Sunday, 14 October 2012

Which Should Come First: The Book or The Film

Recently I've read a couple of blog posts concerning the film adaptation of a novel. Firstly there was a post about The Ghost, and then more recently this post about Tell No One. My comments on both posts reminded me that for a few years now I've had a blog post of my own germinating at the back of my mind. So without further ado...

If given a choice would you read the book first or watch the film?

For those of you hopping for a clear answer to this question, I'm sorry but I'm going to disappoint you. There are some films where I only found out they were based on a book as the credits rolled, and others where I only watched the film because I'd already read the book. Strangely there have been good and bad experiences regardless of the sequence. Here are just a few examples, and the order I'd personally recommend (feel free to disagree with me in the comments).

Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton
Recommendation: Film then Book

I'm starting with Jurassic Park as it was the first time I'd really thought about the question of which to read/watch first. When I saw the film I had no idea it was based upon a book. It was only when the follow up film, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, was about to be released that one of my school friends offered to lend me the books.

Now I had really enjoyed the first film; it had a plot, it had amazing special effects, and a good musical score. The book, however, is better. There are more dinosaurs and the kids are slightly less annoying. I think I'd still have enjoyed the film had I read the book first (the special effects would have kept me interested) but I would definitely recommend seeing the film first and then allowing the extra scenes in the book to add to the experience rather than being disappointed when your favourite scene is cut from the film.

As for the follow up films; I suggest ignoring them completely. The second book, is well worth reading, but has little in common with the second film. The third film, Jurassic Park III, has little in the way of plot, although it does use some of the scenes from the first book that never made it into the film, but that isn't really enough to rescue it.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J. K. Rowling
Recommendation: Watch the film, don't bother with the book

While there was a lot of hype around Harry Potter, even before the first film was released, I didn't have any intention of reading the books or watching the films. I did eventually end up watching the films though, some of them even at the cinema, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. Okay, so there is some poor acting in the first film, but given many of the actors had never acted before this isn't exactly surprising, and I think adds to the charm of the early movies.

After having seen the penultimate movie, Bryony suggested I read the books so that I didn't have to wait for the last film. This seemed like a reasonable idea, so I went back and started from the first book. Unfortunately it's terrible. I know it's aimed at children, but I find it badly written and lacking in convincing descriptions of many of the key scenes or sequences. The latter books, which are aimed at slightly older children are much better. I'm guessing that just as the child actors learnt to act, J. K. Rowling learnt to write as the sequence went on. If you have already seen the films and now want to read the books, then I'd suggest skipping the first book entirely, I promise you won't be missing anything!

Tell No One, Harlan Coben
Recommendation: Book then Film

Tell No One was the first book I read by Harlan Coben. It was a gift and so I had no real expectations of what it would be like. It is, however, an excellent novel; one of those books that you find hard to put down. When I heard it was being turned into a film I could see how it could be a great movie. Then I found out that it was being filmed in French, a language I don't speak at all.

When I eventually got hold of a copy of the movie I watched it dubbed into English, rather than trying to keep up by reading subtitles. Even then it was quite difficult to follow. I think that had I not read the book I would have been unable to enjoy the film at all. It is of course difficult to criticize the movie given that native French speakers might find the experience very different, but I certainly wouldn't suggest watching it without having read the book first.

The Hunt For Red October, Tom Clancy
Recommendation: Either the book or the film first

I first saw The Hunt For Red October a long time before I read the book. Having also seen Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, I actually made the decision to read one of the other Tom Clancy books (from the same series) first so that I could judge the writing without knowing the plot.

Tom Clancy's novels are extremely detailed, often with an unbelievably large number of interconnected plot lines. As such the film adaptations have to leave out quite a large amount in order to keep the running time down. Fortunately, for the novels that have been filmed this doesn't really seem to have detracted from the story.

The General's Daughter, Nelson DeMille
Recommendation: Book then Film

Like the Tom Clancy novels and films it probably doesn't matter too much which way around you read/watch The General's Daughter. The film is good adaptation of the book, although it does change the settings for some scenes, and expands on some issues only briefly mentioned in the book.

My reason for suggesting you read the book first, is that I found it impossible to read the book without picturing John Travolta as the main character. Normally I can easily separate the characters from the actors that play them but for some reason with this story it was almost impossible. Not that there was anything wrong with his portrayal of the character, but when reading a book I prefer to imagine the character as described and not as depicted in a film.

