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Which Is Better, the Book or the Film?

June 03, 2013

Every Monday, throughout the months of June and July, the Antioch Branch will be showing movies based on books. This got me to thinking about the number of films these days that are being made out of books. While this is not new, it does feel like recently there has been very little original material coming out of the Hollywood. Making a book into a film can be a good thing because it often encourages those who have not read the book to then go and do so (in fact, we often end up out of copies of books that are currently on screen). But that raises the question that is always being asked. Which is better, the book or the film?

Now there are some people who insist that, no matter how well made a movie is, it can never be as good as the book it was based on. Then there are those who see the film first and, when they then read the book, cannot get the onscreen images out of their heads. And both complain of any differences in plotlines. Not to mention that movies can sometimes feel more exciting when being watched rather than read. For example, I have heard of some people who loved The Lord of the Rings movies, but then read the books and found them rather dull. To those who read the books first, this is an outrage.

So what exactly makes a good film version of a book? Does someone’s opinion of the film differ if they read the book before they see it or after they see it? Looking back at books that I have seen made into films, I have come to believe that the best translations to the screen are those in which the integrity of the story and characters are maintained, even if certain specific details are changed. The Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings series were great examples of this. While it could be annoying when certain plot points were changed or left out, the spirit of the novels were maintained, and I think that accounts for their success.

However, I have also seen books that I enjoyed completely skewered when they came to the screen, and I think this may have caused some people to stay away from the fantastic source materials these travesties came from. One of the best examples of this was Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel. The book was a rich tapestry of the life of a Cro-Magnon girl living with a clan of Neanderthals. The film was so poorly done and so changed that at the end of the movie, when the main character Ayla was supposed to be twelve-years-old, Daryl Hannah (clearly not twelve) was playing the heroine.

It also feels like screen adaptations of the popular and well-known books were much better in the past. To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and The Grapes of Wrath translated beautifully to the screen. In fact, the films themselves became as beloved as the material they were based on. Now, truly brilliant screen versions of the most famous novels are rare. Movies made from lesser-known books are often well done, but if the book is very popular, it often feels like the filmmakers are just hurrying to make a quick buck off of the famous title. Making a truly good film in its own right seems secondary.

Many more films based on popular books are either in the works or about to be released. The Immortal Instruments series, Ender’s Game, and the next installment in the adventures of Percy Jackson are all expected soon. There will also be yet another version of the Stephen King classic, Carrie. And recently, books like Life of Pi and Cloud Atlas also got the big screen treatment to mixed results. Once again, the quality was often associated with how much the integrity of the source material was kept.

Do you have a favorite book that was made into a film you loved? Or maybe one you loathed? And have you ever seen a film and then been disappointed when you read the book? The debate will probably go on forever. The good news is that every time a new book comes to the screen, there is renewed interest in the original novel and that can never be anything but good. So be sure to drop by the Antioch Branch on Mondays at 10:00 a.m. this summer for Books To Movies. All the titles will be either G or PG, so bring the kids. And afterwards, you might want to check out the books, as well.

Pamela M.
Antioch Branch

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