Growing up, I had a friend whose parents required them to read certain books before they were allowed to watch the film adaptations. Of course, I see the merit in this. It instills a greater understanding of the plot and subplots, as well as familiarity with the characters and clearer evidence as to what motivates their actions.
This can make for a better viewing experience if the adaptation is done well and aligns with the reader’s interpretations of the book. However, if it does not, the disappointment can overshadow the film or show’s inherent quality and make it hard for the reader to enjoy, even if otherwise, they might have liked it.
Books and movies are like apples and oranges. They both are fruit, but taste completely different.Stephen King
I’ve never stuck to a hard and fast rule when it comes to the issue of reading a book before watching the show or movie it’s based on it. Sometimes, I wait to watch until after I’ve read the book, and other times, I don’t. In fact, in some cases, it’s the adaptation itself that introduces me to a book in the first place.
When I was younger, I watched the film adaptations of both Coraline (2009) and The City of Ember (2008) before I read the books. I ended up reading the books simply because I had liked the films so much. And my reading experience was even richer, I think, because of each films’ appealing visuals, which I could picture, scene by scene, as I read.
I found that both adaptations were done well and followed the books as best they could. From what I remember, there was nothing so different in the movies that it altered the stories themselves significantly. However, it is possible, had I read the books first, that I would have been more attuned to noticing when differences did occur. Either way, going about it in this order allowed me to fully enjoy both the film adaptations and the books for what they are as distinct works of art.
On the flip side, I read The Shining by Stephen King before I watched the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation (1980). I was disappointed, to say the least, when after having read all 688 pages of the book and waiting to watch the film until after, it did not meet my expectations as a reader. This beloved classic, a favorite film of many horror lovers, differed from the book in arguably crucial ways, failing to fully illustrate the true depth of the story. I remember feeling that the film missed out on many details that make the story and characters as rich and complex as they are.
Stephen King himself is famous, in fact, for not liking the Kubrick adaptation of his novel, and as the author, I can understand why he’d feel this way. The film fails to capture the arc of Jack Torrance’s character, the slow transformation that takes place over the course of the story as the isolation of being snowed into the hotel takes its toll on his mental state. In the film, his character just seems deranged right from the opening scene. For me, such drastic changes to characters are the hardest to accept in adaptations.
This week, I read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. I wanted to read it before I watched the Hulu miniseries (2020), and I’m so glad I did. For one thing, it’s captivating to read a book not knowing how it will end. Plus, the storyline of this one is so complex, much richer and fuller when experienced on the page. The reader is absorbed into the thoughts and emotions and deepest desires of each main character. Books can simply do things that television and film cannot. Both are mediums of artistic expression, both splendid and necessary in their own right, but there will always be something so magical to me about the written word.
So far, I’ve gotten through the first two episodes of the Little Fires Everywhere miniseries. I’m definitely enjoying it, but already, there are things I’ve been critical of, things that differ from the book in ways I consider significant. I understand, of course, that some changes must be made. It would be impossible to adapt a book exactly as it is written. However, some changes made in the miniseries are to attributes of characters that are fundamental to them as written, in my opinion, and again, those are the hardest to accept.
All this is to say that there’s no right or wrong way to enjoy books and movies, no proper order in which to go. Sometimes, reading the book first can be helpful. Other times, watching the film first can make for a more visually inspired reading experience. The most important thing to bear in mind is that books and movies (or shows) are different art forms, of equal merit, all with the power to transform and touch us, and they cannot be so concretely compared to one another.