Should You Read the Book or Watch the Movie First?

15 Feb

I used to almost always watch the movie before I read the book: The Lord of the RingsPride and PrejudiceMary PoppinsLes Miserables. My theory was that you could never be disappointed in a movie for not living up to the book if you had not read the book. Jane Eyre was an exception and I never have found a movie that does it full justice.

But then I had an attack of guilt. Wouldn’t it be more rewarding to read the book first? Wouldn’t it free my imagination from having to adhere to the dictates of someone else’s imagination as portrayed on film? Wouldn’t it at least slow my movie watching down somewhat closer to the speed at which I read?

I began to read more books before watching the movie. The result? Disappointment. Movies I would have enjoyed more suffered because I had the book in mind so closely I couldn’t let go and simply watch the movie for what it was. I began to rethink my dictum.

Only to rethink it again! I’m very double-minded on this point.

It really seems to depend on the book…and movie, which unfortunately means you often don’t know which should come first until you’ve both read and watched them. But I have noticed a few patterns to create a sort of guideline for myself (we’ll see how long I follow it).

The first thing I’ve discovered is that my imagination is not affected by movies. When reading, I seem to have no problem shedding memories of anything I’ve seen before and will generally see in my mind’s eye completely different people and settings than anything conjured on a screen.

Guideline #1 – If the adaptation is relatively close to the book, read the book first. That way it can enrich the movie you are watching, filling in any inevitable gaps that come from translating a story from print to screen. This was especially true for me with War and Peace. I could not seem to get through the 1972 BBC series until I read the book. Once I had done that, suddenly the series came alive.

Guideline #2 – If the adaptation is not close to the book, watch the movie first. It allows you to accept the film for the entertainment it is without trying to fit it into any preconceived notions. I had this trouble with She recently. I am convinced I would have enjoyed the movie more if I had not just read the book. Same thing with the 1935 The Mystery of Edwin Drood (with Claude Rains).


The King of Guidelines

Qualifications or Caveats – In the words of Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean: “the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules.” The moment I wrote my guidelines, I instantly thought of exceptions. To be honest, when it comes to BBC mini-series adaptations of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, etc., it honestly doesn’t seem to matter which order it comes in. My enjoyment of these books has never been dinted by having previously seen an adaptation, though perhaps it’s still true that my appreciation of the adaptation is enhanced by familiarity with the book. When it comes to long books and long adaptations, I’m not sure order is as critical.

But watching a good adaptation can be like debating with a friend about interpretation of a beloved novel.

Perhaps another guideline should be that if the book is short, read it first (this might apply to short stories, too). Trying to read The Maltese Falcon after watching the remarkably accurate 1941 film was, at times, less than gripping, because it was so close that I occasionally felt like I was reading a screenplay of the film. The book came most alive when I came across something that was not in the film. The same is true with Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe (and the TV series from 2000 with Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin) and Agatha Christie’s novels. Maybe the guideline should be that if the story is a mystery, read it first.

But sometimes it honestly doesn’t seem to matter. I enjoyed reading James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips before watching the film, but didn’t suffer in the least when I watched Lost Horizon before reading it. And other times, a movie has made a difficult book more accessible.

What brought these thoughts on was an excellent review by FictionFan on Rumer Godden’s novelBlack Narcissus, and the Powell and Pressburger adaptation. She made me extremely eager to read it as well as revisit the movie to see if it made more sense to me. In other words, is this a case where it would have been better if I’d read the book before watching the movie? I guess I’ll have to wait to find out.

What do you think? Do you prefer to read the book or watch the movie first?


Posted by on February 15, 2016 in Books, Movies


Tags: ,

32 responses to “Should You Read the Book or Watch the Movie First?

  1. BNoirDetour

    February 15, 2016 at 11:11 am

    Great post. I agree with your guidelines and your caveats, meaning I don’t have rules for myself. In recent reading/audiobooking/screening of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, I’ve discovered interesting responses in both directions. His writing made me see the viciousness of Hammett’s Continental Op and why film and radio versions of Sam Spade are softened, to varying degrees. But I saw The Maltese Falcon and listened to OTR’s Spade before I read. So the learning kind of flowed back and forth. I had a similar experience with The Stepford Wives original film and novel.

