It’s a rule of thumb that the book is always better than the movie or TV series. But should you read the book after you’ve seen the screen adaptation?
A friend of mine loves The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter books with a passion, but refuses to this day to watch the films. Why? She prefers to cherish the stories and characters the way she imagined them, not a filmmaker’s interpretation. It’s a fair call, even though she is missing out on two of the better book-to-film adaptations.
Immersing yourself in a good book is a very private experience that gives you complete control of the story’s casting, production values, VFX, locations, costumes et al. You can even score it with some appropriate background music.
Author Paulo Coelho hit the nail on the head when he said, “The book is a film that takes place in the mind of the reader.” Moving pictures can never compete with the power of the imagination, or a novel’s ability to delve deep into the characters’ psyche and backstories. That’s why the book will always be better.
We’ve all endured mediocre adaptations of our favourite novels and ranted over miscasting and radical changes to the narrative, grateful that we’d read the book first. But reversing the process and reading the book afterwards can be just as rewarding. The obvious downside is knowing how it will end, as well as the difficultly in not immediately visualising the actors as the characters.
The Shining might be a classic horror movie from a master filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick, but it’s a terrible adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. If you want to be truly terrified by what transpires in the Overlook Hotel, read the book. (King scripted a more faithful mini-series adaptation in 1997, which was a total disaster.)
Conversely, Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs is one of the all time great film adaptations of a novel, and should be read before and after. The reader is right there with Clarice Starling in the climactic scene, totally unaware that she’s just entered Buffalo Bill’s lair. It’s a moment that can only work in a novel, but director Jonathan Demme pulls it off beautifully in the film with some cunning editing.
Spielberg’s Jaws is another brilliant and very faithful screen translation of a best-seller, and those who’ve never read Peter Benchley’s book will find a few surprises in there involving Hooper’s character, and a different fate for Quint.
And reading George R.R, Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series after you’ve watched Game of Thrones is actually the better option.
You’ll already know all the players and the lay of the land, and you won’t be constantly consulting the appendices to check who’s who and where their allegiances lie.
Then there are of course the adaptations that get things so completely wrong, you should definitely read the book afterwards. Cases in point: Baz Lurhmann’s glitzy The Great Gatsby, Ron Howard’s stagnant and exposition-heavy The Da Vinci Code, and Nikolaj Arcel’s egregious take on Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.
Novels and their screen adaptations are entirely different beasts, but can comfortably co-exist and frequently complement each other. So if you’re still on the fence whether to read first and watch later, or vice versa, why not try both?