Is It Better to See the Movie or Read the Book First?
Jan 5, 2017, 12:03 am MST
It's one of life's dilemmas to decide whether it's better to read the book before seeing the movie or vice versa. Long ago I settled that question to my satisfaction.

There are arguments for either side. If you see the movie first, your experience of the book will be tainted by the images you see on the screen. You'll never know what images the book would have created in your mind. You'll always see the sets and the actors in the movie as you read the book and never your own imaginings, even if the author describes these things differently.

Yet reading the book first and seeing the movie afterward is practically guaranteed to make you dislike the movie. The two media are worlds different from each other. A movie is told with images and sound. A book has none of those.

A book is told with words and thought. You get deeply into the head of the point-of-view characters, you grow to know those people better than any other human being on earth except those you have the most intimate relationships with. And even then, that person may have secrets they've kept from you.

Movie adaptations struggle with the intimate experience of a novel. Unless the filmmaker resorts to the (usually) cheap tactic of narration or voice-over thoughts, he has to figure out a way to communicate the inner mind of a character through nothing but images, sound, and dialog.

Not only that, but a movie is a smaller medium than a book. Books can go on arbitrarily, filling in all sorts of detail, meandering here and there to enrich the experience of exploring its world and characters. Books can be and almost always are interrupted while reading. You put it down, you go to the bathroom, you eat, you sleep, you go to work. You can let it lie there for days before you come back to it.

Movies are severely restricted to the butt factor: how long can you stand to sit on your butt watching a movie before you get too restless to endure it?

Generally movies are restricted to one-and-a-half to two hours. The occasional epic can rise to three hours. The film Gettysburg was a whopping four-and-a-half hours--and I didn't know that going into the theater. Holy crap I was exhausted when I got out!

It's virtually impossible to put everything into the movie that's in the novel. The screenwriter has to mercilessly cut the story to its essential elements. I have one screenwriting friend who said his approach was to choose the ten most important scenes in the book, then throw the book out and write the story around those.

All these reasons caused me to conclude, you're likely to hate the movie if you've read the book first, and why, if you have a choice, you should always see the movie first.

The movie will corrupt the images the book would otherwise have inspired in your mind and will plant expectations in you that the book is not likely to deliver. But these are just about the only disadvantages to seeing the movie first.

The advantages are, when you read the book after seeing the movie, you'll have a richer experience, regardless of how similar or different the movie is to the book, simply because the book will have more in it. More detail, more thoughts in the minds of the characters, more plot points. It will be a different and a richer experience, making it worth reading even if you're disappointed at the differences between it and your favorite movie.

See the movie first!

I've been on a binge lately reading books from popular movies that I'd seen. My binge consisted of four books where I'd seen the movie first. I'm going to compare the movies to the books, analyze how similar or different they are from one another, then announce whether the movie or the book is better.

I'm going to include a fifth book that was not part of my binge, that I'd seen and read years ago, because both book and film are excellent and classics and fascinating to compare.

Stanley Kubrick was my movie-making idol. He's the one that inspired me with a fascination for filmmaking. This was after seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey. What I didn't know until much later was how very different each of his movies were. He never came close to repeating himself.

When the next movie of his came out after 2001, I was excited to see it. Except it was rated X back then (now rated R), and I was trying to be a good boy! It was many years later that I saw it, as well as the film he made previous to 2001. Neither of them were remotely like the movie that made me idolize him.

But they were both as genius as my beloved film.

A Clockwork Orange is a satirical, surreal, tongue-in-cheek story about a future where law and order in Great Britain has broken down and young hoodlums rule the night. The film is full of graphic violence, graphic sex, graphic rape, and Nadsat, the slang dialect of the age that the youth use with each other.

Alex is the main character and the head droog of a four-man gang. He goes out working odd jobs to earn some cash--so he tells his M and P (mother and father)--but in reality they cavort and beat up and steal and rape.

One day his droogs rebel against his leadership, wanting a say in what they do each night. Well, Alex can have none of that! He deals with it in the way he knows best.

Many more scenes of mayhem fill the screen. The whole point of the story is to explore violence and what society should do about it and where the hell free will and morality enter into all this.

When I read the book, it was not what I expected.

By that I mean it was exactly what I expected, which was not what I expected. Kubrick's film is one of the most faithful adaptations of a novel I've ever enountered. It follows the book almost scene for scene.

Naturally there are differences. Like, book Alex loves lots of different classical music composers, while movie Alex fixates on "Ludwig van." Book Alex is much younger than movie Alex, which I'm sure is because Kubrick wanted to show young adult Alex having sex with young adult women, not 15-year-old Alex having sex with 10-year-old girls.