    With Nero Wolfe and Sherlock Holmes and Jeeves and Wooster, I enjoyed going back and forth from original to TV versions, complaining or delighting in changes. (I did hate the version of Irene Adler as dominatrix who ultimately saves Sherlock in BBC Sherlock, but love much of the rest of the playful updating.)

    So, I guess, like you, I vary in preferences and sometimes have regrets. But book-to-film adaptation study is always informative and enjoyable as a practice, eh?

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 15, 2016 at 12:24 pm

      It is!…almost like a form of literary criticism. I think even the act of making an adaptation is a form of literary criticism, in a way.

      That is fascinating about Hammett’s Continental Op! I’ve often wondered if one of the reasons characters get softened so often in movies is because the visual hits us so much more than the written word (or maybe that’s just me? because I’m not a very visual person when I read). It seems like things I read about complacently sometimes strike me very differently when I see them.

      But I never understood why some people are antagonistic to movie adaptions of books, dismissing them with “the book is always better than the movie.” It’s can be so much richer to enjoy them both!

      Liked by 1 person

      • BNoirDetour

        February 15, 2016 at 2:06 pm

        I like the analogy made between films and dreams. Writing hits us more intellectually, while films, like dreams, seem to hit the unconscious–often swiftly and powerfully. I’m always all about enjoying and learning, in every direction!

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          February 15, 2016 at 3:45 pm

          That is a great analogy! Music is like that, too…engaging emotions that are indescribable. And sometimes, when I really want to engage intellectually with a film I often have to pause so I can sift through something.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. FictionFan

    February 15, 2016 at 11:18 am

    Intriguing, intriguing! And thank you for the links and kind words! 😀

    The answer is – I don’t know! I seem to be affected by whichever I read/watch first. So for modern films I’ve usually read the book first – recently didn’t find the movie of The Martian a patch on the book, and though I’m looking forward to watching Brooklyn (loved the book!) I’m also apprehensive. With the classic movies I tend to have watched them before I read the book and so the book has to live up to the film. In my youth, I loved the film of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with a passion, and the book, which takes a totally different stance, was a severe disappointment. I suspect had I read the book first, it would have been the movie that was disappointing.

    But I do like to compare the movie to the book to see how accurate it is, or if any changes seem justified. I’m going to be reading Strangers on the Train soon, one of my favourite films of all times, and I’m seriously hoping the book can stand the comparison. I read The Maltese Falcon too last year and thoroughly enjoyed matching it with the film. And actually equally enjoyed comparing the book of Vertigo to the film, though they are very, very different. They were the two, with Psycho, that encouraged me to start actively seeking out book/movie comparisons. Just in the middle of the book review of Jekyll and Hyde, and then will re-watch the Spencer Tracy version. I was thinking if I get time I might try to post the film comparison review to tie in with your Mad Scientists event… but I know you have Jekyll and Hyde in there already.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 15, 2016 at 12:44 pm

      I know what you mean about what you viewed/read first. When I really love a book or movie, when that something I love is absent from the book or movie, then it can be really hard for me to enjoy it.

      I’ve heard really good things about Brooklyn – really curious to see it (though I haven’t read the book yet, though perhaps I should). And I’ll be fascinated to learn what you think of Strangers on a Train. I keep reading that Hitchcock wasn’t known for following the books, but it seems like there are several instances were he did adhere to the book reasonably closely (like Vertigo I think Rebecca, Dial M for Murder…which I think was based on a play).

      That would be wonderful if you could participate in the Scientist Blogathon! We are trying not to have too many repeat reviews of the same movie, but if it wasn’t a review of only the 1941 film… a film/book comparison should work great!


      • FictionFan

        February 16, 2016 at 10:55 am

        I thought Hitchcock really changed Vertigo a lot – not so much the actual events but the whole tone of them. For a start he took it out of wartime France and put it in peace-time America, which did away with a lot of the feeling of dislocation you get in the book. It’s one of the rare cases where I felt the book actually won even though I knew the film first.

