Why Books are Better than Movies.


Or, to be more accurate, why books are better than the movies which get made from them.

Okay, before we start, let’s not get all defensive. There are lots of great movies out there, and some of them are based on books. Some of those movies might even be better than the book they are based on. Happy?

But I’m thinking of something very specific, and it comes out of the various school visits I’m doing at the moment, because someone always asks when my book (Darwen Akwright, in this case) is going to be made into a movie. This is, the assumption seems to suggest, the ultimate accolade for a book, that the greatest thing that can happen (after getting an agent, a publishing deal, a bestseller ranking etc.) is Hollywood’s golden coronation. The book is dead! Long live the film!

Of course we all know that books don’t become movies without more than eggs being broken (hearts, I suspect, are up there a lot of the time). Darwen is 400 pages long. The average screen play is about a quarter of that. Double spaced. There’s lots that a movie can show in seconds, but you can’t pack the plot of a ten hour read into a two hour film. Stuff gets left out, trimmed back, recalibrated for a visual medium and, in the process, the book turns into something different entirely.

Which is fine and dandy because it’s the nature of the beast. Books and films are different. They work in different ways, communicate in different ways, and as such some stories that work well in books fail completely on the big screen and vice versa.

So far, so predictable.

We’ve talked about some of this before. David has a particularly shrewd post on the subject from a couple of years ago, which also links to previous debate on the subject. What I want to target here is that sense that the natural evolution of really great story is from book to film, and I want to focus on the way meaning is created in these two different media.

Let me emphasize that little throwaway point again: books and movies are different media. Their form and the system by which they generate meaning is fundamentally different even, in some senses, opposite. All conversions of books to films are necessarily instances of adaptation, and there can therefore be no “straight” filmic version of a book because the two are generically different.

But here’s the thing. When someone reads one of my books, meaning (by which I mean all kinds of semantic effect be it intellectual, emotional, visceral or whatever) is the product of my words acting upon their imagination. That reader is unique–the end result of an infinite number of variables concerning their background and experience—and the way they thus make sense of the words on the page is consequently also unique. Certain words will trigger specific and idiosyncratic associations, memories, feelings which I, as the author, never intended or imagined.

But that is how it should be, how—in fact—it has to be. Books generate meaning in an essentially collaborative fashion, the words on the pages triggering a process in the mind of the reader which is not merely interpretive, but is also essentially constructive, the effect of the book being shaped and at least partially built from the mind of the reader. The reader is active: a formative and creative participant in the generation of the book’s meaning. Books are thus democratic.

By contrast, movies do most of the creative work for the viewer, replacing the hypothetical potential of words on the page with specific images and sounds. There is still an interpretive factor from the position of the viewer, but it is—by comparison with reading books—massively reduced. The work of imagining is done by an extensive team of actors, director, designers, cinematographers and so forth in ways insisting upon a single look, a single perspective on the action (the viewer’s eye guided by the camera) which makes the audience essentially passive. Where a reader might be given only a few phrases from which to build his or her impression of a character’s appearance, for instance, the movie presents that character in precise and fully realized detail. It does so, moreover, in such a way that it becomes almost impossible for the viewer to conceive of the character differently without somehow resisting the cinematic experience entirely. Whatever its strengths as a medium, film largely deprives those who watch it of the opportunity to be active collaborators in the art object’s generation of meaning.

This is why I resist so strongly that model of a book’s success which views its being adapted for film as a progression to a higher plane of success. However great a filmic adaptation of a book might be, it represents not the apotheosis of the book but something which is fundamentally unbookish, something which uses entirely different systems of signification to create entirely different meanings, and largely deprives the end-user of any share in the generation of meaning

So here’s to sharing creative power with your readers, to collaboration, and the ambiguous wiggle room which permits constructive interpretation. Here’s to books.


26 comments to Why Books are Better than Movies.