So there we go, a few examples of film adaptations and which way around I think you should read/watch them. As I said at the start though there doesn't seem to be much of a pattern that I can use to predict the ordering for the future. The only common thread seems to be that if both the book and film are excellent then the ordering doesn't matter too much, but given that you can't judge either the book or film without having first read or watched them that doesn't really help!
14 October 2012 at 19:09 , DawnTreader said...

Hello Mark: The only ones I can have an opinion on here is the Harry Potter series. (I've seen the first Jurassic Park film but I don't think I knew it was based on a book, and I've never come across the book.)

With HP, I grew to be a proper fan ;) I first listened to books 1-4 as audio books, then with the last three I bought each of them on the day it was released. With the films I waited for the dvd's (but bought those as soon as they were available). It's really only with the third film that I feel the film may actually be better than the book (dealing very well with the complicated aspects of time and destiny involved). With the first book I can see how it may seem inferior to the later ones, but in my opinion that impression is deceptive. My experience is that if you keep going back to the first book after each of the consecutive books - which I did - it grows on you, and really turns out to hold more essential "seeds" to the whole story than it may seem on the surface. But on first read it is as impossible to see that as it is to guess from a seed what the grown plant is going to look like.

Of course (in line with what you say) it's also impossible for me to say what my experience would have been if I had first seen all the films before I read the books. But the last films do have to skip a lot and even change certain plot twists. On the whole I think they did a good job of the films but I still got more out of the books.

It also adds extra dimensions if one takes the trouble to look into the meaning and origin of names and symbols because there is an incredible amount of hidden references built into the story. I was not overwhelmed with my first impressions of the first book either; but in retrospect I think there's a lot more to it than just the author growing with the story. No doubt she did, but there is also an original intention involved, in letting the reader's understanding grow along with the main character - who also matures with each book. (And in the films they've managed to keep that aspect by keeping the same actors.)

14 October 2012 at 20:19 , Mark said...

You may well be right, about getting more from the 1st HP book on successive readings. I have to admit that of the five books in the post I've read three of them multiple times (HP and Tell No One being the exceptions), and so maybe this has coloured my judgement of them.

By the way I picked these five books deliberately as in ever case I really enjoyed either the film or the book (and in most cases both). I'd definitely recommend reading and/or watching any of those you haven't come across before. For instance, both Jurassic Park books are well worth a read. Mind you be careful with Michael Crichton film adaptations, Congo is so terrible it should never be watched by humans again!

15 October 2012 at 08:24 , GB said...

Apart from the Russian novels such as War and Peace (read in three different translations) and Anna Karenina and perhaps a Grisham or two I can't think of any films I've seen where I have also read the book. Certainly with the Russian novels I read the books first but probably would not have bothered if I'd already seen the film. That would have been a great shame because even though the BBC series of War an Peace was absolutely superb the book was even better.

15 October 2012 at 08:32 , Mark said...

Ah yes, War and Peace. It's on a long list of "classic" literature that I should read one day. I've never seen an adaptation either though so as yet I'm not sure what I'm missing out on.

15 October 2012 at 09:17 , Helen said...

A very thought-provoking blog Mark. I'm not sure that I'm too worried about the order that I read/watch in, but am very interested in which are worth reading and/or watching. Off the top of my head I've come up with the following (and yes I agree the Harry Potter books were disappointing):

Anna Karenina
Bridget Jones's Diary
Doctor Zhivago
King Solomon's Mines
Memoirs of a Geisha
Pride & Prejudice
Rabbit-proof fence
Seven Years in Tibet
The Da Vinci Code
The Lord of the Rings
The Northern Lights / The Golden Compass
The Pianist
The Remains of the Day
Watership Down

The Count of Monte Cristo
The Lovely Bones

Harry Potter

A Mighty Heart
Charlotte Grey
Gone with the Wind
Jack Ryan films
James Bond films
Jurassic Park
Last of the Mohicans
Minority Report
Schindler's Ark/List
The English Patient
The Hunger Games
The Time Traveler’s Wife

Would be interested to know if any of the books in the last list AREN'T worth reading.

15 October 2012 at 10:18 , GB said...

Well I'd definitely recommend the 1972 BBC series adaptation over the 1957 film. I can't recall the other films which I may or may not have seen of it.

15 October 2012 at 10:31 , Mark said...


I'd probably not bother with Last of the Mohicans, I didn't think much to the book.

Minority Report is actually only a short story by Philip K. Dick, and from what I remember the plots are quite different even if the premise is the same (a bit like Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep). Having said that if you enjoy sci-fi that makes you think then you could do worse than read Philip K. Dick stories.