        That’s great then! I shall do the film review on Saturday – the Mad seems to suit him best… 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          February 16, 2016 at 11:27 am

          Wonderful! Mad certainly does seem to fit him. 🙂

          Wow, the book is better than the movie…another book I’ll have to put on my list (Ahhh!! Not more books!). That is a different one…changing the tone without changing the events.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. The Animation Commendation

    February 15, 2016 at 11:24 am

    Interesting viewpoint! I think I do both: some movies I read the books of first when I hear they’re making movies of them. Others I watch the movies and then don’t bother reading the book afterwards sometimes, lol!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 15, 2016 at 12:52 pm

      Yes, I’ve done that, too! It’s funny how it all works out, sometimes. Part of my problem is I can’t read fast enough to keep up with my movie watching. Maybe I watch too many movies…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Eric Binford

    February 15, 2016 at 12:17 pm

    I read the book after watching the movie. If I do it the other way around I can’t really enjoy the movie — it’s rear to find a movie that’s as good as the book. Reading the book after the movie makes me feel that I’m reading an appendix to the movie, and I’m able to enjoy both things. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric Binford

      February 15, 2016 at 12:55 pm

      I meant “rare” 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • christinawehner

        February 15, 2016 at 1:08 pm

        That makes sense (as does the “rare”! :)). I think I still do it that way more often than naught…partly because I can’t read fast enough to keep up with all the movies I watch…though there are certain books I decide to read first.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Drew Martin

    February 15, 2016 at 12:44 pm

    As I’ve been reading more in the new year, I’ve tried to seek out any film adaptations of what I’ve read after reading, unless I hated the story and couldn’t finish it. Then I review the book and the film. I don’t think you can have a guideline, a true one, as everything seems like it would be an exception. Reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas helped flesh the film together, and I enjoyed both. I have noticed some stories don’t translate well from print to film. Interesting piece.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 15, 2016 at 1:33 pm

      Thanks! You’re right; there are an awful lot of exceptions, though it’s fun to try to figure them out.

      Yeah, I agree,…some books just seem better as books. I’ve even seen some stories that seemed better as movies, though that seems like a strong minority.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Erin

    February 15, 2016 at 6:07 pm

    Excellent post, and I don’t really have a consistent answer either. I don’t think I consciously do one or the other, and I’ve had good and bad experiences both ways. Just last week, I finished reading The Woman in White and watched a silent adaptation the next day (as it was brief and happened to be on Youtube), and I kept feeling that I was judging it too harshly because I was still so close to the book. On the positive side, I’m currently reading Woman in the Dunes after having seen the movie several times, and though they’re very close (Kobo Abe wrote both the novel and the screenplay), the book really enriched the movie for me when I rewatched it this weekend. At any rate, I’ll often seek out a film adaptation of a book I’ve enjoyed, and vice versa.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 15, 2016 at 9:46 pm

      You’re way might one of the best ways to go! And much less stressful. 🙂

      I watched an adaptation of Woman of White from the 1990s and was disappointed in it, too. I didn’t realize there was a silent one, though. I’ve read there is an adaptation from the 40s with Sydney Greenstreet as Count Fosco, but I’ve never been able to see it.

      That is interesting when an author writes the screenplay for a movie adaptation of his/her own work. It must be fascinating to see what kind of things they change, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Erin

        February 15, 2016 at 10:06 pm

        My edition of The Woman in White listed film and TV adaptations in the end notes, and I thought the silent version (one of several, apparently) might be interesting to see. Even if I was being too harsh, I don’t think it was very good: they made almost no effort to keep things mysterious, and they turned Count Fosco into a Dr. Cuneo from Brazil(?), and a pretty generic villain at that. Still, I’m glad that I watched it, if only because it was so odd and off that it was entertaining. The 1940s adaptation sounds interesting, so I’ll have to see if it ever turns up on TCM. As for Woman in the Dunes, I’m not too far into the book yet, so I’m curious to see if Abe changed anything significant for the film version.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. stephencwinter

    February 16, 2016 at 1:47 am

    What a great discussion to begin and clearly from the responses you have received others think so too. I made it a rule for my children that they should always read the book before seeing the film. This was particularly in relation to the big series of The Lord of the Rings and of Harry Potter. Disney made a mess of The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials was ditched so there was little difficulty there. I was glad that they made the effort to read. I did not think that watching a movie required the same effort and parents can get anxious about things like that! What strikes me in your thoughts is that you are doing what intelligent adults should do and that is to make your own mind up based upon your own experience and careful reflection. I am not sure that I would take Barbosa as a guide though. His relationship to rules or “guidelines” is motivated simply by self-interest!
    Just one final thought on BNoir Detour’s thought. I don’t think writing is to be consigned to the intellectual. Think of Francesca and Paolo in Dante’s Inferno. It is the reading together of a romance that is the occasion of their affair.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 16, 2016 at 10:27 am

      Yes, I agree that writing is not merely intellectual, but I don’t believe BNoir Detour meant that writing is only intellectual, so much as more intellectual than films, which go by so fast (and with the music and visual aspects) that they often bypass our intellect and head straight for the emotions (unless it’s a more talky film).