  • This is a nice and thougtful essay. I will say there is at least one way in which a film adaptation might best be understood as an “apotheosis” and that is the arena of money and exposure: a film adaptation generally seems to accrue both to the author in excess of what they might generally expect in the publishing arena alone. For that reason (and because I love buying food and nice things for my family) I for one would not sneeze at a Hollywood offer on my work…

    But as someone with an auteur‘s sensibilities (even if I haven’t earned it), I still care about the way a movie might present my work, so I’ve thought a lot about what I think makes a really good film adaptation. When I saw the “Hunger Games” movie, I realized it was an excellent example of what I think makes for such. As you point out in your essay, movies are a fundamentally different medium, and as such they have very different ways in which they excel at telling stories. Books are better for some things, but movies (IMO) are better for others (I’m also a visual artist in my spare spare spare time, which these days is completely nonexistant, so I have a wide appreciation for different art forms). An excellent adaptation, then, does this: it tells essentially the same story as the book (edited for time, as necessary) but in such a way that takes advantage of the strengths of the visual medium and without detracting or taking away from the experience of the book, such that the two are effectively complimentary experiences.

    It’s possible to have a great movie adaptation that fails that rule (for example: the Jurassic Park movie isn’t really a complimentary experience to the book, what with it making several fundamentally different plot decisions, altering characters, changing the ending, etc., but it’s still a great movie on its own merits), but aesthetically I really appreciate this more cohesive approach. It’s also possible, I think, to make a very faithful adaptation that fails to be a great movie (the Harry Potter movies are quite good, IMO, but not great, for example, but very faithful to the books).

    That’s why I pulled out Hunger Games as such a good example: it’s faithful to the books but does things that you can’t really do in the books that give the story an added depth (sure the books had depth, but the movie had, I thought, another layer). That really worked for me.

  • On a somewhat tangential note: I’ve noticed something interesting (to me at least) about differences in my experience between books and movies. In books, I often don’t form very clear mental pictures of the characters (I think this might be because I often don’t have a clear mental picture of myself; I don’t think about what I look like except when I’m looking in a mirror or otherwise directly addressing my appearance). Instead, characters are defined for me by their name and any common epithets or associated characteristics within the text of the book; I remember the names of book characters usually very well. In movies, on the other hand, I’m terrible at remembering names of characters but remember their appearances very well. I think this dichotomy is very similar to the way I think about myself and other people: except for people very close to me, I often don’t remember names, but easily remember faces and personalities.

    So I wonder if I don’t internalize book characters a bit more – treat these people as shards of myself – and address movie characters as friends I’m meeting for the first time.

  • AJ> Really cool post. I love movies. I just love ’em. I always get a little jolt of excitement when the lights go down, etc. (I suppose I could say that I love going to movies almost as much as I love movies themselves. Sometimes more). And I think you’re totally right about the imagination being more done for the audience in a movie. They’ve made choices that I make when I read. What’s left (and in some ways what I like) is the discussion of the choice. When I discuss books with people, we often spend time working out what happened. That is, aligning our views so that we can reach a point from which we can discuss the rest. Movies much more provide a universal experience, so we leap to “what did this choice mean…” (costume, dialogue delivery, facial expression, setting, camera angle etc….). It’s why I’m torn on showing my students films of books or plays. As soon as I show them one, most of them will take it and replace anything different they had thought, assuming the film is “right.” Sometimes, of course, I think films get it “right” because they’ve made choices I’d have made.

    Another thing I find interesting, and there could be a whole post on it, is the creation of movies from comic books. There are lots of visuals already present, of course, and yet, the differences in tone, etc. are sometimes huge, too.

  • sagablessed

    Amen. All I can say. Amen.

  • Since I haven’t been to a movie theater more than once every other year for years, (because I got bored with them, actually) I have to agree. Books are always better. 🙂

  • Stephen,
    I agree. Exposure through film is a massive boost to a writer’s career regardless of what the studio pays for the rights. That said, a bad film version can actually damage a writer’s literary career, or–at very least–complicate it. Thriller writer, David Morrell, talks a lot about what happened to his credibility as a writer after his gritty and skeptical novel, First Blood, was turned into the first Rambo film, generating a jingoistic franchise quite at odds with the novel (at the end of which Rambo dies). I also agree that the way we imagine story is different in books, that we don’t necessarily create the kinds of mental pictures film gives us. So, yes, despite my provocative title, I guess I’m really insisting upon the difference rather than ranking one over the other except in terms of how they make meaning.

    yes, film in the literature class is a really double edged sword. It makes me cringe when teachers use Shakespeare films, for instance, as a surrogate for reading the text, since students then internalize subconsciously al the coices the film made tacitly in ways closing off other interpretive approaches.

