Read the book first or watch the movie first?

While watching old vlogbrothers videos, I found out they have a campaign to “read the book first“, that is you should read the book before watching the movie.

The book is (almost always) better than the movie… I think everyone can agree on that.  It’s an almost universal truth with only enough exceptions that they prove the rule.

Because most people prefer pleasure to increase over time rather than decrease, it makes sense to save the best for last.  Watch the movie.  Then read the book.

What about spoilers?  I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like surprises, so I’m fine with spoilers.  I love wikipedia so much because I can read plot synopses before deciding to watch a show.  If you really love to be surprised, then yeah, you should probably read the book first, though keep in mind that the movie often deviates substantially from the book for cinematic reasons, so you might not be as spoilered as you think you are.

#2 says:  The correct answer is: read the book first and watch the movie never.  The movie is NEVER as good as what’s in my head when I read!  It’s not worth it.

There, solved that for ya.

#1 disagrees.  CASE IN POINT:  The Princess Bride.  YES, the book is better, but the movie is AMAZEBALLS.  Watch the movie first, then cherish the book.  Similarly, Captain Blood.  Delightful movie with Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHaviland.  Even better book (free on kindle!).  Both are worth the experience.  And then there are fantastic adaptations, think Clueless based on Emma.  Same plot, different experiences.

Obviously some movies suck and aren’t worth watching ever even though the book is good (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh).  But there are a lot of excellent movies adapted from excellent books.  Experience both!

What about you?  Which first?

44 Responses to “Read the book first or watch the movie first?”

  1. NessieMonster Says:

    Hmmm, a difficult question! There are stories where I read the book and then it was turned into a film, so my choice was made for me. I can think of plenty of films I’ve seen because I loved the book but very few books I’ve read because I loved the film.

    I am that terrible person who gets seriously annoyed when a film deviates from or doesn’t do service to a book I love. So in theory it’s better to see the film first!
    The downside is once I’ve seen a film, it colours my imagination of what things look like when I (re)read the book.

  2. Engineer Cents (@engineercents) Says:

    Depends on the book and movie/show. For example, I love GoT but never plan to read A Song Of Ice And Fire. OTOH, when the book is preferable to me, I’d happily omit the movie.

  3. MidA Says:

    Pride & Prejudice! In this order:
    1. Read
    2. Watch BBC version with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth
    3. Re-read
    4. Watch version with Kiera Knightley, Rosamund Pike, Dame Judie Dench, and Brenda Blythen
    5. Rotate amongst 1-4 according to mood and time available

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I like the black and white version–captures the spirit of the book well.

    • Sapience Says:

      I was an Austen skeptic until I watched the BBC P&P. I had tried reading the book and never finished it, but then friends made me watch it, I fell in love, and then promptly read everything Austen wrote (even Lady Susan!). I’m not a huge fan of the Kiera Knightly version, but I do love the Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Lizzie Bennet diaries also awesome!

      • Debbie M Says:

        Sadly, I didn’t like the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. But I do like the book and the BBC and Knightly versions (apparently there’s a black-and-white version I need to look for–excellent!). You need to have a Darcy that you really don’t like at first but do later (like the Knightley version–sorry Colin Firth, you’re just too dashing to be unlikeable enough at first), and the oldest girl needs to be clearly prettier than Lizzie, among other things.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Greer Garson and Lawrence Olivier. The costuming etc. is completely wrong, but it is delightful. Of course, if you didn’t like LBD, you may not like it either.

  4. hollyatclubthrifty Says:

    If I end up watching the movie (or miniseries) first, I will never read the book. I found that out a few years ago. Once I see a movie, I lose interest in the book altogether.

