Like the age old debate of which came first, the chicken or the egg, so do we now discuss whether to watch the first watch the film or read the book.
Although it’s not really a discussion because obviously you should read the book first.
I mean, why would you not? The book will be more detailed, more considered, more developed. And above all it’s the original. It has to be the best. And in my experience it almost always is.
The list of books whose film adaptations I have criticised, bemoaned, lambasted, condemned – pretty much any synonym you can throw at it – is never-ending. Literally never-ending because you can guarantee that as long as I live I’ll be going to see film adaptions and complaining that they’re not as good as the books.
I really want them to be good. I go into every new film adaption with the highest expectations – this one will do the book justice, this time the scriptwriter and casting director and editor will have pictured the book in the same way as me, this time I’ll actually be able to sit back and enjoy it – but I never do.
And it’s got me thinking. These are well reviewed, generally well liked films; the common factor in disliking them is me. Anna Karenina had Keria Knightly in it. The Virgin Suicides came with the highest recommendations. For Christ’s sake, Wild won Oscars. And yet of none of them do I have even slightly fond memories. And that is only three of a very very long list.
Whereas if I turn the tables, if I watch the film first… well that’s a whole different matter.
It doesn’t happen often because the bookworm in me hates myself anytime I even consider watching a film before reading the source material. But there have been a few occasions; The Hunger Games for one.
I watched the first Hunger Games film in third year of university, a time when my reading material was pretty much limited to classics, or Harry Potter, there was no in between. I never imagined I’d one day want to read The Hunger Games books so I settled into the film with no guilt at all. And yeah, it was alright without making any lasting impressions at all. It wasn’t until earlier this year when I saw Catching Fire on TV that I really got hooked on the series and my thoughts immediately turned to reading the books. Because watching the films is fine for finding out the very basics about what happens but if you want to really know what goes on, if you want to find out all the intricacies of the plots and the characters’ true motivations, well, you need a book for that.
Except in this case I’m not sure that was true. The Hunger Games books didn’t really add anything to my experience. The films had stayed incredibly true to the plot, there was nothing additional to be explained and everything was exactly as I’d imagined, because the film had told me how to imagine it.
I had a similar experience with Game of Thrones. Although here I read the books more out of impatience to find out what happens in the break between series two and series three. So I’ve got this mix of first impressions from the TV series for the original characters and the initial events, and book formed opinions for everything in the later series – the Martells and Aegon Targaryen and Braavos. And yet the verdict is still unanimously in favour of the TV series. And I’ll never know if that’s because the books just aren’t as good, or because the TV series lodged itself in my brain and wouldn’t let me think that there was any other way of imagining that world.
Once you’ve seen the film it’s too late. If you’ve pictured something one way you can’t change it. If you read Breakfast at Tiffany’s picturing Holly Golightly as an Audrey Hepburn brunette then she’ll stay a brunette, no matter how many times Truman Capote mentions that she’s blonde.
If I’d have read The Hunger Games and then watched the films would I still be sat here saying they’re incredibly true to the plot? Or would I be saying I can’t believe they cast Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss? If I’d have read Breakfast at Tiffany’s without ever having seen a picture of Audrey Hepburn would I have refused to enjoy it because Holly was supposed to be blonde? Would I be watching Game of Thrones wishing for the whole extended Greyjoy family to show up? The answer is obvious – yes, I probably would be.
I wish you could have two goes. Once to read the book first and once to watch the film, on neither occasion impeded by the impressions that have already been made on you. I’d like to know if I’d still think Jennifer Ehle is the perfect Lizzy Bennett if it didn’t just happen to be the first Pride and Prejudice adaption I’d seen. I wonder if, with my personal bias was out the way, The Help was really quite a good film. Could I, god forbid, have liked the Harry Potter films?
Unfortunately I don’t think modern science is going to get to that point any time soon. And if we did develop some kind of selective amnesia inducing medicine, this definitely isn’t what we should be using it for. I suppose I could use public opinion to much the same effect. Wait to see which is higher – the book’s GoodReads score or the film’s Rotten Tomatoes score – and then go with that one first. But I don’t always agree with public opinion. And to bastardise Haruki Murakami, if you only do what everyone else is doing, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.
So I guess I’ll stick with assuming the book will be better and universal hating the film adaptions.