    Thanks, saga!

    I don’t see movies in the theatre much these days, though I do still enjoy the experience, esp. with a big, visual blockbuster like The Avengers, which I loved (though can’t imagine wanting to read a novel of the same story).

  • David Morrell’s experience is certainly one with a warning; I think that’s the sort of story that makes a strong case for authors demanding some sort of producer-type role in overseeing a film development as part of their film rights contract negotiations. But then again I am a naif, and I’ve no idea how tenable this is…

  • I agree with what Stephen said about the struggle between exposure vs. misrepresentation or at best just a Cliff Notes version of the story. A double-edged sword. When I was a kid part of me wanted to see everything turned into a movie because that would mean that more people would know about how awesome those stories were. Because I knew that not every one of my peers was going to take the effort to do the reading – they wanted someone to do it for them. The same is probably true for some adults. Nowadays I get why that’s a bad idea. Another argument for hooking kids on books while they’re young! 🙂

  • Gypsyharper

    Great post, AJ! I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences in storytelling between books and movies lately, so this is an interesting topic. It’s interesting, Stephen, that you bring up Hunger Games, because when I watched it, I had the opposite reaction. While it did follow the events of the book very faithfully, I felt that it lacked the emotional depth of the book because there simply wasn’t enough time to develop the characters and relationships which give the book its impact. It actually made me wonder if some of the changes I’ve complained about in movies made from books in the past were actually necessary in order to retain the essence of the story in a very different medium.

    The exposure vs. misrepresentation issue is also something I’ve thought about (though I’m nowhere close to having a book someone wants to publish, let alone make into a movie). I remember cringing as a kid when some of my classmates looked for a movie version rather than reading whatever book we were assigned, but I can certainly relate to what you said, Laura, about wanting people to be able to experience those stories, knowing they wouldn’t read the book. I know there are some people who abhor the trend of making Broadway musicals into films, but as someone who doesn’t have the opportunity to go regularly to New York, I kind of appreciate it, as it may be the only way I ever get to experience those shows. Even if it is a fundamentally different experience.

  • Ken

    Great post AJ!
    I prefer books to movies. Movies are–and this is my opinion here–easier. Not from the perspective of creation, but from consumption. As an audience, all you have to do is sit there and let it pour into your head…and juggle the occasional Skittle in the dark.
    Reading leaves more to the imagination. As a reader, your imagination goes to work on what you’re reading. You create the sound of a character’s voice and you even add your own “Vision” of what that character looks like in the absense of any concrete description on the part of the author. This is a good thing on a couple of different levels. One one level, you’re “Personalizing” the experience and on another level, your imagination is getting a bit of a workout as you read.
    I love movies. Absolutely love them. Everything else being equal, I would prefer an original screenplay to a book adaptation for a couple of reasons.
    If the story came to me in the form of a book first, then the movie is “Safe”. I know what’s going to happen for the most part unless the filmmakers really diverge from the original, like in the first Rambo movie and those decisions aren’t based on what works for the overall story, those are based on test screenings, etc and there have been times when those haven’t been the best decisions.
    If I happened to see the movie first and then read or go back and reread the book, the two versions will “Step” on one another. For example, I read Stephen King’s The Stand before I watched the miniseries. After that, when I go back to the book, I’m reading Stu Redmond’s dialogue and “Hearing” it in my head in the voice of Gary Sinise. Now one might point out that this only happens in the case where the casting is spot on (Seriously, I can not imagine anyone playing a better Stu) but the point is that I can’t remember what my original interpretation of Stu’s voice “Sounded” like or looked like for that matter…and that’s a loss.

  • Let me say first, for the record, and for the benefit of Mr. Steven Spielberg, who just might be reading this discussion, that I have absolutely no problem with anyone making a movie out of one of my books. One the other hand, A.J. Hartley, the author of the post, DOES seem to have some strong objections to having HIS books made into movies. So, if you’re trying to prioritize your adaptation list for the coming year, it seems natural that THIEFTAKER should rank above DARWEN. I’m just sayin’ . . .

    Hey, A.J.! Great post, man! I think you should elaborate a bit more on your point about movies sucking and books being great. Really, feel free to go on and on about that . . .

