Opinionated Rant: Read the Book Before You See the Movie… Uh, Why?

“Y’know you should read the book before you see the film, it’s far superior”

“The book is so much better than the movie”

“They left so much out of the film that it was nowhere near as good as the book”

… I’m sure you’ve probably heard one of these statements before, you’ve probably even said it at one point. And that’s ok, sometimes it’s true, the book can be better than the movie.

“Problem solved then I guess?”

“That was a short article”

“I suppose we can close the book on this one then!”

Well, not quite. I was sitting down to watch the recent film version of ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ a few nights ago, and it occurred to me that I hadn’t read the book. Despite it being a fixture in middle-class book clubs, with middle-class, middle-aged parents recommending it to their emotionally precocious teenage daughters and it topping the bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond, it had somehow passed me by. Suddenly I couldn’t do it, I had to stop the film and order the book on my Kindle before I could allow this situation to endure. But why?

See? Even modern literary classics are having their covers desecrated with this filmic nonsense!

It’s been said to all of us so often that we don’t even question it any more, and goes on too much for it to be simply a case-by-case basis. Why is it that we are constantly remonstrated with to read the book before seeing a film adaptation? Is it because films are easier and somehow less worthy? Are we all expected to be so well-read that we should have read every book already, and so should only ever see the film having already read the book? Or is it some kind of patriarchal snobbery passed down from generation to generation?

I don’t know about you, but I’m going with the snobbery option.

Film is a relatively new art-form, like rock music, electro, modern art, graffiti, photography and certain TV programs, film is something that is destined to not be given the same prestige as art-forms that existed before it. Basically, parents don’t understand it, and because they don’t understand it, it’s automatically worse or bad for us.

Film is over 100 years old, it’s been with us for more than a century now, how long does something have to exist before it is seen as legitimate art? Are the innovators and inspirational geniuses of the form such as Bergman, Godard, Kubrick et al somehow lesser than the great authors merely because they work in a different medium? Of course not, they are just different. It’s true that film is more accepted nowadays, and that there are plenty of chin-stroking intellectual types who are not averse to bringing their epic levels of pretentiousness to bear on films, and let’s face it, TV is worse off, but all I am asking is that we question this knee-jerk idea that books are automatically and unimpeachably better than films.

Let me be clear: this is not an attack on literature, not some kind of quasi revolution whipped up in the name of the enfant terrible film, in a desperate attempt to remove all of its older competitors. I enjoy reading, and always will. I also realise that often this is tied up with the need for parents to have to try and get their children to read somehow, and backhandedly de-legitimising film in order to prize literature is a product of this, but all I am asking is that we don’t always resort to this. Reading is important, and has been incredibly influential on the world of film for as long as it has existed, but film is a valid medium too.

It’s perhaps sinful to say it, but there are film and TV adaptations that (in my opinion) are superior to their literary equivalents. Having recently abandoned reading ‘A Game of Thrones’ despite enjoying the TV series, I infinitely prefer the televised version. Of course this is just an opinion, and there are many who would disagree, and point to the fact that without the books, the TV series would not exist, and they are right… but I can’t help how I feel. Sometimes films remove or change elements in a way that enrages the fans of the book, but sometimes this makes for a superior story, with the TV series of ‘Game of Thrones’ elaborating on and expanding certain characters to the benefit of the storyline. Sometimes casting an actor who doesn’t match the exact physical description of a character from the books brings indignant howls from the fans, but in the case of the recent ‘Hunger Games’ franchise-starter, who could argue that Jennifer Lawrence is not fantastic in the lead role?

One of the last accusations levelled at TV and film is that they, as mediums are somehow destructive to our imagination. As if by watching a film, it somehow fries our synapses in such a way that we lose our innate creativity. I would argue that as humans, we have always stood on the shoulders of giants, always improving incrementally, building on what has gone before. Film has the ability to show us worlds we will never see, to realise times we never lived in, to show us points of view we would never have considered, what could be better for the imagination than that?

I am not saying film is better than TV is better than theatre is better than books. I am merely asking that we end the snobbery, that we allow ourselves to enjoy films for what they are, and give them equal status to books. As a culture, we treat books with a deserved reverence, but in doing so, are in danger of making them seem boring. How many people do you know who light-heartedly and openly admit to never reading? It’s ok to not read, and that’s because it’s seen as being ‘good for you’ school-and-parent-approved and is becoming like “taking your medecine”. Reading is fun and genuinely can be beneficial, but we need to move with the times, and let it be ok for someone to prefer the film to the book. You never know, it might take some of the stigma away from reading…



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