Deb Susan Reads the Book First

When it comes to movies based on books, people tend to fall into one of two camps: “read the book afters” or “read the book firsts.”

I’m one who reads the book first.

It excites me to learn that one of my favorite books is made into a movie. I tend not to argue with directorial straying, and I rarely object when the film cannot capture the story in its entirety. For me, a book and a movie are different genres, with different strengths and weaknesses, and I expect  the film to offer another interpretation–a distant cousin rather than the book’s identical twin.  Jurassic_Park_poster

I find this attitude lets me enjoy even films that diverge wildly from the original written story–for example, JURASSIC PARK rates in my top five movies and top five novels (rare, but true–and even though the two are almost dissimilar enough to be different stories altogether).

Ironically, it was that dinosaurs-eat-the-tourists story which solidified my decision that when it comes to movies I always….always…read the novel first. Here’s why:

As a long-time Michael Crichton fan, I welcomed the news that Jurassic Park was being made into a movie. I re-read the hardback novel (as I mentioned, I’m a fan) and looked forward to seeing Steven Spielberg’s take on the dino-theme. I loved the cast (I’m not a fan of Jeff Goldblum, but even I had to admit he made a perfect Ian Malcolm) and hoped the script would keep enough of the original story to make the film worthwhile.

I saw the movie opening day. The establishing scenes did a decent job of following the novel, but it was the establishing shot of Isla Nublar that took my breath away. As I watched the helicopter descend to Jurassic Park with the scientists (and one ill-fated lawyer) aboard, I wondered how the cinematographer got inside my head. The images matched what I saw in my head while reading the book. The filmmakers “got it right.”

Other parts of the film diverged quite sharply from my imagination–and from the novel itself, if truth be told. But after that wonderful moment early on, I didn’t spend any time at all critiquing what the film wasn’t. I was already won over to what it was.

While driving home, I realized two important things. First, I’m a very visual reader, and second, I tend to see the story more clearly in my own head when I read the novel first. If I’ve done that, I can enjoy the filmmaker’s version without it clouding my enjoyment of the story the author told. For some reason, it doesn’t work as well in reverse. Perhaps the film “establishes” things in my head that I can’t get rid of, or perhaps it’s just that I prefer a blank slate for the written word.

Whatever the reason, I haven’t deviated from the pattern since. If I learn a film is based on a book, I’ll always read the novel before I watch it. Some might say this ruins “surprises” but I’ve found that really isn’t exactly true. Film scripts differ enough from the written story that I’ll always find an interesting twist or turn to appreciate, but I find I can love both versions more if I read the novel first.

Are you a “read it before” or a “read it after”? How do you feel about translating books to film?



8 Replies to “Deb Susan Reads the Book First”

  1. I like to read the book first, but since I don’t do much research before I watch a movie, I often don’t know there’s a book. So then I see the movie first. I have a harder time than you do separating the two in my head, though. When I read a novel the characters become very real for me, and the casting in a movie is inevitably jarring. Well, usually. I will again say that Viggo Mortenson truly IS Aragorn for me now. But then, I love Viggo.

    1. I LOVED him as Aragorn!

      You make a good point, though, which is part of the reason I read the book first. If I don’t, I have a really hard time separating the characters from the actors too, and that’s especially jarring when the film re-casts men as women (or vice versa) – which, incidentally, happened in Jurassic Park – they switched some of the kids’ characteristics.

  2. I don’t think I make a point of seeing a movie before or after–but you reminded me of something very specific in a move/book experience of my own. Now I know what my post is for tomorrow! WHEW!

    I am also a very visual reader, I guess because I see as I read. Not sure I ever realized that before. Not sure it’s something I should be admitting in public?

    1. Glad I could help with tomorrow’s post! (I admit, this one was 11th hour for me too, but once I actually sat down to write I knew instantly what to say…funny how that works out sometimes!)

  3. I remember the uproar when Tom Cruise accepted the role as Jack Reacher for the movie. I could tell that the diehard Reacher fans weren’t ever going to like the movie. Jeez, folks, Cruise playing Reacher is actually a huge kudo to Lee Child. I gotta hope I never love a book so much that I care that much about the movie!

    I’m like you, Susan, I go into adapted movies almost as a blank slate, ready to enjoy. I rarely compare and contrast the movie against the book, unless the movie was really bad. Sometimes the movie is actually better than the book (gasp). Can’t think of an example right now though…

    Most adapted movies come from books I wouldn’t have read anyhow, so I don’t generally read the books beforehand. For example, “Eat, Pray, Love.” I do get excited when I hear about a movie, and I think, Oh, that’s from xyz’s novel. I loved that novel! “The English Patient” and “Atonement” come to mind.

    You just reminded me that back at the tender age of sometime-in-middle-school, I grabbed “The Andromeda Strain” off my mom’s paperback shelf. Blew me away. I scared myself imagining a virulent outbreak…lo and behold, here we are in a world where it could happen!

    1. The Andromeda Strain scared the heck out of me right about then too! It’s one scary book, for sure. I have a bad habit of starting books at night and then having to stay up until morning to finish them so I don’t end up with nightmares. You’d think I’d learn, but not so much.

      It’s so funny that you mention Reacher. I’m a HUGE Lee Child/Jack Reacher fan, and I was disappointed at first when I heard Tom Cruise was cast in the role. That said, I reminded myself that the film was not the books – and I could go re-read the books any time if I wanted Child’s Reacher. I saw the film and ended up loving it. I think that’s the beauty of letting myself become a blank slate for films – I get to enjoy the film as well as the book more often than not!

      Another series that comes to mind for film vs. books is the new Robert Downey Jr. SHERLOCK HOLMES. I’m a big fan of Conan Doyle’s original books, and also the Basil Rathbone Holmes from the black & white era, and yet I ALSO find myself loving the new films. I think it’s because I don’t go into them expecting “Holmes & Watson” – I go in expecting Robert Downey Jr. to be his crazy self, and the character he’s created works for me. They can call him Sherlock Holmes if they choose,and he is an iteration of Holmes, but since I don’t need there to be ONLY ONE HOLMES I can enjoy the different iterations for what they are.

      1. I love Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes! Works for me too. What’s your opinion about Benedict Cumberbatch (Khan in the new Star Trek movie) as a modern Sherlock in the Masterpiece Mystery series? Granted, small screen instead of big screen…but still, I’m half in fangirl love with that guy!

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