See the Movie or Read the Book First?

The holiday season is coming up fast with its compliment of “prestige” films, those high-budget, critic-favored movies all aimed to become Oscar bait.  That’s fine, but since a lot of prestige pictures are based on written works, some readers face an unusual quandary.  When a book-based picture comes out, which should you do first: read the book or see the movie?  Or, if you love one of these, should you even look at the other?

I found out how hard that question was long before I grew up.  Somewhere around age 9, I discovered Dodie Smith’s book, The Hundred and One Dalmatians.  To say I fell in love with the tale is a gross understatement: I re-read it so often, I could recite whole pages of it from memory.  So I should have loved the Disney adaptation, right?  Wrong!  I couldn’t stand the picture because it altered key parts of the original story and removed the comfortably British narrative voice.  I went home swearing at the film industry in general and Disney in particular for trashing a classic.  I believed no movie would ever respect a book.

Flash forward 25 years or so.  I’m still a fan of British lit. but, there some books I won’t touch, like Howards End.  I heard the book was difficult and dull so I avoided it on principle. It took the beautiful 1992 film adaptation to open my eyes. Even after falling in love with the picture, I was a bit unsure about the book.  Given the usual film-adaptations, would I like the original story?  Little did I know that Merchant-Ivory, that film’s production company, was known for their sensitive treatment of original material.  Howard’s End remains one of my all-time faves on the screen and the page.
The truth is, some movie adaptations of stories work while others don’t .  Film is a visual medium that makes some story-telling easier but it requires light and movement to keep the audience interested. Watching somebody think is dull.  And while words only require a reader’s imagination, every reader’s vision can’t be incorporated into a film adaptation.  So it’s your choice to read the book or see the movie first/  Just be prepared to accept the two versions may have nothing in common beyond the title.

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