The Jack Ryan novels are definitely all worth reading (I think your Mum has many of them so you could probably borrow them from her).

Jurassic Park, and it's sequel are also worth a read as are many of Michael Crichton's other books; for example I think Disclosure is better as a book.

The Hunger Games are also worth reading. I haven't yet seen the film but both Bryony and I have just read all three books. While they are clearly "young adult" literature and fairly predictable in places they are really enjoyable reads.

Other than that I'm hopping someone else will jump in as I haven't read any of the other books in that list.

15 October 2012 at 10:58 , GB said...

How could I have forgotten:

The Lord of the Rings: Brilliant read the book then watched the films.

The Northern Lights / The Golden Compass: Wonderful books - They are the only books I was devastated to lose because my copies meant so much to me. I really did not like the film version at all.

The Pianist: Great film. I can't remember much about the book. I read it when I first went to NZ.

The Remains of the Day: Book then film. Both superb.

Watership Down: Book then film. I truly disliked both of them more than I can describe. I didn't finish the film.

The Time Travellers Wife. I've half read the book and half watched the film!

15 October 2012 at 11:02 , Mark said...

Lord of the Rings: I read these in the summer between junior and high school and while I loved the films the time gap between the two makes it impossible for me to compare them. Maybe I should dig out the books at some point.

The film of The Golden Compass was pretty bad, so much so that I haven't bothered to try the books yet -- although they are sat on Bryony's bookshelf.

Watership Down: I actually enjoyed the film as a child (even if it is scary in places), in fact I have a copy on DVD, but I've never read the book.

15 October 2012 at 17:45 , DawnTreader said...

I went in search of Jurassic Park as e-book yesterday, but it does not seem to be available as such!

Lord of the Rings I first read when I was about 18-19 years old, I agree about the time gap until the films makes it hard to compare. I like the films but I would not skip the books!

With the Golden Compass I first read the book and did not like it; then I saw the film and actually liked that better. After that I decided to give the other two books a chance (maybe I'd just been in the wrong mood when reading the first one?) - but still found myself disliking them! (Sorry GB.)

Watership Down - read the book long time ago and loved it, I think I also saw the (1978) film but that didn't make much of an impression. It's the book I remember.

The Time Traveller's Wife: I read the book (rather recently) and liked it a lot; somehow I don't feel really curious to also see the film.

Gone With the Wind: I read the book first, saw the film later, but not too far apart (first time, way back in my teens). Liked both. I've rewatched the film in later years but it's probably been 40 years or so since I read the book.

15 October 2012 at 19:39 , Helen said...

Thanks everyone. Interesting to see that the Golden Compass and Watership Down were the subject of such differences of opinion.

I shall indeed skip reading Last of the Mohicans.

17 October 2012 at 11:46 , Mark said...

Oh and one more film to avoid at all costs: The Hitchhicker's Guide to the Galaxy. The radio plays are fantastic, the book is wonderful, and the TV show was almost perfect. Unfortunately the film isn't any of these things, instead it was an absolute disaster and disappointment.

17 October 2012 at 13:18 , GB said...

Yet another one I forgot. I agree with you about the book (a favourite) and the few TV episodes I saw. The film was dreadful so far I was concerned.

17 October 2012 at 13:32 , DawnTreader said...

I totally agree about the Hitchhiker's Guide film vs TV series. If memory serves me right I borrowed the book but had to return it to the library before I'd finished it (I don't think I got very far in it). Then I saw the film and shook my head at that so never made another attempt with the book. But then my brother lent me the TV-series on DVD, and that I enjoyed.

17 October 2012 at 16:25 , GB said...

Your post galvanised me into clearing the book piles that were lingering around the bookcase in the living room. I had a feeling they were still going to be there when I leave for NZ. I am astonished to find how many - lots - of books I have read and seen the films just amongst those on my shelves. With some I can't even recall which order I read/viewed them in. I did recall one, however, which I blogged about when I was still actively posting on my book blog: Anna Gavalda's Hunting and Gathering

17 October 2012 at 18:21 , Mark said...

So having read your post on Huntin and Gathering, am I someone you would recommend it to?

I've also just remembered another set of books I'd recommend avoiding. I loved the Dalziel and Pascoe TV series, and when I saw one of the Reginald Hill books at a second book fair I picked it up. Unusually for me I just couldn't read it. I tried on a couple of occasions and eventually gave up and returned the book to my nearest charity shop.

17 October 2012 at 22:20 , GB said...

I'm not at all sure that it's your type of book Mark and I'm fairly certain that you would not like the movie regardless.

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