Get Off Your High Horse, the Book Is Not Always Better Than the Movie

It is common knowledge among book readers that the movie version will almost always be inferior to the book it’s based off of. It’s a popular refrain by moviegoers, dinner guests and librarians everywhere. And to some degree this belief is well justified. There are a lot of bad or utterly forgettable book adaptations out there that deserve to be purged from popular memory.  Hollywood is lazy and will adapt anything that has even a marginal fanbase because suckering nerds into shelling out money to complain about how some movie ruined their childhood is easier than developing a new intellectual property. The movie industry operates based on profit and loss which means that artistic merit sometimes takes a backseat to bean counting.

But this sweeping statement overlooks just how many good adaptations there are. So many more movies are adapted books than we usually realize. The Shawshank Redemption, The Silence of the LambsForrest Gump, Jurassic Park, The Princess Bride, Fight Club, Blade Runner, The Graduate, The Maltese Falcon, and Jaws are all based on books. A quick look at the The American Film Institute’s top 100 movies list shows that it’s chock full of adaptations of books.  Are all of these adaptations better than the book? Probably not, but when A Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest make best ever lists for both the film and the book it should be pretty clear that the movie version of a well-regarded book can hold a candle to the original.

Of course not all books that get adapted to the big screen are famous. Many of the books mentioned above did not sell well. The first print run of Fight Club was 10,000 copies and it was years before a second run. The movie did over $100 million at the box office. I can’t even find sales figures for the book version of The Princess Bride, while the New Yorker has declared that the movie “won the Internet.” The reality is that lots of books get published each year and promptly forgotten. These books may have great ideas, but they’re either not executed well or were lost in the shuffle.  Sometimes it takes a great filmmaker or a great cast to re-invent or bring a lost idea back to life. Even if many adaptations don’t do this, there are enough labors of love out there that finding a movie that is better than the book is way more likely than the needle in a haystack we pretend it is.

Studio Ghibli are masters of this. Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, and When Marnie Was There are all lesser known children’s books that got brought to prominence when they were adapted. The sheer imagination on display by Studio Ghibli makes for dynamic movies that are still faithful to the authors’ intentions. The sight of a massive castle clanking and hissing across a barren landscape or a forgotten villa fading into the mists of a dark swamp are unforgettable, and the care and artistic vision put into every scene captures people’s attention in a way the books never did.

Film, by being a visual medium, offers a lot of advantages that books can’t, even if movie scenes aren’t couched in prose. A picture really can be worth a thousand words, and while a book may take pages to get a point across, a few frames can dramatically shift our interpretation of a movie. Case in point is the ending of The Graduate where, over the course of a few seconds, the movie goes from being a generic happy ending to something much more ambiguous and dark just by the change in the characters’ expressions. A great actor or scene can make a movie great in a way that can’t be captured in writing. Think the “Tears in the Rain” speech in Blade Runner or the ending beach scene with Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption. Great cinema is no less artistic than great literature, and we should let them stand on their own rather than disregard a work based solely on its medium.

This apples to oranges problem is why so many times a book reader’s criticism of the movie boils down to listing off things that were changed or left out. The implication is that if the director just got all the little details and minutiae stuffed into the film then the works would be comparable. But the end result of doing this would be a boring movie that moves at a glacial pace. On its own, this criticism over details always puts the book over the movie because it’s essentially saying that the book is more similar to the book than the movie. While technically correct, this doesn’t really move the discussion anywhere meaningful.

This Dorkly comic on Harry Potter is a great example. It’s easy to say on paper that including stuff like SPEW and a better developed Neville would have made made the Harry Potter movies feel more vibrant, but every moment spent on side stories risks losing the plot, and somehow you need to stuff 60 hours of books into 20 hours of movie. While I’m not saying that the Harry Potter movies are better than the books, it’s not hard to see that the standards put on the film version are impossible to meet. Oftentimes when an adaptation is bad it’s because some element isn’t working on a deeper level, but these surface level criticisms tend to stop the conversation just short of when it would get interesting.

I feel like the “books over movies” line is similar to the debunked “Offense sells tickets. Defense wins championships” line people use in sports. Nobody needs to extoll the virtues of offense because it gets all the limelight, while defense is boring but necessary. In the same way, blockbuster movies with budgets the size of small island nations get more than enough time in the spotlight. Meanwhile every month or so there’s a new article predicting the demise of print books or some co-worker bragging about how they got through high school only reading Sparknotes. It’s easy to get defensive, but spouting “the book is always better” isn’t going to convert anyone to a hardcore book reader. Rather than dismiss the movie version out of hand, try going into it with an open mind; it may surprise you. Or it may not, but you’ll never know unless you give it a chance.