Sep 04 2012

Why Judging a Movie by its Book is Wrong

Published by at 11:00 am under Editorials,Movies

Too often my experience at the movies is ruined when a friend turns to me and says, “That was nothing like the book.”

Shut up. Just shut up.

Books are great—they activate the imagination and have the power to draw you into a magical world of fiction. But movies (I’m sure I don’t have to tell you) are great too! And I always enjoy seeing movies coming out that are based on books because, even though it’s easier to watch a movie than to read a book, I think the movies bring well-deserved attention to its book counterpart.

Honestly, I understand wanting to compare a movie to its book, especially if you really enjoyed the book, but that’s not an appropriate first response to the movie. As difficult as it is, in order to enjoy a movie based on a book, you must be able to set aside the book as you watch and judge the movie. There will be time for comparisons later.

Watch the movie as if you have never read the book. Or at least distance yourself from the book as much as possible. I remember when the movie Twilight was attacked for being so bad, fans defended the franchise, claiming the book was better and that the movie did not live up to it.

Yes, the movie was awful. I don’t think anyone was saying otherwise. But fans have to realize that they need not defend the movie in order to defend the franchise; the movie can stand on its own. Yes, the books were better, but that hardly makes up for the movie.

This goes both ways: People who had not read the books shouldn’t judge the franchise solely on the movie. They should be able to critique the movie in such a way as not to condemn the books they had yet to read.

The problem with comparing the movie with its book is that the two are entirely different art forms. With a book, the author has 300 or more pages to tell her tale, build her world, and develop her characters. When a movie is based on a book, it has two hours to do the same things. There are limitations to both forms: advantages and disadvantages. To compare the two to form your opinion on one or the other isn’t fair to the book, the movie, or yourself.

Movies by their very nature can’t include everything that was in the book. Even the best adaptations deviate a little. The exception being when the book is written after the movie, or alongside the screenplay. And, sometimes, the opposite problem presents itself. Some movies, like The Adjustment Bureau, are based (loosely) on short stories. Then there’s an issue with having enough material for a full-length movie.

These same things apply to any art form that draws inspiration from another. Many anime shows are based on manga serials; superhero movies are rooted in comics; Disney’s princess movies come from short fairy tales and myths.

Each retelling is just that: a retelling. Details will be changed, and artists will take creative liberties. How boring would it be to see the same thing over and over again, especially when it comes to superheroes, myths, and fairy tales. When a new actor and director take over the Batman franchise, it isn’t going to be the same Bruce Wayne played by West, Keaton, Kilmer, Clooney, or Bale, and it won’t be the same universe as envisioned by Burton, Schumacher, or Nolan. And it definitely won’t line up perfectly with the comic book mythos. But I wouldn’t want it to.

But these are all things to take into consideration when first critiquing a movie. Obviously, it is unrealistic to think that a movie and the book it’s adapted from will never be compared. They must be! But carefully, and only after you’ve judged the film as it stands—without the piece of literature that inspired it.

But you shouldn’t compare them just to see where the movie got things wrong. You should look at what was left out of the movie and what was added in, and wonder why. For example, the uprising in District 11 shown in The Hunger Games was never mentioned to Katniss in the novel. She was later made aware of it in the sequels, though. And she receives a gift from District 11 in the novel—a gift she assumes was originally for Rue. This doesn’t happen in the movie. The way Katniss treats Rue upon her death moves those who are watching the Hunger Games. In the novel, we are in Katniss’s mind; she is able to tell us that the gift was from District 11 based on the way it is made. In the movie, the gift would have to have had the District 11 seal on it for the audience to know. The scene in the book was subtle and touching. The movie, however, wasn’t restricted to Katniss’s mind, and it was able to show a less subtle, more gripping response to Rue’s death and Katniss’s kindness by District 11.

While I want to say that there is no way to determine which is better, there really is. Just judge the movie and book the same way you would judge any other movie or book. Look for plot and character development, the use of props, conflict and conflict resolution, etc. Sometimes what makes for a great novel would never pass for a movie. It was said that Heart of Darkness could never be made into a good movie. Apocalypse Now was one director’s stab at it. It was indeed a movie version of the novella, but was it good? I’m not convinced.

We expect something different from movies than books. We expect to be drowned with things that are pleasing to the eye because we don’t have to use our imagination. Hollywood seems to think we want explicit, unabridged action, sex, and violence. We expect books to speak toward some higher philosophical truths. Though, the kinds of movies that are constantly being released may have some sort of impact on what we expect from them.

All that to say, “Shut the hell up, and let me enjoy my movie. I’ll read the book later.”





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16 responses so far

  • Uncoolaidman

    Could not agree with you more. If the movie is identical to the book, why bother seeing it? You’re going to see another person’s interpretation of the source material. You should understand that going in.