  5. bogart Says:

    I am mostly of a book-first-then-(if-at-all)-movie school of thought. I am particularly insisting on this for my kid (which is most of my movie watching at the moment, er, ever — we are working our way through some old classics as well as seeing some new-ish kids’ movies), as I think reading engages the imagination and develops something in our brains (as they are developing) in a way that seeing the visuals presented to us does not. That’s not evidence-based (that I’m aware of), it’s just my opinion (“but,…” to paraphrase a TV evangelist I once caught briefly while channel-surfing, no idea who, “…it’s probably right.”).

  6. What Now? Says:

    Just last night we watched The Princess Bride with our nieces — a movie that we introduced them to five summers ago and now ceremonially watch every summer when they visit. And we had the discussion about movies that are better than books and definitely put The Princess Bride way up on the list.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The book is better (especially if you get the hardback that has the red printing for the Peter Falk bits), but it’s a really good movie. The book is also darker and more depressing, but also deeper and so funny.

      Of course, I’ve seen the movie at least 10 times (maybe more) and I’ve only read the book twice. So per minute of enjoyment, the movie probably beats the book, but for overall enjoyment, definitely the book.

      • Tree of Knowledge Says:

        And they are just two completely different experiences. The Buttercup & Westley plot changes little, but the frame narrative is entirely different making it a different story overall. I’ve taught this book, and my students struggled a bit until they realized everything in the frame is made up too. Once they got that, it was such a fun book to teach because they realized how different the two were. And they love getting the email from Goldman’s publisher. But The Princess Bride is unique in that the novelist and the screenwriter are the same person. That rarely happens but I think that’s part of why both are so excellent.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        They really are!

        From my understanding, Goldman is a screenwriter first and a novelist second. So he’s positioned to do well in both genres.

  7. Miser Mom Says:

    For very young readers (or listeners), the movie can be the gateway drug to real books. When my daughter was young (as in “Go Dog Go” and “Hop on Pop” young), I tried unsuccessfully a few times to transition to reading her chapter books at night. The we watched Wizard of Oz — very, very different from the book, but that gave her enough pictures in her head that I could read the actual book to her. We watched Charlotte’s Web (movie) before reading that book. I think that was enough of movies to get her transitioned over.

    But this is the exception that proves the rule, right? Presumed Innocent — read the book first. I think that’s the only other book/movie pair that I have seen both of (yay Harrison Ford).

  8. SP Says:

    Book first, then movie… though to be fair, I’ve never actually tried it the other way. I like imagining the characters myself, then comparing them to what is portrayed on the screen once I watch the movie. If you watch the movie first, a lot of external/superficial things about the characters are filled in for you in advance. If you read the book first, you imagine the external stuff, but a lot of the time, you get to see a lot more of the internal stuff.

  9. Sapience Says:

    I usually do book first, then movie, because it’s easier for me to understand what the movie makers were trying to do by turning it into a movie if I have the source material in my head. Otherwise I have to watch the movie twice (movie, book, movie).

  10. chacha1 Says:

    There have been times when reviews for a movie adaptation made me want to never read the book. In fact, that’s pretty common. Especially when we are talking about “literary” fiction, which I tend to avoid anyway.

    Casting can push me over the edge. If a story seems only marginal (based on what I like to read or watch) but the cast is interesting, that tips me toward seeing the movie. I am a big fan of good acting, which IMO is more uncommon than good writing, and can often redeem filmed entertainment that is heinously written.

    My book to movie ratio is spectacularly unbalanced – we’re talking something like 40:1 over the course of a year. So the chance that I would see a movie, based on a book, for which I had not read the source material is pretty slim. One exception that immediately stands out is “How to Train Your Dragon.” I never read that book, because I wasn’t 8 years old when it came out and I didn’t know it existed. But I loved the movie.

    I don’t care at all about spoilers. I routinely read reviews and commentary. Sometimes knowing what to expect and look for can enhance my enjoyment of something I wouldn’t ordinarily choose to read or view. Because I read so much, and have seen so many movies, and am very analytical about both, it’s rare that I am genuinely surprised by a plot twist. “The Sixth Sense” got me; “Unbreakable,” which I enjoyed just as much, did not.