(Or maybe he did, but knew it would never go over.)

Little changes like that.

The first scenes of violence in the book do not appear in the movie. Otherwise it's close to a one-to-one correspondence between book scenes and movie scenes. Even right down to the last line of the movie.

Except for one whopping, glaring exception. The entire last chapter of the book is not in the film.

There's a reason for that. Turns out the American publication of the book (author Anthony Burgess is British), omitted that last chapter. This is something Burgess was none too happy about, which comes through clearly in his introduction to the edition I read, which he titled "A Clockwork Orange Resucked."

He laments how this novel is the one he's remembered for, even though he considers it one of his lesser works, and that has to be primarily because Stanley Kubrick made a movie of it. The movie, he says, has plagued him his whole life, not least because it followed the American publisher's circumcision of the final chapter.

The edition I read is the American edition where the last chapter is finally restored. I couldn't wait to see how the author really wanted the story to end. It was interesting to find out.

But perish the thought if you think I'm giving out any spoilers.

Nevertheless, I think I'm glad Kubrick left off the last chapter. I don't think it would have fit the feel of the rest of the movie. That punctuating last line is the perfect ending for the tongue-in-cheek film Kubrick made.

But, true to my philosophy of seeing the movie first, it was interesting to read that final chapter and see how Burgess wanted the story to end. Whereas if I'd read the book first, I probably would have been outraged that the movie left it out.

It's hard to say whether the film or the book is better, because they're so similar. They are the same story in all the important particulars. I guess I'm inclined to give the movie an edge because--you know--Stanley Kubrick.

The next book I read was adapted into a stunning film that stands as a classic with a large cult following today. My experience with the film was probably like most people's: when I first saw it, I wasn't sure what I thought of it. It was dazzling and beautiful, but very strange.

But as the days went by, it started growing on me, and I wanted to see it again. From that it grew into one of my favorite films.

It also happens to be the first major film that showed us Harrison Ford could act. He was fresh off of Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, playing a role we didn't expect, which may be why he was able to break out of the typecasting that plagued Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher.

One of the most memorable and moving scenes is near the end, and being in that position, obviously contains spoilers for those culturally handicapped enough to have never seen the film. Okay, okay, I guess I do throw in a spoiler now and then, but everyone's seen it anyway, right?

This scene is an example of how the book differs from the movie. For a long time, Philip K. Dick was a respected science fiction writer among science fiction enthusiasts, but virtually unheard of in the mainstream.

Except for film producers for some odd reason. Some of the most well-known megahits are adaptations of Dick's books, like Total Recall and Running Man and Minority Report. His book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the basis for Blade Runner, a title invented for the movie I still don't understand, since Decker went around blasting androids with a gun, not running a blade through them.

The book has androids, the book has Decker, the book has electric sheep--yes, it really does. People are obsessed with owning animals because the fallout from a nuclear war has made animals a premium, a status symbol. Those that can't afford an animal--and that's like saying those that can't afford a Rolls Royce--purchase "electric" animals, which are actually the animal equivalent of androids that are indistinguishable from real animals.

Decker's motivation to hunt androids is to earn enough to buy a real sheep instead of the electric one he owns. Actually he'd settle for whatever animal he can afford.

And that little overview cuts right to the core of the difference between the book and the movie. The book is superficial with somewhat dreary characters. The androids are boring as hell, and there's an extra one not found in the movie that Roy Batty is married to. Very little of the cool things in the movie happen in the book.

It's a no-brainer which is better, the movie or the book. Of course the movie's better. Beautiful, haunting, examining the paradoxes of existence and consciousness and the definition of life to a depth the book can't even dream of. (I guess it's too busy dreaming of electric sheep.)

Much more interesting is the question, to narrate or not to narrate? [William Shakespeare] The theatrical release had Ford narrating much of the story because the producers were afraid nobody would understand what was going on. And frankly, I'm not sure they were wrong. I'm kind of glad I saw the narrated version first, but ever after I prefer the non-narrated version, which also excludes the tacked-on happy ending the producers thought we poor dumb movie-goers needed instead of the striking ambiguous ending of the later cuts.

The various versions of Blade Runner are like seeing the movie before reading the book. I'll never know how I would have imagined everybody and everything reading the book by seeing the movie first. And I'll never know what I would have thought of the movie without the narration and happy ending. Unless I meet myself in an alternate universe who did see that version first.

Hey, it's a Philip K. Dick story. Anything could happen.