  • Monchofos

    Twilight was undefendable. I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt early on the whole thing, a friend was reading it since she got it as a gift so i quickly browsed through it and read a bit of it and found ou just how badly written the damn thing was, same with the Grey books, some friends were raving on about it but I couldnt get past the first couple pages. Those things make Dan Brown seem like Hermann Hesse.

    I’ll concede that normally it would be tiring to hear that from people , I am normally the one who says “the book is so much better” because I actually do end up reading books on which good movies are based on, and its a standard that people say that.

    However, there are instances where the movie, although objectively not “better” than the book, is much more entertaining,a dn not just because of the difference in mediums but because of the interpretation of the director/writer and everything else.

    Case in point, Starship Troopers. The novel is a staple in sci fi lit, its possibly Heinlein most accesible book, but it deals mostly with the weight of war and the whole social commentary on facism and militarism. The movie is one hell of a camp fest, one of my favourite movies of all time and it focuses less on the commentary and more on action, BUT if anything, the small little snipets of the propaganda is just brilliant. It encapsulates the feeling of the book, quickly nasty and beautifully. You wondered in the book, how would living like this be? and in the movie, thats answered.

    Another part where the experience is heightened by the movie, is in Fight Club. The ending to the book is really much more tame and expected. In the movie the ending is really unexpected, because movies dont end up like that, they end like..well the book, on a bit of a down note. The movie ends beautifully and its just awesome. Both are enjoyable and I am glad I caught both.

    Books sometimes help expand the movie, and viceversa. I greatly enjoyed the Godfather since I was a kid. I eventually read the book and was glad that in the book my favourite character (Tom Hagen) gets much more fleshed out. A particular scene is beautiful. When Santino gets the fish with Luca Brasi’s vest, in the movie its Clemenza who explains its meaning. in the book its Tom Hagen who explains this. This is more of a personal choice as here you see how great of a character Tom is, an adopted irish kid who knows even more about the business than the heir apparent, but its a nice example on how different ways to portray a scene is worth it.

  • Geoff

    ^ TLDR

  • Seba

    You should watch Alfedo Casero’s Batman, it’s hilarious

  • Mutant Turd

    I can agree up to a point. There are also some movies which have butchered the point of the book to a point where nothing could save it. Case in point, the movie Jumper. That movie was God awful. Now a lot of that can be attributed to Hayden Christianson being a horrible actor but otherwise that movie was just plain bad. Now if you read the book (the original book, the author actually went back and re-wrote the book to match the movie which is a shame) you could see that nothing should have been changed. **Here there be SPOILERS** In the book he is fighting terrorists who killed his mother and the government who want to capture him and study him because they have pictures of him in two airports across the globe within a few hours of each other. There are no other “Jumpers” it’s just him. And the whole story about fighting terrorists would have been perfect for the post 9/11 mentality. That movie was a huge disappointment, not only to those that had read the book but also to the audience who had seen that piece of shit.

    Also, just to clarify. I read the book after seeing the movie. It was recommended by a friend who also saw the movie but had read the book and convinced me to give it a try.

  • Waelsch

    I agree with what you said to an extent. An all too common practice that I’ve seen is that rather than adapt a story, they steal a title and some names, and make up their own story. The Bourne Identity wasn’t The Bourne Identity. It was a new story that had a character with the same name. Robin Hood (Crowe/Scott) wasn’t Robin Hood. It was a soldier from the crusades in a completely original world with borrowed names. If you took away the recognizeable names in that movie, nobody would have left the theater saying “that was a lot like the robin hood story!” A glass bottle full of ham that says Coca Cola on the side isn’t an adaptation of Coca Cola, it’s a bottle full of ham.

    What frustrates me is calling things a “Re-Imagining.” What is so wrong with original content? Just change the name, and be proud of your own work. It’s been a long time since any artist had completely original work. I’d be willing to bet that Shakespeare was inspired by someone or something when he wrote his plays. It’s ok for a story about a forbidden love between warring factions to not name their story romeo and juliet. It’s original content with inspiration.

  • http://be.net/FancyRedFox FancyRedFox

    While I agree with many of the points made, I disagree with the main idea. In cases like Batman there is a vast amount of context for adaptation, and it’s ok to create a whole new story. In other cases where the plot line is driven specifically by the context of the book, it becomes significantly more difficult to create (what in my what in my opinion is) a good movie. I’m not going to gripe about the Hunger Games because that has all been said and done, but if we look at movie adaptations like Eragon it’s easy to see what I’m talking about. That movie took the essence of the book and completely butchered it. Whole sections of the world were removed, that were essential to the story line. Ultimately I think it comes down to whether the movie is meant to be a direct, or indirect adaptation of the original content.