    All joking aside, I love this post, and more generally the discussion about books and movies in general. I think it can be so useful in pointing to the elements of storytelling that books bring to the table and that most movies just can’t touch. As I said in the post that you reference, I love movies, but I do think that there are precious few examples of movies made from novels that actually replicate the effectiveness of the written version. I agree with Stephen that HUNGER GAMES is one example, but there aren’t many others. I think though that part of the question “When is your book going to be made into a movie?” reflects people’s understanding that while movies might not mark the artistic highpoint of a work, adaptations do often bring financial rewards that we authors simply can’t expect from our books alone.

  • @Gypsyharper: I don’t disagree with you, re: Hunger Games on some aspects of the emotional level. In particular, my biggest complaint on the movie: if I didn’t already care about Rue from the books, it would’ve been hard to care about her from the movies based on the miniscule screen time she got. On the flip side, the short scene with Rue’s father and her district was one of the most powerful and emotional scenes of the movie for me – which is part of that added depth that I felt was easier to achieve in a movie that couldn’t as easily be done in a book.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    This is an interesting post, and as someone who very much values the imaginative capabilities of our society as a whole, I think that books are *definitely* an important part of that. However, one area where I think that movies really trump books in an important way is in their capacity to allow people to *share* story. If you go back to thinking about “original” story-telling, yes, it was just words and so it allowed the audience to collaborate with the story-teller, but it was also a shared experience that shaped people in a communal way. Today, movies fill that role much more strongly than books. And yes, my husband and I read books aloud quite a lot, but we don’t have the time to do that very often, whereas we can sit down and watch Grimm together, or Buffy, and talk with each other as the story progresses about what is happening, what we’re enjoying, and in that way *those* stories allow us to connect more closely than a book we’ve both read privately and are discussing after the fact when the details have started to blur and we’ve already fixed our strongest opinions on the piece.

    In terms of books being made into movies, yeah, pretty much what Stephen said, with the single addendum that book adaptations *do* allow people to broaden their scope. There are some genres I’m simply not interested in taking the time to read, but I’ll happily watch a movie of. Similarly, expecting that my husband would *ever* be interested in reading Pride&Prejudice is foolish, but he’s sat through multiple adaptations without complaint. Sometimes you have to ask: *Who* am I trying to reach with this story, and how can that best be accomplished?

  • Laura,
    you’re right about movies popularizing books, though they can also problematize them. The Percy Jackson film did poorly (and killed the movie franchise) partly because it deviated from the books so much. The Harry Potter films (like LOTR or the Hunger Games) are exceptions because the movies were made because the readership was huge and proven to be attentive. But that sense of needing to stay close to the books is not always good for a movie (I think the 3rd Harry Potter film is the best, personally, partly because of the ways it deviates from the book to tell a more visual story).

    agreed. The idea that a film might somehow be a substitute for the book is just nuts.

    yes, I do find the logic of where movies deviate from the books they are based on fascinating. And since you mention Stephen King, I think it interesting that two of my favorite King films are not what you would call straight adaptations from novels. The Shining was radically rethought for film (so much so that the book was then remade far more faithfully into a far less successful film. Stand By Me, was based on a short story (which incidentally is teling: novels are often less suited to film than short stories or novellas).

    way to throw me under the bus, man. I’m calling Spielberg right now. See if you get a Thieftaker movie after that… 🙂

    I take your point, unless you are saying you want to talk about the movie AS you watch it, in which case I might have to hunt you down with a pack of mutant flying Dobermans. Remember what Firefly’s Shepherd Book said aboutt eh special circle in Hell for child molesters and people who talk at the theatre…

  • Gypsyharper

    @Stephen: Yes – what you said about Rue gets to the heart of my complaint about the movie. But I also agree that there are some ways that movies achieve things books cannot and the scene with Rue’s father is a great illustration of that.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Oh man. I’d kind of like to see mutant flying Dobermans. However, I have seen a grand total of *one* movie in the theater this year. Usually we’ve got (and use!) the luxury of -pause-(and rewind) if we want to question or discuss something mid-flow.

  • I love movies! I don’t go to the theater very often, because of the cost, although movies like The Avengers are must-sees on the big screen. Give me a couple of new DVDs and I’m tickled to bits. With that said, I still don’t like them better than books. As many folks have already mentioned, there’s an emotional depth one achieves reading a book that few movies can deliver.

