- January 21, 2016 in Columnists
Why are books better than movies?
Which is better: the book or the movie based on the book? I don’t have polling data but I believe it’s a safe bet that the majority of folks would say books are superior to their film versions.
I just finished reading Rick Yancey’s novel “The 5th Wave.” A movie version hits theaters this weekend. The book is compelling with a different take on the well worn sci-fi plot of an alien invasion. I also plan to see the movie. But I know it won’t be as good as the book.
Such was the case last year when I read Andy Weir’s “The Martian,” a rollercoaster ride about an astronaut accidentally left behind on Mars. The book is excellently written, paced, inventive and well-researched. The movie starring Matt Damon was a hit and has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. I enjoyed the film but the book was better. I think the film could have been better.
Why are the books better? Specifically, in the case of “The Martian” the book has a couple of major setbacks that are absent from the movie that help ratchet up the suspense. The book also goes in depth, explaining the science of survival on Mars to a much more detailed degree than the film. And without giving it away, in the end, the movie goes Hollywood while the book’s ending is more realistic and is simply superior.
In general, books are better because they prod readers to paint an internal visual of what they’re reading. Writers don’t have to spell out every scene. They give us enough brushstrokes so that we can complete a rich portrait in our minds. Plus, different readers can read the same words but see completely different images in their minds. When we read of a scene on a beach our minds construct that beach based on the writer’s description plus our own experiences of being on a beach. Or beaches we’ve seen in photos and movies. That’s why fans of books frequently loathe and blast choices of actors to play beloved characters in a film version of a novel. That actor doesn’t resemble the person we’ve seen in our heads. He or she doesn’t speak in that character’s voice. It just feels wrong to us. When the sets, appearances, voices and performances don’t resemble the rich tapestry of our imaginations movies pale in comparison.
Books also have the time to illuminate a character’s back story and thought process. DeNiro, Streep and other great actors can tell us much with the right facial expression, delivery or mannerism but still can’t convey what a chapter of back story can tell us. Books can spell out what’s in a character’s heart.
I’m ambivalent about the book vs. movie conundrum. When I went to see “The Hunger Games” movies after reading the books and when I saw “The Martian” I found myself watching the movie while comparing it to the book at the same time. I found myself anticipating certain scenes or being disappointed when a Hollywood ending is swapped in at the end. Dark movie series like “The Hunger Games” are watered down in the film versions that are trying to appeal to a mass audience. I find that I don’t enjoy the movie as much because I knew what to expect. It’s like unwrapping a gift after you watched someone wrap it for you the night before.
But then there’s this: Years ago I went to see the movie, “The Help.” I enjoyed the film immensely and decided to read the book by Kathryn Stockett. Surprisingly, I found that I liked the film more than the book! In fact, there’s a scene in the book that flat out doesn’t work. It doesn’t feel like it belongs in the story and wisely, screenplay adapter and director Tate Taylor left the scene out of the film.
Whether one likes the books or movie versions may have to do with how we see the characters or how a movie has presented them to us. “Hunger Games” viewers that are reading the books afterwards are going to be hard-pressed to envision Katniss Everdeen as anyone but Jennifer Lawrence. Likewise, if you pick up the book, “The Martian” after seeing the movie, you’ll most likely read it in Matt Damon’s voice.
If I were to read the novelization of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” I’m positive I will hear Adam Driver’s voice whenever I read Kylo Ren speaking.
Speaking of the new Star Wars movie, I walked into it knowing very little and I think that made the movie twice as good than if I’d read the book and knew what to expect.
So it’s either read the book and enjoy the experience it helps create in my imagination and then be let down by the movie or forego the book, see the movie and be doomed to hear the book in the movie characters’ voices.
Thank goodness for original screenplays.