  • trashcanman

    Fact: when you adapt from an existing work, you take on a responsibility to the fans of that work. If you are not going to stay true to the original premise, there is no reason to adapt it other than a lack off creativity on the adapters’ part. Sorry, man, but your overly long argument comes off like an overrationalized “Books are for fags and I don’t read them so shut up about the movies I only watch and pretend to like because other people told me too. It makes my brain hurt.”

    Yes, a movie can stand on it’s own and change things from the book. Jurassic Park is a clear example of this. But it stayed true to many of the themes (and even added some extras) and characters so it works. Other examples, like Wanted, spin so far away from the premise that you seriously wonder what the point of even tying it to the original work by title was. Those are the ones that are really going to draw criticism.

    In conclusion, my rebuttal is this: if you are feeling inferior because real fans of the franchise are talking over your head about things you can’t follow, shut up. Just shut up. Step away from our hobbies, you filthy casual, and go chat about the movie on Facebook along with swag and YOLO and whatever else the kids are into these days. Art and fiction is the domain of the geek and we shouldn’t be expected to dumb down our conversations to accommodate those lacking the knowledge to participate properly.

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  • http://antimassmedia.blogspot.com dante

    Not agree, what happens with watchmen why didnt show the giant octopus, and instead they show some shity cloud or fog, or galactus what a waste of cinematic moment. They should be more faithful to the original source.

  • JessKitty

    I have to disagree with this. If you are discussing a movie with someone, and they feel the book was better, then why shouldn’t they say something? Are they supposed to pretend they didn’t read the book? Or that the book was worse? It’s part of the discussion. Yes, politeness dictates that they shouldn’t clobber you over the head with it, “No, really, movie sucked, book great… did you catch that? Let me repeat. Movie Bad, Book Good!” but to mention a preference for the book isn’t bad or even impolite, it’s part of the conversation.

    That being said, I generally find that if I can, I prefer to see the movie, THEN read the book. It’s hard to do that, because often a book comes out, does well, gets turned into a movie, but if I can pull it off, that’s usually the best way to do it. If I see the movie first and like it, the book usually enhances the experience (providing the movie is at least trying to tell the same story as the book)

    I think the reason why so many people do like the book better, is that books often go into how people are feeling. Yes, they try to set up moods in movies, but the medium of print, they can give you blow by blow running dialog of what someone is thinking at every second of every movement. For some folks, the journey into someone’s head is the best part of reading a book, it makes you feel like these aren’t just characters, they’re part of you.

    Movies, on the other hand, rely more on visual audio stimulation. It’s tough to pull off inner dialog in a move (I’m not saying impossible, some movies have done it brilliantly) What was a fifteen minute heart wrenching search for inner truth before running into the battle field for a five second fight becomes a five second sit around and brood, while rushing in for a fifteen minute action scene.

    Both have their places. Both appeal to certain people on certain levels. Neither are right or wrong.

  • Meg

    Why are you guys in the comments so damn butthurt? “OMG I READ BOOKS I’M SO MUCH SMARTER THAN ALL YOU NORMAL PEOPLE AND YOU ARE ALL JUST JEALOUS OF MY BRAIN THAT’S WHY YOU THINK THE MOVIE IS BETTER”. Like it takes a genius to read Twilight or the Hunger Games, books that were written to a teen-aged demographic. Whoever wrote this article obviously DOES read the damn books, he’s just saying that he can appreciate them separately.

  • Jason M

    I don’t watch movies in an information vacuum; if I’ve read the book, it’s going to affect how I judge the film. Can’t be helped.

  • Ryan P

    The movie of “The Firm” is better than the book.

  • Mr.Phi

    “Apocalypse Now was one director’s stab at it. It was indeed a movie version of the novella, but was it good? I’m not convinced.”

    I’m not an english native, I’ve read this sentence like 10 times to be sure I understood what you meant.
    Are you saying that “Apocalypse Now” was a bad movie cause he it followed the novel ?
    I can understand you did not like it, but name it as an example of a bad way to conceive a movie is a non sens !
    #34 on imdb with 300k votes, 2 oscars, 17wins, 30nominations. It’s a movie as much successful with the press than with the public.

    Did I misunderstand your point ?

  • Amy

    Terry Goodkind is one of my favorite authors. He wrote the Sword of Truth novels and I love them to death. I’ve been wanting to see movies based on them (hey, if they can do a series like Harry Potter…) but he had refused all requests for this. And then, Legend of the Seeker pops on ABC. ABC was his first mistake. These books are too gritty to be playing on family television. The second mistake was making it a series in general. ABC said it had to wrap up each episode at the end, even though each season was based on one book. EXTREMELY LOOSELY BASED. They had to change so much for those 2 things that it was barely the same book anymore. He needs to either A. Do a mini series like Stephen King, or B. Sign a multi-movie deal like Harry Potter.

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