Pauline Kael in Going Steady (1970), a collection of her film reviews for the New Yorker, writes about something of perennial interest to book-readers and film-watchers:*
If you’re going to see a movie based on a book you think is worth reading, read the book first. You can never read the book with the same imaginative responsiveness to the author once you have seen the movie. The great French film critic André Bazin believed that even if movies vulgarized and distorted books they served a useful purpose, because they led people to read the books on which the movies were based. But when you read the book after seeing the movie, your mind is saturated with the actors and the images, and you tend to read in terms of the movie, ignoring characters and complexities that were not included in it, because they are not as vivid to you. At worst, the book becomes a souvenir of the movie, an extended reminiscence.
I sympathise with both Kael’s and Bazin’s positions. ‘Read the book first’ is sound advice, but it’s not always practicable. And the ‘saturation’ and ‘souvenir’ effects that Kael describes, while undeniable, are not always calamitous, especially if enough time passes between watching the film and reading the book.
If I see a film that’s based on a book I decide I want to read, I tend to wait a while to allow the memory of the film to fade. Among other things, this reduces visual interference from the actors and scenes. I prefer my own visuals to manifest when I read – the ‘imaginative responsiveness’ that Kael cherishes – and that’s trickier, sometimes impossible, when a film experience was recent or particularly vivid.
Plot details can also diminish the experience in either direction. A Simple Plan succeeds as a suspense story in part through the careful unfolding of its drama, and this is hampered when you know (even broadly) where events are leading. Much as I enjoyed the novel, I wish I had found it first – or waited longer after seeing the film.
That’s what I did with Twelve Years a Slave, though its plot is less central to the experience than in A Simple Plan. I postponed the film till I had read Solomon Northup’s memoir, then I waited for its immediacy to wane. This way the events that I learned about could form in my mind’s eye instead of appearing perforce as a specific set of moving images.
That potential for interference can deter me from watching a film altogether. I love Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, but I don’t plan to see the existing films: mainly because I have a clear picture of Reacher in my head, and I’d rather not have it nudged aside by Tom Cruise – or almost any other actor I can think of.
Yet familiarity with a film doesn’t always spoil a text. I watched John Carpenter’s film The Thing a fanboy number of times before seeking out its source. The short story ‘Who Goes There?’ is different enough to be approached on its own terms – and reading it lent overtones and background texture to the film when I next watched it. Ditto 2001: A Space Odyssey and ‘The Sentinel’. But in these cases, perhaps crucially, the films are for me the stories’ primary form.
Given the option to redo the order, I’d read the stories first. The same is true of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Solaris, The Vanishing, Deliverance, Brokeback Mountain, Straw Dogs, and Roadside Picnic (filmed as Stalker). Seeing the films first didn’t spoil the books, but the films were so indelible that it was hard to resist the pull of their imagery when I got around to the books, especially for the films I’d seen more than once.
Sometimes an author’s voice is so distinctive that film adaptations don’t try to emulate it and end up seeming only loosely connected to the books, even if the plots align closely. The film versions of Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream are so far from the feeling of reading Hubert Selby Jr that it can feel uncanny when the story follows the same structural groove while being so different qualitatively.
The reverse can also occur. David Cronenberg’s film of Naked Lunch, a book deemed unfilmable, benefited from a script that blended William S. Burroughs’ novel with his other work and with biographical material. The results are thoroughly Burroughsian, helped by the compatibility of the director’s and author’s artistic sensibilities.
Muriel Spark’s work has been filmed several times, and I’m curious about how her singular voice translates to the screen, but I’ve yet to watch any adaptations of her stories. (I’ll take recommendations if you have them.) Some authors, such as Ian Fleming and Stephen King, have been adapted so many times that whole blogs could be devoted to their adapted work, and probably have been. But their rewatchability and rereadability are part of their appeal.
This is all a bit scattershot, and I haven’t touched on classic novels filmed multiple times in different eras (Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Oliver Twist, Dracula…) or children’s stories (Charlotte’s Web, The Iron Giant, the many Roald Dahl adaptations…). But I’ll stop here. Do you have a policy about book first or film first? I’d love to hear your experiences, regrets, or surprises.
* We say book-reader and film-watcher, not readbook and watchfilm, but the pattern has exceptions: it’s a pickpocket and a scarecrow, not a pocket-picker and a crow-scarer. Here’s why.