Reading the book before seeing the film

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.

Book cover of "Going Steady". White, with text mostly in black, and "A Bantam film book" in red at the top. The bottom three-fifths is taken up by a medley drawing of various films: 2001, Barbarella, Yellow Submarine, The Great Escape.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.


10 Responses to Reading the book before seeing the film

  1. Mrs Fever says:

    I typically dislike movies when they are made-from/based-on books I’ve already read, not only because I have already imagined the scenes and characters in ways that don’t match what I see on the screen, but also because there is – visually – a lack of depth to characterization. When you have only the representation of attitudes without the inner struggles or background information that makes those attitudes palatable (and makes the characters, therefore, sympathetic), the experience tends to be…


    An exception I’ve noticed is when a movie leads me to explore a title or an author I’d otherwise not be attracted to. The movie Blade Runner worked that way for me. Because of my response to the movie, I was willing to check out the book. Because the book was significantly different from the film, but also served to clarify some points of confusion for me (real pets, for instance), I was able to appreciate the written story separately.

    I do wonder if my ability to compartmentalize in that instance has to do with genre. Sci-Fi is not a preference for me, in reading or in viewing, so the foreign-ness factor might play a part in my ability to like either/both on their own merits.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Blade Runner is an interesting examples for several reasons. In light of your comment I’m thinking particularly of the changes made in post-production to add Deckard’s voice-over. Though this was ostensibly an effort to make the ‘inner struggles or background information’ more explicit, the film was a lot better without it.

      I saw the film before reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and was surprised by how different they were. It’s still the best adaptation of his work, I think, but I’ll give honourable mentions to Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, and Blade Runner 2049.

  2. John Cooper says:

    Kael’s advice is wise. Film is a different medium than literature, and when an adaptation of a book succeeds, it usually does so on its own terms, expressing a related but essentially separate perspective. When you have a director with an unusually individual artistic voice, such as Kubrick, you’ll get an entirely different work of art regardless of source. I’ve heard that Stephen King loathes Kubrick’s “The Shining.” And while Clarke worked directly with Kubrick on “2001,” Clarke’s “The Sentinel” was a stepping-off point, not a map.

    The two films I immediately think of that try the hardest to simply bring a book to the screen–John Huston’s “Wise Blood” (Flannery O’Connor) and Bertrand Tavernier’s “In the Electric Mist” (James Lee Burke) fail badly and are mediocre films.

    One direct and faithful adaptation that I think everyone would call a success is “The Princess Bride.” Although the book was written first, the author, William Goldman, was a professional screenwriter and wrote his own screenplay. The casting was almost miraculous (the trio of Shawn, Patinkin, and Andre the Giant was perfection), and most of the best jokes and plot points made it to the much more compressed format of a two-hour film. Here’s the thing, though: from the perspective of one who read it first, the book is way better. The book-within-a-book–the “good parts” version of S. Morgenstern’s The Princess Bride–is not only funny, it’s witty, wise, unbelievably exciting, and even occasionally devastating. It’s a children’s book that talks to adults without condescending to either. It celebrates adventure stories even as it satirizes their conventions. It’s bigger, wiser, and richer. I only wish the framing device, where Goldman pretends to write as himself, the discoverer and revealer of Morgenstern’s work, had been omitted, because it’s hard to get through. It was wisely softened and minimized in the movie.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, it’s fair to say that Stephen King was not a fan of Kubrick’s The Shining. As far as I know, his dislike of it was part of what motivated him to write the TV miniseries (which is a lot closer to his novel in almost every way except scariness levels). The Projection Booth film podcast has some detail on the diverging adaptations and the reactions to them.

      I’ve not seen Wise Blood or In the Electric Mist, but mediocrity is an unfortunately common result of adhering too closely to a book when making a film, so different are the two forms. The Princess Bride is indeed a gem, and I enjoyed Goldman’s account of its production in his Adventures in the Screen Trade.

  3. John Cowan says:

    I’ve always liked Tony Hillerman’s take on the adaptation of his Navajo Nation based mysteries for TV: “For the movie to be made, the book must be killed.” He was trying to reassure the screenwriter who was nervous about changing things (Leaphorn becomes an urban Navajo, e.g.), but I think it’s pretty well put in general.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Oh, that is good. And there is huge variety in the degree to which writers accept this fact – paralleled, in a sense, by how writers either wash their hands of a work after completing it or retain the wish to go on ‘fixing’ it forever, like Frank O’Connor, regardless of possible adaptation.

  4. I must admit that I do not understand the assertion that reading the book first is sometimes not practicable. A book from which a movie is made will always be in print and available at the time the movie comes out. So reading the book requires only a visit to a bookstore or a library, or, these days, an online transaction.

    Anyway, I strongly agree with the advice of reading the book before seeing the movie. The ability in reading to get inside the minds of the characters is invaluable. In a film, knowing the characters to such a depth is possible only to a limited degree; and it is dependent mainly upon the actors’ abilities to indicate states of mind and emotions by means of facial expressions and body language — though audience are sometimes aided by strategically-placed props, or by the device of a voice-over or even the highly artificial practice of a character speaking out loud whilst alone.

    What great actors do in this regard is beautiful. But even the greatest actors can communicate only a fraction of that which can be related by the almighty written word. As a result, large portions of any story that has been adapted from a novel into a film will inevitably either go untold in the film, or else will undergo a simplification that strips away a great deal of nuance.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I do not understand the assertion that reading the book first is sometimes not practicable

      Say you meet some friends and you all decide to go to the cinema. You’re in the mood for a film with your friends, and it’s a film you very much want to see. Then you learn that it’s based on a book. Your options: 1. See the film with your friends, and maybe read the book another time. 2. Abandon the group because you must read the book first. I think most people would go with option 1 and would consider option 2 not practicable in effect.

      I agree with your other thoughts for the most part. But it’s interesting that below-average books are occasionally adapted into better-than-average films. The advantages inherent in literature do not automatically make for a better experience of a story.

  5. Whitley Bras says:

    I thought that your thought process on reading the book or watching the movie first was very logical. I admired that you brought both sides into perspective because in actuality we end up doing both at some point. I’m not a fanatical reader and tend to see the world visually so I typically will watch the movie and then if I have time to read the book then I will. Although, I usually don’t have time to read the book I think it adds a deeper level of understanding to the concept of the story that is trying to be conveyed which is really beautiful. As I was reading this I was wondering if you personally get offended if people might do things out of order, such as if you preferred to read the book first, but your friend wanted to watch the movie? I understand that there is not necessarily a right or wrong way to go about retaining a story but one can see that there are preferences. I admire your stance and reasonings for both sides because there are more details in books about the storyline and the settings but with a movie people can visually see it. Personally, I’m an imaginative person so I enjoy that I can create a world of my own but I do appreciate getting to see how others would interpret and visualize and scene.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for your thoughts on this. I wanted to be even-handed about it for several reasons: aesthetic, practical, and so on. Certainly I wouldn’t get offended about someone preferring a different approach. Although reading the book first makes more sense to me in most cases, I would not universalise this preference into a conviction that there is always a ‘right’ way to do it. People and circumstances vary too much for dogma.

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