We’ve all heard someone say after watching a movie, “I liked it, but I read the book and it’s WAY better!” We’ve heard it and many of us have probably said it. If you knew the sort of people I did when Lord of the Rings was coming out you heard it a lot. Like a lot. Oftentimes this comes across as an annoyance to me, even if I agree with the opinion. In general I don’t think the comparisons are necessary or helpful.
But it is a pretty commonly accepted rule of thumb that a book is better than it’s film counterpart. I’ve found this to be almost universally true. Regardless of whether or not I watch or read first my conclusion is usually the same: the book is better. And as someone who loves both books and films I can’t help but wonder why.
Here are 3 of the top reasons for why I believe books are typically better than their film analogs.
Characters drive stories. The more interesting, iconic, and dynamic a character is the more invested you will be in the narrative they are a part of. In fact, character development and interaction oftentimes is the narrative. Characters are central to stories.
And oftentimes you know characters better in books than in films. There are multiple reasons for why this is true, but one of the most notable reasons is that within books we get inside characters minds in a way that is impossible to do in film. The medium of reading allows us to experience things from the character’s perspective, hearing their internal dialogue and witnessing them process what is happening around them.
Events are more interesting when we see them the way others experience them. Shared experiences are a huge part of any human relationship. It’s the reason that couples travel and families play games and friends watch sports together. These things could be done alone, but doing them together creates experiences to share and bond over. You learn more about someone when you hear them explain how they experienced something or how they view a situation.
Books provide a context to know characters in a way that can’t be replicated in films. You simply know a character better when you read their internal dialogue than you do watching them act. You care more about them and you are more invested in both who they are and what their story is. The fact that you have spent time in their head means, by necessity, you know them in a unique way.
The Hunger Games is a perfect example of this. Katniss’s character is far more fleshed out, realized, and dynamic in the novelization of the story simply because the entire narrative is told from her perspective. Everything we witness, experience, and learn about comes to us through her eyes in the book, meaning that we learn to see the world the way she does. Natural affinity is created with her character through this. Because this relationship doesn’t exist in the movie (and can’t) her character is not only more flat, but we also have to learn about her world through other means. All of this results in knowing and caring less about her character and the other characters she loves.
2. Pacing and Time Constraints
My most common complaint about movies I didn’t enjoy is that I hated the pacing. I often leave these films feeling like some scenes were too fast, other’s were too slow, that there wasn’t enough time spent allowing me to invest in a character, or that a plot idea wasn’t fully fleshed out. Pacing is crucial in films.
One of the great advantages to books is that you as the reader largely determine the pace of the story. If you want to read quickly through a chapter you can, if you want to slowly pick your way through you can, if you want to put the book down and consider a thought, scene, character, or plot advancement you can. This makes dramatic moments more dramatic, the heaviness of them weighs on you in between chapters. It creates space to really consider an idea. It allows you to spend more time with a character, if for no other reason than simply because reading takes far longer than watching.
This can’t really be done in films. Movies are under time constraints. They only have a couple hours to tell the story they want to tell, which means that advancing the plot trumps all else. Disappointed your favorite minor character from the book only got one cameo in the movie? That’s what happens, it’s a simple necessity: movies must cut details, information, plot points, scenes and characters. Unless of course you want a movie that will outstay its welcome (looking at you The Hobbit).
This is the biggest area in which the Harry Potter movies had issues. The books in this series are filled to the brim with fascinating side stories and small moments that really flesh out the characters and the world they inhabit. This is one of the things that J.K. Rowling did really well: she created an incredibly interesting world, one that was fun to live in and discover more about. This can’t be captured and replicated well in the films though. The main story arc takes so long to tell that not only do you end up losing a lot of what makes the world interesting, but you also end up losing out on some really important plot elements.
3. Engaging Your Imagination
When things like set design, casting, camera angles, wardrobe, and music align together in a film they often pull you into another world. And a director’s ability to accomplish this is one of the defining marks of whether or not he or she is good at what they do. When a film gets this right it’s beautiful. When a film gets this wrong it’s comical.
Books aren’t different. An author has to be able to describe a setting or a character in such a way that you can, in a very similar way, be pulled into another world. Just as a set designer has to be able to accomplish the visual atmosphere of a shot in order to bring you into the narrative, an author must successfully describe a scene in order to have the same effect. The key difference however, and what I find most powerful about written works, is that a book demands your imagination to engage with the story in a way that films don’t.
When a character is introduced your imagination kicks in and informs as you to what they look like: facial features, build, hair style, clothing. When a character speaks your imagination informs you as to what they sound like, their tone, volume, accent. When a scene is introduced your imagination pictures the scene, it’s lighting, atmosphere, what’s present. All throughout a book your imagination is at work creating the sights and sounds to accompany the narrative. A good author will guide your imagination in this process, granting you a good idea of what they’re imagining, but you still fill in the gaps. And when this occurs you as the reader play a role in the telling of the story. You begin to personally own the story because it isn’t simply being presented to you, but rather you are actively engaging in it.
One of my greatest regrets in life (slight exaggeration) is watching The Lord of the Rings before I read it. While I love the movies and think they’re fantastic, they have forever impeded my ability to really enjoy the books. I find it nearly impossible to not picture and hear Viggo Mortensen whenever Aragorn’s character is present. It’s difficult to avoid remembering how a particular scene in the movie looked and interpreting the narrative from that scene. While this might not seem like a big deal the result is that my imagination never kicks in and the narrative simply becomes a really long and more song filled story.
Okay, I admit it, this is basically a plea to read Game of Thrones rather than watching it.