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Should I Read The Book First? Movies vs. Novels

Updated on March 5, 2015

When your favorite book is going to become a major motion picture, the news can fill a fan with both delight and fear. Many will see the movie to find out if it’s as good as the book.

But for many others, the movie may be their only exposure to the story or series. While popular movies such as Twilight, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games series are often exciting, beautiful and interesting; fans are missing out when they see the movie without having first read the book.

Where It All Started

Many great movies start out as great books. Reading the original work allows the audience to understand the author’s original message, how she delivered the message and the original ending. All these aspects may have to be changed when a book is adapted into a film.

Victoria Ahearn of the Canadian Press notes that many authors feel that reading the book first is important and can enhance the enjoyment of the movie. Ahearn, in an interview with Yann Martel, author of The Life of Pi, also points out that sometimes the movie comes first and then the book. In either instance Martel asserts, “one should start with the original work”

Some books are written in a format that makes them hard to adapt to the big screen without some loss of the original message. For example, a book that is told in first person (through the eyes of one of the characters) loses some of that narrative technique when you add the director’s interpretation of the scene and the audience’s ability to view external images. While this may not be a negative, it fundamentally changes the story and the story’s perspective.

Books Have More Details

From the internal conflicts and emotions of characters to entire chapters and scenes, the book almost always offers more details about the story. While some of this can be captured with voice-overs and actor emotions, the interpretation of those materials still falls to the actors and director. Their ideas may not fit the personal experience that you have as a reader. Their interpretation may take the characters or the scene in a different direction.

It is also nearly impossible for a movie, in a two hour span, to convey all the details of the original novel. Something has to be cut. Sometimes what the director decides to cut are your favorite parts.

For example, while there are many details that had to be cut from the Harry Potter book series to create the films, one of the parts I miss the most is the humor that J.K. Rowling injects with plays on words and little details that make the reader chuckle. While some of the humor remains, much of it had to be cut to make sure the main story and the most important characters received adequate screen time.

Sometimes the Movie is Better

But sometimes the movie is better, and the filmmaker is able to take a jumbled mess and create a coherent story and a blockbuster hit.

There are many lists and opinions about which movie is better than the book. One book that I feel benefited from its film version is Forrest Gump. In the original novel, while it is amusing and fun to read, Winston Groom does not leave the reader with a strong and memorable storyline.

The film adaptation and the interpretation of Forrest by actor Tom Hanks created an instant classic with a character audiences fell in love with and a storyline that, no matter how improbable in real life, made us want to believe.


Frankly, My Dear

Occasionally both the book and the movie are equally worthy of attention, praise and accolades. When this happens, the experiences when watching the film or reading the novel are very different.

Classics such as Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz are a part of our film history. But both originally were developed from highly successful novels. Reading the novel of Gone with the Wind, for example, shows more of the inner strength and the complicated relationship of Scarlet and Melanie. Even with a run-time of almost four hours, the film is still unable to capture some of the nuances of the characters.

But the movie has become a classic in its own right through its achievements in use of color and in memorable lines and dialogue that have entered the collective consciousness of everyday phrases. The movie is a cultural reference point.

If the movie and the film are both worthy, they will naturally develop their own following.

When in doubt, read the book first.

Top 7 Books-To-Film You Should Read First

  1. The Hunger Games Trilogy

  2. The Harry Potter Series

  3. The Great Gatsby

  4. Frankenstein

  5. Gone With The Wind

  6. Fried Green Tomatoes

  7. The Color Purple

What do you choose?

See results

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