Pet Peeve: Stop Saying “The Book Was Better”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.


  • bill

    to say movies are inherently more limiting in storytelling than books is as irresponsible and ignorant as the statement you are ranting about.

  • Madison

    @ bill

    Really? Do you want to back that up with examples of your own? Because I’m not buying your conclusory statement.

  • bill

    what i mean to say is that here you are judging movies on literature’s terms just as the people you are decrying for saying “the book was better.” the storytelling of film and literature are inherently different and need to be judged on their own merits. because i would say the literature is more limited than film when judged on film’s terms. i appreciate your sentiment in being fed up with film/literature comparisons are wrong but i hope your explanation behind it to be just as unfair to film in the face of supposedly “higher” art of literature.

  • Madison

    @ bill

    Some fair points, but I’m not convinced. I think you’re kind of missing my point – I’m saying NOT to judge movies based on the terms of literature, but rather, compare them to other movies. Because, like you say in your comment, different mediums require different analyses.

    I am not saying that literature is a “higher” art form than film, I am simply saying it gives a creator far fewer restrictions. Because of that, it’s unfair to hold a film to the standards of literature.

    I think we’re probably in agreement in that regard.

    And again, literature is not a “higher” art form; I just think it’s easier to convey information and make an impact on an audience through that medium, and the sense of satisfaction that comes from finishing a book isn’t present when one is done with a movie. Overall, it’s a more satisfying experience and so, naturally, a “better” one.

  • Blonde

    Movies that are better than books *make the list*

  • Daniel

    I agree that film and literature should be judged in their own terms. To compare them to find what’s “better” it’s very subjective. And the same goes for graphic novels turned into movies, like Sin City. They’re just different mediums that can’t be compared in a fair and logical way.
    In the aspect of the “satisfying reward” when finishing a book, it’s true that there’s an accomplishment felling mostly because of the time invested and the active though process of reading but in my opinion that felling can also be present in film, if one is active on analyzing scenes, colors, music, and trying to discover hidden meanings. For example Mulholland Drive or 2001 are movies that require active though and constant analysis.
    And i think the “satisfaction” can also vary in the sense of the emotional impact it has on the viewer or the reader.

  • Connor

    In my opinion, i liked fight club better as movie than the book, although both were amazing.

  • The debate and the inclination to debate may be prosaic and a bit divisive however, I find myself unable to do anything but pour gas on the fire: http://alkaloid.spreadshirt.com/-I10308397
    A little “team bibliophile” chicanery for your dresser drawer.
    Huzza, Beezotchinskis. -d.b-
    Perhaps it would be accurate to express as
    The Book ≥ The Movie.

  • i agree with bill, when i was reading the article i was going to comment on your leaning toward literature as a more ‘important’ medium of expression. a decent film director should be able to use the grammar and language of film to express himself in the way a decent writer should be able to use the grammar and language of literature. it’s really quite a shame to describe film as a limited medium and i think you should re-evaulate your opinion on that. take for example the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, one of my favourite film directors. He uses the medium of film to create art that would be impossible to write (El Topo and The Holy Mountain are my favourite films of his), or take Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo, another film that uses the medium to its advantage, rather than excusing itself with limitations.

    i think perhaps the main reason that “the book is better than the film” is this, and i think the reason for this is due to film’s age – the medium is still in its infancy. while there are fantastic films, we are still learning how to properly “read” them and therefore how to utilise the medium to create artistic expression.

  • Madison

    @ woody

    A very valid point. I really didn’t mean to demean the medium of film, and by saying it’s limited, what I mean is that we’re somewhat restricted in what can be conveyed. In a book, any thought, concept, or occurrence can be conveyed to the reader, but in film, it often comes down to a matter of logistics.

    The counter to that, I suppose, is that one image from a film can elicit more emotion that thousands of words in a book.

    And so really what I’m saying is NOT that literature is a “better” medium than film; it’s that when a story is told through both mediums, the storyteller (the author or director) is often in a position to do more with the story in a book.

    Yes, there are some films that, to me, do a better job of telling a story or evoking a response than the books upon which they are based, but this often seems to be the rare exception and far from the rule. The reason, I think, is because most directors do not know how to take advantage of the opportunity the medium of film offers.

    Hope that is clear. Thanks for reading.

  • mike

    i stumbled upon this article in an unrelated google search and doubt anyone will ever read this comment. but one thing very powerful that movies have going for them is sound and especially music.

    for example the final scene in requiem for a dream. whenever i hear that song (i cant think of the name) i am brought back to the scene and all the feelings that come along with it. no book has ever done anything like that for me.

    while i agree that generally a book is better then the movie. that doesnt mean that books are better then movies.