      Though I don’t of poetry as intellectual – more like music in words.

      You bring up an interesting point about reading requiring greater effort than watching a film. In that case, is it sometimes worth reading a book first simply because of the effort (discipline) it takes to read it…as opposed to the instant gratification of watching a film?

      Admittedly, Barbossa is not the best guide. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • stephencwinter

        February 18, 2016 at 12:38 am

        You could put it all down to a bad case of parental anxiety! I think a really great film is just as demanding, intellectually, as any book and a trashy book is no more praiseworthy than a trashy film. When I came across your blog I was drawn to it largely, I think, because it took me back to Sunday afternoons in the winter months watching black and white movies on TV with my mother. It got me thinking about the part they played in making me the person I am. I am most grateful to you for that.

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          February 18, 2016 at 10:48 am

          I am glad it has brought back good memories! I started this blog to express my love and interest in classic movies and am grateful that it has touched other people.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Film Music Central

    February 16, 2016 at 7:51 am

    wow, I love this post. This is one of those age-old questions that could be debated for years. I remember for the Lord of the Rings movies, my parents insisted I had to read the entire trilogy before I could even think of seeing the films. Beyond that story though, I don’t really know if I have a hard and fast rule for reading the book before seeing the movie, it really depends on if I have time (I know I want to read High Rise before I see the movie though). Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 16, 2016 at 10:41 am

      Thank you! Yes, there are so many factors to consider and seems depends on what one’s priority is. Does you want to compare both? Do you intend to read both the book and the movie, or enjoyed one and want to watch/read the other. Things like that.

      Did you find it rewarding to read Lord of the Rings first?


      • Film Music Central

        February 16, 2016 at 10:47 am

        I think so, there’s so much backstory in the books that I was able to follow the movie perfectly. My mom, by contrast, watched the movies first and a lot of the relationships confused her as a result

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          February 16, 2016 at 11:18 am

          That’s true, it is pretty confusing with all the characters. Most of the people I watched the movie with had read the book and were willing to explain stuff to me, which helped a lot.


  9. carygrantwonteatyou

    February 18, 2016 at 2:35 am

    Great post! I find I read the book first if it’s one I’ve always wanted to, as I know I’ll be disappointed to have spoiled the ending with a mediocre film. In general, I agree that I like both better if I see the movie first and can forgive the film for being different. But not always. I try to assess the quality of the book first, and how much knowing the end would affect my reading. If I suspect the story is simply a good idea, but not well written, the film can nail it (such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) much better, and I can just casually read the book afterward. But I don’t mind seeing Chandler or Hammett films first, since the plotting isn’t the thrill of those books at all; it’s the writing style, the characterizations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 18, 2016 at 11:02 am

      You make a great point about whether or not watching the movie will spoil the ending and overall reading experience. I wish I had that experience more often, reading a book without knowing what the ending will be. I experience that more frequently with films than books…in fact I’m trying to think of a book where I had no idea what was coming and I can’t think of one right away.


  10. Quiggy

    February 19, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    I have stated somewhere on my own blog (or maybe in a review I did on Amazon, I’m not quite sure) that the sentiment works both ways. If you go to a movie expecting a true rendition of the book, you are almost always doomed to disappointment. That works in reverse, too and now I remember where I made the comment. I read the original novel of Glendon Swarthout’s “The Shootist” years after I had grown to love the John Wayne movie. I was shocked to find the Ronny Howard character, Gillom, to be a quite a bit more brash and antagonistic, something that was probably toned down due to Ronny Howard taking the role. So sometimes seeing the movie first can form preconceived expectations that the book can’t fulfill. The only time I can think of where I saw the movie first, but enjoyed the book better was the Humphrey Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon followed by reading Dashiell Hammett’s book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 19, 2016 at 5:20 pm

      You make an excellent point – perhaps the issue is with our expectations. The things we love in one isn’t always in the other. I’ve wondered sometimes if it had been reversed – if I had, for example, not seen The Maltese Falcon first, would I have been disappointed by the movie instead of the other way around, or am I simply predisposed to like the movie better (though I did enjoy the book a lot)?



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