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.
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?
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