    Movies and books are completely different experiences, and faithful film adaptations of excellent books can be utterly wretched movies. I think the books most effectively converted to film are either faithful adaptations of good genre fiction, or looser cinematized adaptations of good historical fiction or straight history. (See: “Sense and Sensibility,” with Emma Thompson et al. I would rather watch that than re-read the book.) Getting too literal with historical anything pretty much guarantees a snorefest, and I say that having gotten a master’s in history.

    In short (I know, too late for that!), I choose a book to read or movie to view based on how interesting it looks to me at that moment in time. In the case of an adaptation, I never ask myself if I should read the book first. :-)

    • Debbie M Says:

      Yes, Emma Thompson great improved Sense and Sensibility by keeping only the best parts. The DVD extras are fun, too, like when she talks about the quest for the kind of sheep they would have had.

      I found a book series called “How to Train Your Dragon,” but it was very different (maybe set long after the first movie) and not at all as fun.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        DC1 likes the how to train your dragon series (the first few came before the movie, and the movie is based on it). We have like 10 of them, give or take. It sucks that Simon Cowell cheated on the author. :(

      • chacha1 Says:

        I think HTTYD was a case of “option the books and then take the concept and completely rework it.” This is one reason why authors should be prepared to Just Let Go when they put their work out for adaptation.

  11. middle_class Says:

    Book first! Like SP, I like imagining the characters myself. I also like that books are open to interpretation.

  12. Ana Says:

    I mostly end up reading the book first because 1) I read the book before it is made into a movie and 2) my book: movie ratio is also quite high, I’m way more likely to read any given book than to see a movie. If I plan to do both, I’ll generally read the book first because I like to imagine the world and characters myself and then see how the casting & filming match up. I enjoy books & movies on different levels—a good story in a book could be a terrible movie and vice versa.

  13. Debbie M Says:

    When I saw the title, I thought this was going to be one of your deliberately controversial posts!

    I didn’t know Captain Blood was also book–cool. I did hear that the “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM” movie stinks, so I haven’t seen it.

    Yep, obviously sometimes a movie doesn’t come out until after you read the book or you don’t realize that there’s a book until after you see the movie. Otherwise, I almost always vote for seeing the movie first. This way you get a nice movie. And then you get an even better book. If you read the book first, you get a nice book and then a disappointing movie (even if there are some parts they did well).

    I feel this way partly because I hate spoilers. If you see the movie first, then you have no spoilers for the movie and just a few spoilers for the book (if they are basically the same). If you read the book first, the whole movie is nothing but spoilers (except you don’t know which parts they’ll omit, change, or ruin).

    On the other hand, as other people mentioned, it’s quite possible that I’ll like the picture in my head a lot more than what’s shown in the movie (“The Wall,” yikes–I much preferred the plain album to the movie), and so it’s better to read the book first to not be biased about what someone else thinks.

    The best is when they are both good but different. The movie and book of “The Firm” have different endings–and the movie’s is better, so I recommend reading the book first. The book Princess of Mars and the movie John Carter were very different, probably because you can do a lot more things in a book than in a movie, even today. I saw the movie first and then enjoyed reading the book and guessing why they made all the changes they did.

    And I do like to watch every version of a few books and plays that I can get my hands on. These come to mind:
    * Pride and Prejudice
    * Much Ado About Nothing
    * Twelve Angry Men
    * A Christmas Carol

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Captain Blood is an amazing book and it’s free on kindle! (Also it’s cool the way they combined characters in the book in the movie in a pretty seamless way.)

      I also love watching different versions of much ado and a christmas carol. Some versions of P&P are too heavy and dramatic for me, and some of the miniseries just stretch things out for too long. Some are amazing though!

