Mar 12 2009
Everyone who’s ever seen a movie that was based on a book has undoubtedly heard the statement, “The book was better.” More often than not (maybe 19 out of 20 times), they’re right. It’s been a pet peeve of mine when people make this statement, as it’s not only an unfair comparison to begin with, but often simply a self-serving comment. Sure, movies are almost always worse than the books on which they are based, but that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Keep reading to find out why it’s such a pointless comparison in the first place.
First of all, comparing a book to a movie is inherently unfair. Both mediums are used to tell stories, explore themes, and develop believable characters, but the medium of film is far more limited than that of literature. With a movie, your time is limited, and it’s impossible to cram all the ideas and concepts from a book into a mere two or three hours. With a book, though, the author can slowly plot out whatever he or she wants and isn’t restricted by time. Of course, books are edited and cut down, but it’s a lot easier to convey information in 400 pages of writing than it is in two hours of film.
Next, the very nature of the book medium itself means that books can do things that movies can’t. An author can get deep inside characters’ heads, introduce meta-stories, and use language that is far more descriptive than any visual you might see on a movie screen. With books, the imagery is largely left up to the reader’s imagination, which is often more vivid and fully realized than any special visual effect. And when an image is in your head, it’s a far more intimate experience than viewing someone else’s subjective image on screen.
With regard to the development of characters, a good example is the book and movie of the same title, American Psycho. The book was brilliant, the movie was entertaining, but again, the comparison is unfair. With a book, Bret Easton Ellis had the luxury of fully exploring Pat Bateman’s motives for killing and his perception of the world and the materialistic 80s culture that surround him. The chapter “Killing at the Zoo” is a terrific illustration of this – Ellis gets inside Bateman’s head, conveying the thrill and then the regret over murdering a small child. The regret isn’t because Bateman feels remorse, but because far more damage could have been done by killing someone in his or her prime (as opposed to a child). This chilling aspect is lost in the film version, but it’s nobody’s fault. The limited medium of film simply doesn’t permit these types of insights to be efficiently conveyed to audiences, and so the comparison isn’t one that’s worth making in the first place.
The experience of reading a book, aside from having your imagination running the entire time, is an investment of time and thought, whereas watching a movie is something that can often be done passively. When you’ve finished a good book, because of the time you’ve spent, you often feel like you’ve accomplished something. That’s not the case with movies, even if they are fantastic three hour epics like Fellowship of the Ring. Reading is a much more active process than watching a movie, so it follows that the satisfaction one receives after finishing a book should be greater than that received by finishing a movie.
Finally, anyone who makes the comment “The book was better” is a) stating the obvious, but more significantly, b) patting themselves on the back for reading a book. Great, millions of people read books, and the fact that you happened to read a book that has been turned into a movie doesn’t make you sophisticated or cultured; it makes you normal. Like I wrote above, though, there is a certain satisfaction in finishing a book that is absent when one finishes a movie, and the person who has claimed to have read the book at issue is, to me, simply bragging that he or she has apparently accomplished something. I’m not saying that everyone is guilty of this, but I’ve definitely come across many people who seemed just a bit too proud of this “accomplishment.” The commenter also overlooks – or fails to appeciate – the unfair comparison. Of course the book was better…after all, it’s a friggin’ book!
So, that’s my pet peeve. I think it’s obvious, I think it’s often self-serving, and most of all, I think it’s a totally unnecessary and unfair comparison to make in the first place. I know it’s sometimes difficult, but enjoy the book for what it was and enjoy the movie for what it was. There are some rare instances where I believe a film is actually superior to a book, despite all the limitations the former has, but that’s a discussion I will save for a later time.
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