Friday, June 10, 2016

Read the book first

A scene from Brooklyn
Browsing in a bookstore earlier this week, I noticed I passed over Emma Donohue's Room, Andy Weir's The Martian and Colm Toibin's Brooklyn without a second glance. I wondered why I had no interest in reading any of them even though I had seen and loved the movies based on each of those novels. Then I realized it was because I had seen the films that I had no interest in reading the books. But why would this be so?

Most people agree that when movies are based on novels, the movies are almost always better. There are notable exceptions, such as The Godfather, but in most cases the book is superior. Novelists can just pack more story into 300 or 400 pages than a director can in a two-hour movie. They can also put us inside the characters' minds and provide us with backgrounds and other details that directors can only hint at. So you would think that watching a movie would make a person more eager to read the book and get the rest of the story. With me at least, that doesn't seem to be the case.

Yet when I like a book I am usually eager to see the movie adapted from it. I loved Bill Bryson's memoir A Walk in the Woods, but I took my wife to the Robert Redford film as soon as it came out. I enjoyed the movie and later purchased the DVD even though it does not compare with Bryson's book. So what's going on? Two possible explanations occur to me.

One can watch a movie in much less time than one can read a book. If you have already read the book, or even if you have already watched the movie, you don't mind investing a couple of hours to watch a story you already know. Yet books may take a person days or even weeks to get through. That's a big investment of time when you already know the story.

A scene from A Very Long Engagement
A second, possibly better explanation may be that the images we see on a screen are stronger, more vivid, than those we imagine when we read a book. Can you read To Kill a Mockingbird without seeing Gregory Peck in your mind? Not if you've watched the movie. Movies have a way of ruining books for us. Joe Queenan once commented, "It seemed like the entire planet was talking about Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code until Ron Howard's Da Vinci Code came out. Then the planet stopped talking about it." So it goes with other best-selling novels made into films.

Sometimes I put off watching a movie until I have read the book. Or I may let a few years pass before I read the novel, as I did with Sebastien Japrisot's A Very Long Engagement. Of course, I still saw Audrey Tautou in my mind as I read it. Not that I minded.

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