obviously 99% of the 100+ books I read per year never become movies (because there’s too much kissin’) so this dilemma happens rarely.

    I’ve never read a novelization. I just don’t understand the market for that.

    • William Henley

      WOW, I wish I could read that fast! I tend to read at about the speed that I speak at. As such, if I stay up an entire weekend, I can finish a Harry Potter book, but on average, it takes me 1-2 months to finish a book. Battlefield Earth took me six months. I read all three Hunger Game books in about 4 weeks.

      Interview With The Vampire (another one where I saw the movie before the book) took me about 2 weeks to read, The Vampire Lestat about 3 weeks, Queen of the Damned took me a month (just because it wasn’t as good as the previosu two)

      • JM

        70p per hour, mostly 300p novels. But if I counted cookbooks… the math would explode.

        Today, for example, I would totally watch a movie adaption of Michael Psilakis’s ‘How To Roast A Lamb.’

        • William Henley

          Depending on the book, I do anywhere from 15-50 pages an hour. I will have to say 20-25 pages an hour is normal for me. Books like “Tale of Two Cities” are like 10 pages an hour, books like the Little HOuse on the Prarie books I can read about 40-50 pages an hour.

        • William Henley

          Oh, and if you will provide the Lamb, I will happily roast it for you. Love cooking, hate spending money on overpriced meat. So as much as I like beef, pork, lamb, goat, etc, you will most likely see me eating a can of raviollis just because I’m cheap.

    • EM

      Novelizations interested me as a kid because in that era, it might be years—if ever!—before a movie would be available to own on home video or to see again in other venues. Reading and rereading the novelization was the closest thing to rewatching the film—well, along with reading the comics adaptation, collecting the bubblegum cards, and so on. I still have a soft spot for those old novelizations I grew up on, and I’ve been meaning to pick up a few that I never read back in the day, just to explore that corner of fandom. I’ve been under the impression that the market for new novelizations has largely ceased to exist; and I’ve assumed that the shrinking of theater-to-home lag coupled with the rise of video-game adaptations is responsible.

      The novel 2001: A Space Odyssey is a curious case. The novel and the film were developed concurrently, twin products of a joint project. Even though the novel’s publication came a little later than the film’s premiere, the book is not a novelization in the usual sense. The novel’s author, Arthur C. Clarke, not only contributed to the film but had in fact written some short stories the film was based on, most notably “The Sentinel”. Accordingly the novel usually gets looked upon as legitimate literature.

      • JM

        Novelizations of broken movies are starting to intrigue me.

        Dean Foster’s ‘Return Of The Jedi.’

        Orson Scott Card’s ‘The Abyss.’

        William Kotwinkle’s ‘ET.’

        Piers Anthony’s ‘Total Recall.’

        Kevin J Anderson’s ‘Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.’

        Vonda N. McIntyre’s ‘The Wrath of Khan.’

        Earl Mac Rauch’s ‘The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.’

        Theodore Sturgeon’s ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.’

        Wayland Drew’s ‘Dragonslayer.’

        W. J. Stuart’s ‘Forbidden Planet.’

        The novelization of ‘Phantasm’ was written by the director’s mom.

        • EM

          The novelization of Return of the Jedi was written by James Kahn. Alan Dean Foster did ghost-write the novelization of Star Wars, which was officially attributed to George Lucas. The Jedi novel is especially notable for a scene in which the spirit of Obi-Wan reveals some soap-opera backstory that ends up being contradicted by the prequels—whether the inconsistency undermines the authority of the novel or just undermines the legitimacy of the prequels, I will leave to the interested reader-viewer to decide.

          Thanks for mentioning the Forbidden Planet and Sky Captain novelizations, which I didn’t know existed. Both films are outside my nostalgia target era, but I like both films a lot and can imagine great potential for interesting prose adaptations. I’ve added Sky Cap to one of my Amazon wish lists and placed an order for Forbidden Planet.

          Kotzwinkle’s E.T. was fun; the added detail sometimes made it seem like it was from another, borderline R-rated movie in the same franchise. (Let’s just say that the boys’ adolescence is a tad rawer than in the film.)

          Also—“broken”? I’d agree regarding about half of those flicks…

          • I read Piers Anthony’s Total Recall novelization back in the day. As I recall, it had a lot more information about the Martians that built the reactor, what their species was like, and what the real purpose of the reactor was. None of that made the final version of the movie. I found it interesting when I was 16. Don’t know how I’d feel about it today.

          • JM

            Some are broken, some have hairline fractures…

            ‘Forbidden Planet’ and ‘Sky Captain’ I put on the list just for you.

            Actually, based on the pulp praise, I might get ‘Sky Captain’ for my boys.

          • EM

            I tend to scoff at novelizations of movies based on works in the short-story–novel continuum. But since my Amazon wish list also includes Alan Dean Foster’s The Thing (I have read John W. Campbell, Jr’s [Don A. Stuart’s] “Who Goes There?”—I promise!!), I shall scoff quietly.

            Now, comics adaptations of movies based on comics are outright artistic incest.

  7. paulb

    Never read the book ahead of the movie as you can’t help but spend time analyzing what was and wasn’t in the book, what they changed etc. You can’t really enjoy the movie as a pure experience.
    The books will always have more details than the movie so it will serve as a extended (and modified) version of the movie so it is good to read after, not before.

  8. I didn’t pick any of the options, because I don’t really do one thing or the other. Often I’ll see a movie because I’m a fan of the book, sometimes I’ll read the book before the movie if there’s a lot of early advertising that gets me interested, other times I read the book after because I enjoyed the film.

    Hunger Games – Read the the book as a bit of research not long before seeing the film. Was pleasantly surprised at how good an adaptation it was.

    Dune – Read the book after the film. Enjoyed it, could see the film wasn’t a perfect adaptation but still love it more than the book.

    Starship Troopers – Book first, film bad adaptation but still loved it.

    John Carter – Read book first (My all time favourite books). Very disappointed with the film, because it was not only a bad adaptation but added nothing and was a terrible film even in its own right.

  9. JM

    Spielberg’s ‘Robopocalypse’ I’ll do the movie only.

    ‘Lincoln’ I want to finish Doris Kearns Goodwin’s ‘Team of Rivals’ so that I can meet Daniel Day-Lewis halfway.

    ‘Jurassic Park IV’ I wish there was a book to read…

    • William Henley

      Was there a book to Jurassic Park 3? I mean one actually by Crichton, not a novilization? I loved the books for the first two movies.