Shelf Awareness: Was the book really better?

This month I have been mulling over a very serious debate that has been raging for decades: which is better, the book or the movie? I am guilty of uttering the phrase “The book was better” a time or two (or 20) in my life, but my disdain for it has been slowly growing.

Perhaps file this one in the “unpopular opinion” column, along with my aversion to the chocolate and peanut butter combo. This is also purely a matter of opinion; I am by no means a professional book or film critic. And as I’ve thought about it more, I am still full of questions.

My natural curmudgeon comes out and my hackles go up when I hear or read the assertion that “The book is always better.” Since the dawn of film, this clarion call from the literati has rung through the annals of film criticism. The statement has now crystallized into colloquial fact, along with tales of swimming after meals and the meaning of a red sky at night. We have just come to accept that, naturally, books are simply and unequivocally, superior art forms.

As of late, the phrase has been plastered on merchandise such as T-shirts, mugs, bookmarks and other book-ish swag peddled by hawkers of literary-themed wares. I don’t disparage anyone for saying it though, I have loved saying it myself. Waxing philosophical, pontificating on the merits of the book and how the movie failed to accurately portray how I thought the story should be told. But if I’m totally honest, I have said it with an undercurrent of pride, offering it as proof of my cultural aptitude. I not only watched the movie, I also read the book.

However fun it is to say though, is this statement true — is the book really always better? Is this even a fair comparison? Are we needlessly, erroneously, belittling our “not so literate” friends, colleagues, family members, acquaintances and even strangers who we accost on the street who merely watched the movie? Books are a different medium than movies, so I’m dubious as to whether there is a truly definitive answer to the question of which is better.

Putting aside my natural compulsion as a contrarian to be skeptical of anything beloved being repackaged and sold off to profit a movie studio, I have often enjoyed movies based on books. Some of my favorite movies are “Little Women (specifically the 1995 Winona Ryder and most recent Greta Gerwig versions) and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971 Gene Wilder version). Usually, I enjoy them more if I haven’t read the book first, or I appreciate the two pieces as separate entities. I almost have to divorce myself from the idea that they are even the same story sometimes. However, I don’t think this necessarily means I think the book was a better work of art.

When we say “the book was better,” are we trying to say that books are better than movies in general? Each is a vehicle for telling stories, but the storytelling happens in vastly different ways. Films use different techniques to tell a story creatively. The filmmaker can use camera angles, blocking and even subtle changes in setting or color to convey an idea. Sometimes though, the filmmaker’s adaptation, whether being as true to the story as possible, or vastly different from the source material can actually just fall flat. But much of the debate or concern over the book being better doesn’t really address why the book is better, it just seems we are supposed to assume that it is.

They each may appeal to individuals differently based on how we best process information from our environment. Movies may appeal to people who absorb information in a visual way, while others may enjoy the book more because they are more verbally inclined or prefer the activity of reading over watching. But does anyone ever say the book was better than the play? It seems that just movies have acquired this particular ire in contemporary society.

Books do exercise our imaginations in a different way, reading and then imagining based on a description forces us to use a different part of our brain. But is the criticism that movies leave nothing to the imagination really true? As I’ve learned more about filmmaking, there are lots of subtle creative choices directors can make that leave a viewer to fill in missing information with their imaginations. Focus, cuts, how a character enters a frame, or showing just an object that hints at backstory can be used to tell just parts of the story without handing every bit of detail of it to the viewer. There are lots of great books in the library’s catalog you can check out to learn more about filmmaking techniques.

The movie, by definition, will be different from the book. Watching someone else’s interpretation of a beloved story is almost universally a damp squib. What I saw in my head when I read the descriptions of Hermione Granger’s large front teeth and frizzy hair did not match up to the much more “TV-friendly” visage of Emma Watson in the Harry Potter movies. When we read a book, we have a very clear and specific vision in our minds, often drawing from our own individual experiences, a vision that a movie’s creative team can’t possibly replicate.

Visualizing a scene described in the text of a book is a more intimate experience than seeing the filmmaker’s interpretation. The reader projects their own memories into their conception of the scene, making it more personal. A filmmaker can use similar scenery, colors, etc. to evoke a feeling of familiarity from viewers but rarely is it going to be the exact same as what they had experienced or imagined themselves.

Reading is more active, it takes a longer time and thus the reader may feel more invested in the book than they would passively watching a movie. With the rare exception of a shorter book being read by a fast reader, the average movie can be viewed in under three hours, a much shorter time than reading most books.

Often I hear the criticism of the movie adaptation is that the movie left out a lot of stuff from the book. Following that line of thinking, does it stand to reason that the movie would have been better if it had included every detail from the book? If the director/filmmaker did this, it would probably mean the movie would be 20 hours long and move impossibly slowly, which I imagine would also equally enrage its critics.

Film is limited by time in how much detail it can include; a book has the ability to convey more detailed descriptions than a movie. Books can give lots of background information to help the reader understand a character’s intentions and motivations, and if not dealt with carefully in a movie, the same action can be confusing to the viewer if they do not understand what events led up to it.

This is a great time of year for snuggling up and reading a good book or watching a movie. I have included a list of some great books and their movie counterparts you can try out and see which one you prefer. In the end I think, as with all art, it comes down to a matter of personal preference. But perhaps something we can all agree on is that it is a fun debate, and really when it comes down to it a fairly innocuous one.

Is it really hurting anyone if we continue to make the assertion that the book is always better? Probably not. But I enjoy poking at cultural norms and analyzing the way we talk about media. So now judge for yourselves. Did the story fall flat because of the filmmaker’s adaptation, or is your reaction colored by your love of the printed text? Do some stories render better in book format, or are there maybe even some you thought were better as movies? I’d love to hear what you think!

Don’t forget that in addition to the library’s fabulous collection of DVDs you can also find great movies through our digital resource Kanopy.

Happy reading and watching!

(Julia Engel is a reference librarian at Philomath Community Library. She can be reached via email at [email protected] or by phone at 541-929-3016.)


12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, directed by David Fincher

Forrest Gump by Winston Groom, directed by Robert Zemeckis

The Godfather by Mario Puzo, directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy

Jaws by Peter Benchley

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, directed by Steven Spielberg

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Lion based on the book Long way Home by Saroo Brierley

The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

Maze Runner by James Dashner

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

The Shining by Steven King, directed by Stanley Kubrick

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts

The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum

A Wrinkle in Time by Madelei

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