Watch the Movie or Read the Book?

It’s a risky business, adapting a well-loved book into a film. I’m always curious to see how a screenwriter and director will pull it off. The BBC generally does an admirable job with the classics, but contemporary book adaptations can be hit or miss. I’ve racked my brain to think of cases where the movie was much better than the book or vice versa, but to my surprise I’ve found that I can only think of a handful of examples. Most of the time I think the film and book are of about equal merit, whether that’s pretty good or excellent.

From one of my favorite Guardian cartoonists.
From one of my favorite Guardian cartoonists.

Watch the Movie Instead:

Birdsong [Sebastian Faulks] – Eddie Redmayne, anyone? The book is a slog, but the television miniseries is lovely.

One Day [David Nicholls] – Excellent casting (though Rafe Spall nearly steals the show). Feels less formulaic and mawkish than the novel.

this is whereFather of the Bride and its sequel [Edward Streeter] – The late 1940s/early 1950s books that served as very loose source material are hopelessly dated.

This Is Where I Leave You [Jonathan Tropper] – Again, perfect casting. Less raunchy and more good-natured than the book.


Read the Book Instead:

possessionPossession [A.S. Byatt] – This is one of my favorite novels of all time. It has a richness of prose and style (letters, poems, etc.) that simply cannot be captured on film. Plus Aaron Eckhart couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag.

Everything Is Illuminated [Jonathan Safran Foer] – The movie’s not bad, but if you want to get a hint of Foer’s virtuosic talent you need to read the novel he wrote at 25.

A Prayer for Owen Meany [John Irving] – The film version, Simon Birch, was so mediocre that Irving wouldn’t let his character’s name be associated with it.


It’s Pretty Much Even:

Decent book and movie: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Help, The Hours, Memoirs of a Geisha, Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day

hundred year oldTerrific book and movie: The Fault in Our Stars, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared (Swedish language), The Orchid Thief / Adaptation (both great but in very different ways!), Tamara Drewe (based on a graphic novel, which itself is based on Far From the Madding Crowd)


If I’m interested in a story, my preference is always to watch the movie before I read the book. If you do it the other way round, you’re likely to be disappointed with the adaptation. Alas, this means that the actors’ and actresses’ faces will be ineradicably linked with the characters in your head when you try to read the book. I consider this a small disadvantage. Reading the book after you’ve already enjoyed the storyline on screen means you get to go deeper with the characters and the plot, since subplots are often eliminated in movie versions.

half of a yellowSo although I’ve seen the films, I’m still keen to read Half of a Yellow Sun and The Kite Runner. I’m eager to both see and read The English Patient and The Shipping News (which would be my first by Proulx). All four of these I own in paperback. I’m also curious about two war novels being adapted this year, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and The Yellow Birds. There’s every chance I’d like these better as movies than I did as books.

florence gordonAs to books I’m interested in seeing on the big screen, the first one that comes to mind is Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. It might also be interesting to see how the larger-than-life feminist heroines of Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World and Brian Morton’s Florence Gordon would translate for cinema. Can you think of any others?


What film adaptations have impressed or disappointed you recently? Do you watch the movie first, or read the book first?

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31 thoughts on “Watch the Movie or Read the Book?

  1. One of my favorite adaptations is Ian McEwan’s Atonement, but I always go back and forth over whether or not I think it’s better than the book (which I read after I saw the movie, so it’s so hard for me to tell). I still haven’t watched Half of a Yellow Sun – I’m nervous! I loved the book, but I really do want to see how the characters translate to film.

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    1. I loved the adaptation of Atonement, but I thought the book was just slightly better. For me a hands-down better movie is Last of the Mohicans (with the ever-awesome Daniel Day-Lewis in fine, fine form). The book was a torture to read (for me, anyway).

      And the English Patient (both versions) is excellent.

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  2. I would rather see the movie first, otherwise I feel like I’ve wasted money on the movie when I see it and realize how much better the book is. Except, of course, when you wait so long to see the movie that you’ve forgotten some of the back stories of the book.

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  3. I loved Colm Toibin’s ‘Brooklyn’ so was quite reluctant to see the film. But it in no way disappointed. My husband did it the other way about – film first, book next, and was also equally enchanted by both.

