The Great Book-Movie Debate…

read first? watch first?So do you read the book first? or watch the movie?

Most people would say read the book first. In fact, when I went searching for images, the majority of them were insistent that the proper method is:

first read the book and second watch the movie

I have had this discussion with many people. Most people do indeed believe that this is the proper method. There are the rare few who watch the movie and then read the book. And lest we forget, there is the small percentage of people who will only ever watch the movie (all I can see is the redneck in camo, a little scruffy, telling me, “Reading? We don’t do that ’round here.” True story.).

Before the great descent into book-to-movie fervor hit the film industry, when books were used as inspiration only every third month instead of every third movie–I would say around 2003/4, when LOTR changed the world as we know it–I was a devout “Read the book first” believer. As the title of Tales of Triplet’s post says, “The Book is Always Better.” I don’t care how great a movie is, the book is almost inevitably better because a book can tell so much more. It can dive into details and describe things that just don’t translate to screen. And while a picture is worth a thousand words, how often do we pay attention to the minute details on a screen?

All this changed when I visited my small, college-town library (it was so wonderful, a renovated Church one block up from the main street, it was surrounded by a green lawn. The inside was all polished dark wood; reverant but not holy). I was talked to the librarian as I checked out The Fellowship of the Ring.

“So have you seen the movie?” she asked as I handed her my books.

“No, I just bought the first one. I want to read the book before I watch the movie,” I answered, adjusting my backback and feeling secretly pleased with myself. The movies had been on the $5 rack at Wal-mart–just the first two, as the third hadn’t been released yet or not in movie theaters. For a broke college kid, this was an awesome find. I also felt a little superior as my sister loved had read The Hobbit in high school but hadn’t seen the movies.

“Oh. I like to watch the movie first, personally.”

“Really? I like to the book first, so I know what’s going on.”

“For me, if I watch the movie first, then read the book, it’s like two separate experiences.” I raised my eyebrows in disbelief; she explained, “When I read the book first, I’m always comparing the book and movie, “Oh, this wasn’t in the movie. They didn’t include that.’ I enjoy the movie more when I’m not comparing.”

“Cool. I’ll have to try that,” I responded, hefting The Fellowship.

So that night, I went home and watched The Fellowship of the Ring. I fell in love with the movie. It was awesome. I’m one of those people who like to watch a movie and do something else. I’ll crochet, read, play games on my phone/computer, clean my apartment (really, move piles from place to place). Not so with LOTR. I was entranced and gave my whole attention to the movie. I don’t even talk to people who are watching the movie, which is rare for me. I love to discuss the movie while I am watching it. But that is another post.

The next day, I picked up Tolkein’s first book and started to read. It did not go well. It sat next to my futon until it was due, then a few days overdue. I just couldn’t engage with the book. The action of the movie had drawn me, but the visual wasn’t there in the book.

Sighing regretfully, I returned the book, but was determined to try again. I picked up Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. I started reading. The movie is such a loose interpretation of the book, I simply couldn’t enjoy the book. I skipped to the end and was disappointed.
Practical magic by Alice Hoffmanvs. Practical Magic movie cover

So much for that experiment!

For the next several years, I approached book-to-movie adaptations with caution. I love the Harry Potter series but have no practical use for the movies. I watched the first four and, with every new film, I found new reasons to disdain the movies. Skipped Order of the Phoenix or Half-Blood Prince. I enjoyed Deathly Hallows.

The viewing of book-to-movie films quickly fell into two categories:

  1. see the movie, but never read the book
  2. read the book, but never see the movie

Then came The Help. A co-worker first started talking about it at lunch. She had read it for her book club and loved it. The acclaim grew and it was soon a best-selling book. Then came the movie. The movie looked awesome. So, did I read the book and approach the movie cautiously? Or Did I see the movie but never read the book?

My friend and the library helped me to make the decision. I wasn’t willing to buy the book, and the hold list at the library was loooong. My friend wanted to see the movie and invited me along. Movie first, it is! I loved the movie. I thought it was so deep and eye-opening. But now I had no desire to read the book. My middle sister gave me her copy, and I just looked at it. I knew I should read it (she had it and loved it). It’s like that pile of mysterious stuff in the corner. Is it moving? Does that mean it is alive?

Doctor Who 12,

I poked it was stick a lot. It never moved and it never moved me. Sigh.

I don’t know why, but a few years after the movie came out, as I was perusing the audiobooks, I came across The Help. And for whatever reason, this intrigued me. I hadn’t read the book, despite all my poking. I needed something to listen on my long journey from job 1 to job 2 and job 2 to home. Why not?


For whatever reason, I could access the book after the movie if I listened to it! I don’t know why; maybe because it is being performed for me, through strong vocal talent.It doesn’t matter how different the book is, or if parts get left out (I’m looking at you, Help, as you never told us how Abilene survives after losing her job). I can simply enjoy the movie and book as two separate entities. I can juxtapose the book and the movie, determine the flavors of each, but one does not take away from the other.

So, if I know a book is being adapted, or learn about the book after watching the movie, I will listen to it on audiobook. I highly recommend this method to everyone. I have thoroughly enjoyed:

  1. The Monuments Men
  2. The Help
  3. Ender’s Game (actually listened to it first, but still enjoyed the movie)
  4. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
  5. Percy Jackson series (although not all of them are films)
  6. Water for Elephants

Want a list of book-to-movie adaptations? Discover this site: Chasing the Frog


4 thoughts on “The Great Book-Movie Debate…

  1. Well, I think you already know… I always read the book first. I just rather have my imagination have its way with the characters before it hits the screen (if it in fact, does hit the screen).


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