Why Judging a Movie by its Book is Wrong

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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