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      1. How interesting. It was my favourite amongst the ones I’ve read by Toibin. I found in Eilis a character I could like and sympathise with, beautifully drawn.

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      2. This book didn’t light my fire either. I watched the movie after reading it and thought the adaptation was fine if a little sugary but I think they missed the edginess of the mothers manipulation when her daughter retains to Ireland.

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  4. Such a good post! I am as much a film buff as a book knurd, so I’m always debating about things like these. Might consider a similar post as a friend and I were discussing this not too long ago.

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  5. I’ve just finished the third volume of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, and am currently pondering how much money I would pay to see each volume made into a really top-notch, high-budget miniseries. A lot, I think.

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      1. Oh my goodness. I’m terrible on actors – I’ve literally no idea – someone who can play both an old man and a young, since he ages about thirty years over the course of the three books!

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  6. Nearly always the book first, unless I am fairly certain that I won’t choose to read the book and will content myself with the film only. For the most part,this means an inexhaustible list of books that I feel I must watch before renting a film. Maybe I need to rethink?!

    For my taste, the film of Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel was terrfic. And I’m really liking the looks of the upcoming Margaret Atwood adaptations, especially “Alias Grace”. Usually I’m quite content to allow each medium do its own thing; I can’t recall the last time I was seriously disappointed!

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    1. Exactly the same for me. Book first, usually, or else I’m afraid I won’t be interested in reading it once I know what happens. But I also like to watch the movie instead of the book for books that don’t feel like must-reads (Jonathan Tropper is a good example). And, I watch so few movies these days that I’m happy with just about anything! 🙂

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  7. Agree about The Remains of the Day – I loved the film and the book.

    The Painted Veil was a very good film of a Somerset Maughan story.

    I remember many moons ago reading and LOVING The Magus by John Fowles. Then I saw the film – complete and utter rubbish. Mind you, I re-read the book a few years back and it hasn’t stood the test of time.
    The French Lieutenant’s Woman was a much better Fowles adaption, thanks largely to Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons.

    Does anyone still read Fowles?

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    1. I’ve read The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Magus. I can’t imagine how the latter would ever work as a film! I also have a copy of The Collector on the shelf. I think Fowles has rather fallen out of fashion recently, though there was a profile of him in Bookmarks magazine a few years back.

      I remember enjoying The Painted Veil, though I don’t know the story it came from. The one Maugham book I have read, Of Human Bondage, was made into an indifferent/dated film in the 1930s, but there have been several other adaptations.

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  8. Usually for me it depends on what I see first, and I prefer that as it’s what I’ve experienced first. Exception to that rule being Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

    Most of the time I would say I prefer the book, as I like to read them before seeing the book, but sometimes – like Stardust or Coraline – where the film is better.

    Hunger Games is one of the only films that comes to mind where I enjoyed both equally.

    What mainly botheres me is where a film has made slight differences, as it makes it too close and yet different. I’d rather an adaptation is totally different and I can see them as two different things.

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  9. I prefer to read the book first, but there are many times I’ve done it the other way around wanting to read the book after seeing the film.

    I enjoyed but was annoyed by them changing the ending of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen in the film – the book was terrific, the film OK+.

    I loved the recent Far From the Madding Crowd with Carey Mulligan – but I know that a lot of Hardy fans didn’t like it. Staying with Mulligan – An Education was a brilliant film – but is only a section of Barber’s memoir. The latest Anna Karenina was innovative in style and very enjoyable if you haven’t time to read the novel. Another that split the crowd was Baz Luhrman’s Gatsby – I adored it, re-read and adored the novel again afterwards.

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    1. I’ve loved all the Hardy adaptations I’ve seen.

      I liked the Gatsby film much more than I expected to. It seemed like a very different animal to the book, but that didn’t change my enjoyment of it.

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  10. I’m good with either first, although I don’t watch all that many films. The Godfather has my vote for excellent book and movie.

    Some titles just don’t work in a movie format with the relatively short time allotment, Pride and Prejudice being an example. Perhaps I’m prejudiced by having first watched the BBC series?

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  11. Great post! I’ve also had fun reading everyone’s comments. I think I’ll take your advice about Birdsong and Everything Is Illuminated – I have them both.
    I did see Possession a long time ago, but I still plan to read the book someday. It sounds like I’ll like it better!

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