Is The Book Always Better Than The Movie?

Posted January 11, 2011 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 0 Comments

Book-into film-adaptations is a tricky subject.  Sometimes it’s easier to take the hard line and say the book is always better than the movie, but this isn’t always the case. With some interesting choices for adaptations coming out this year (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The Dark Tower & the upcoming TV series; Game of Thrones) as well as some classics redone (The Hobbit, Jane Eyre & The Three Musketeers), I thought that we should see if we can work out, what makes a good adaptation?

I don’t think it’s fair to say all books are better than the movie.  There have been some great examples to prove this isn’t the case such as Bridget Jones Diary & High Fidelity. In fact, one of the first blockbuster movies was adapted from a very ordinary book (Jaws).

But it doesn’t stop there; sometimes great books do make great movies. These books normally have a strong narrative drive; The Road is a really dense novel, full of ideas, very exuberant prose and great language, yet it made a great movie, surprising many, because of the narrative.

A great adaptation also needs to capture the essence of the book; we want fidelity between the book and the film but there is a problem with this. If a filmmaker does a faithful adaptation to the book the people will say you lack imagination, but if you make a movie without perfect fidelity you run the risk of been chastised by the fans of the book.

One of the major problems with adaptations is the fact that as a novel there are all these different ways of expressing character but as a film writer there is only action. A novel can have thousands of ideas and perspectives but in a film it needs to be distilled into one central idea.  There was a quote from someone who worked on the Harry Potter movies that really explained this; “We’re not trying to hit all the bases and reproduce all the favourite characters and the favourite scenes cos that, in itself, is not enough. The film has to have meaning. And you need to distill that and that’s your job as an adaptor.”

On a rare occasion there comes a movie that takes a creative spin on their adaptation and does it really well. From a modern retelling of Romeo + Juliet & the BBC series Sherlock to the ground-breaking Bladerunner which ignores the central theme of the book almost completely. Taking a completely different direction on a book is often risky but can have surprising results.

‘The book is better than the movie’ may not be a golden rule, (but I think there should be a rule that “You need to read the book before seeing the movie”) however, movie adaptations can successes or failures, and more often than not they do fail. On a side note, I think graphic novels adapt a lot better than a novel ever does, is this because it’s almost a screenplay already? I would love to know some examples of good and bad adaptations, as well as your opinions on the subject.

0 responses to “Is The Book Always Better Than The Movie?

  1. I can think of one movie I actually preferred over the book that inspired it: “Practical Magic.” With something like Game of Thrones, there’s already a rabid fan base, but how to satisfy each one who probably has his or her own ideas about how to handle various scenes and characters? No doubt some will love it, some will hate it.

    One of the biggest complaints generally is how much gets left out when making a movie from a book (LotR is a classic example. People groaned about the absence of Goldberry and Tom Bombadil, for starters). There’s no way to please everyone, but the movie CAN be good, in spite of that. I’m very eager to see what they do with Game of Thrones, although I’m pretty sure the books will always win in my mind.

  2. I think that is a major problem with making a movie; working out what to strip and condense to make the best possible adaptation without losing the essence of the book.

  3. Drakken Skrye

    The worst adaptation I’ve ever seen has to be Eragon. They butchered the book and added nothing worth seeing to the movie. It was all special effects with a few scenes from the book and barely any of the plot.

  4. Shirezu

    Game of Thrones will hopefully go over really well but it has a better chance as it is being done as a series not a stand alone movie. Gives it a lot more time to flesh out the characters and story.

    A bad example of this though is Legend of the Seeker based on the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind. I loved the books but hated the series.

    I think LotR was done really well and the Harry Potter movies have been pretty good too. Eragon the movie was atrocious.

  5. steve

    I think it is fair to say the book is usually better than the movie. You are right there are some exceptions.

  6. Windy

    I certainly -used- to count myself as a firm believer that the book is (almost) always better than the movie. I don’t think I appreciated the sharp differences that exist between the two media, and I suppose I expected the film-makers to reproduce as accurately as possible the books. I’ve grown out of that for a number of reasons.

    (1) When you read, your imagination doesn’t produce an exact replica of what the author imagined. You use your own experiences and preferences to build a scene based on what info you are given. A movie can’t possibly match everyone’s interpretation of the visuals, much less the messages or motifs.

    (2) A movie that too precisely follows the book might just end up being too slow, dragged down by detail and minor plot points. A book is meant to be read over a span of hours, days, or even weeks. A movie is usually completed in one sitting. The pacing and the patience called for are different.

    (3) Books aren’t perfect, and a movie adaptation can be a good opportunity to explore the same essentials in a slightly different way. Keeping true to the initial allure of the story can become difficult, but handled carefully, it can pay off. This is part of the reason I love the last two (er, three) HP movies, but is also probably why others decidedly -don’t- love them.

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