      • Linda Says:

        I’d love to hear more about why you like watching different versions of Much Ado About Nothing. I saw a performance of it last weekend at the Ashland OR Shakespeare Festival. The production was contemporary — diversity in the cast, modern staging and costumes, and some other changes — but the lines were straight from the original Shakespeare. I hadn’t really read that play or paid much attention to the last movie (the Branagh production) so I was really struck when I realized that entire plot hinged on slut shaming. That kind of spoiled it for me, but I can understand that there was no way to really change that crucial plot point. Why would you want to watch different versions of it? Am I being too shallow in my interpretation or missing something crucial here?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Which is why you need to see the version with the woman who played dr who’s companion in the reboot. Updated.

        Really in that story Hero and whatever his name is are just macguffins. Beatrice and Benedict are the plot, at least I. The more modern versions.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Not Catherine Tate… The blonde one whose name is escaping me. Apparently multiple assistants have done much ado.

      • Linda Says:

        Well, true that Beatrice and Benedick are the central characters, but the one event that interactions and loyalties pivot around is that Hero supposedly has sex with another man the night before her wedding and she is confronted as a dishonest slut at the alter by Claudio. One of my companions said when we were discussing the play next day, there seemed to be some attempt to stress that the Claudio’s issue was more about Hero being dishonest than about her being a slut.

        Are you recommended the Joss Whedon version from 2011? Maybe I’ll watch that soon while all of this is fresh in my mind.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        No, it is a British version with dr who’s companion (the actress) as hero, I believe. It is from a set of modern re workings of Shakespeare, and much ado is the best of them. Set at a television news studio, iirc.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        also all of the likable characters condemn claude–there is nuance. But yes, the orig ending where all is forgiven suck. I tend to view it as historical–there was slut shaming, but that doesn’t make it right. Kill Claudio!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        OTOH, #2 hates Billie Piper’s acting. I loved loved LOVED the Joss Whedon version. It was hilarious. And definitely focused on Beatrice, the amazing Amy Acker.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        but they did a great job updating the script
        (besides, it’s not like she was playing beatrice, she was playing hero)

  14. becca Says:

    Has anyone read the Devil Wears Prada? I feel like I have a great imagination, but it’s no match for Meryl Streep. On the other hand, maybe it’s not her so much as her in that role. Because The Giver movie was delightful, but no match for the book.

    • OMDG Says:

      I read the book AND saw the movie. And enjoyed both. Same with the Bridget Jones book/movie. I think it depends.

  15. Leah Says:

    I like the Rats of NIMH movie! But, usually, I read the book and then never see the movie. If I really cherish the book, I don’t want my mental images replaced. See: Ender’s Game, Fantastic Mr. Fox, etc.

  16. ralucacoldea Says:

    Harry Potter – both movies and books are cool.
    Also – Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries – both versions good.
    Sometimes the movie turns out better – Like the Bond Movies – the original books weren’t so amazing, but the movies give them the extra zing.
    Sometimes they are both bad.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Oh you’re right — the Bond movies. Just watch the movies and *don’t* read the books.

      • chacha1 Says:

        oooooh I disagree. I think most of the Bond movies, up to the new series, were crap (in terms of ludicrous scenarios and shenanigans, and phenomenally bad direction and acting in most). I have no difficulty passing over re-viewings of the old movies (IMO the only one worth seeing for plot is “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” but being a Sean Connery fan I forgive a lot in his movies), but had real trouble giving up my set of the books.

        The difficulty with the books is that they are very much a product of their time and were written to appeal to a very specific audience. It was a sexist, racist, emotionally violent and cold milieu, and that is most definitely not for every reader.

        The current adaptations are doing a good job of addressing the very difficult-to-love central character within a completely modern milieu. And with a greatly improved standard of acting.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I forgive a lot in Sean Connery movies, too. And I thought Skyfall was perfectly aimed.

  17. gwinne Says:

    If it started as a book, read the book first. The film is almost never as good.

    The reverse is also true. If it started as a movie, the book is just a bad copy/plot summary.


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