    There’s only ever been one movie I liked better than its book, and that was The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Mikael in the book was a dreadful person, but in the movie he was far more sympathetic.

  • Razziecat

    YAY! You are my hero! Thank you for saying this so much more eloquently than I could 🙂 To me, books are the epitome of story-telling, pretty much right up there with the spoken word. I enjoy movies but you can’t beat the “movie” in your own head. So many times, a movie’s producers want to make their own mark on a story and make major changes, which means, to me, that they are not telling the same story told in the book. There are books that have stayed with me, in my heart and my imagination, for years, and always will. There has never been a movie that means as much to me. It bothers me that a book can generate the kind of sales that, say, the Harry Potter books did, but the fact that they were made into movies is considered the true measure of success. And yet, it wasn’t the movies that inspired kids to read more, was it? 😉

  • Vyton

    This is great. I have been very disappointed by film adaptations of books that were important to me. LOTR and HP are notable exceptions. Some movies are so far from the novel that only the title and the names of the characters are recognizable. Note that I’m talking about the names, not the characters themselves. Other movies stuck with the characters and most of the plot, but the actors were so far from my visual image that I couldn’t finish the movie. To be fair, I sometimes visualize characters in ways that don’t even agree with the author’s description, and I recognize that is a problem. On a somewhat related tangent, when I listen to an audio book series narrated by a single author, when I later read those books, I hear the narrator’s voices for the different characters.

    The idea of showing movies of Shakespeare’s plays in a class about the plays is an awful idea. They should be read aloud, live.

  • quillet

    I found myself nodding while I read this post. Books are better! Watching a movie is fun but it is, as you say, a more passive experience. Also much shorter and less complex, because movies are closer in length to short stories than to novels. I’d much rather create the movie in my own head — which is why I always prefer to read a book before I see any movie-adaptation of it. My head-movie, made in collaboration with the author, is always so much richer than any film. It has a soundtrack, tastetrack, smelltrack, and sensetrack, not to mention an emotiontrack, thoughttrack…

    Long live books!

  • TwilightHero

    Yup. I agree; the book is almost always better than the movie. There are rare cases, like the LOTR adaptations, where the two are equal – not because the movie is so faithful to the book, but because it manages to be just as entertaining as the book – but I’ve yet to see a film adaptation which surpasses the book it was based on.

    Having said that, it’s also true that movies and books have different strengths. Movies, of course, are excellent for showing fast-paced action, incredible powers and locales and so on. I too loved the Avengers 😀

    But books have more depth. My favorite part in the first Harry Potter book was always where Harry flies on a broomstick for the first time. You share that sense of wonder as he realizes this is something he doesn’t need to learn, something he’s instinctively good at. And then I saw the movie, and didn’t like that scene as much. I was watching him fly, not flying with him. That made all the difference. Great post, A.J 🙂

  • Razziecat

    “I was watching him fly, not flying with him.”

    Yes! Exactly! Thank you, TwilightHero!

  • TwilightHero

    @Razziecat: Glad you liked it 🙂

  • ajp88

    Adaptations as serialized television shows work much better than cinematic films, at least in terms of faithful adaptations. I’m sorry, but the Harry Potter films were anything but faithful after the first two (though the third was also my favorite). Same goes for LOTR. Both made radical changes to characterizations and cut large swaths of plot. I still love them s movies but no chance they’re really faithful to their source material beyond the simple elevator pitch.

    Game of Thrones was remarkably faithful for its first season, by comparison. The despicable things they did to Qarth in the second season still give me nightmares. But I trust having ten or so hours of a bit less budget to adapt one of my favorite books than only 2.5 hours.

  • I remember the day I first realized this. I had completed Jaws the Revenge and love the story it told. Things changed when I saw the movie. Ever since then, books have reigned supreme.

  • Megan B.

    I totally agree with all of this. But I would like to add one comment… If I love a book, I almost always get excited about the film adaptation, even knowing that it won’t be as good. There’s a certain excitement in seeing how someone brought it to life, the music they chose, etc. I am totally dying for the Hobbit movie to come out.

    Also, if I see the movie first, the two often hold equal standing in my heart. The Princess Bride is my all-time favorite movie, and I love the book, too, but I consider them both wonderful.