Is “the book was better” ever a valid criticism?

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At a time when Hollywood is mining comic books, TV shows and even board games for movie ideas, adapting a novel seems quite ordinary and sensible. Books have been turned into movies for the longest time and with this week’s release of The Girl on the Train, it shows no sign of relenting.

Whenever a book is made into a movie there is always the standard criticism leveled at it – is it as good as the source material? It is a strange comparison to make, as what you are forced to do is judge two completely different mediums by the same standards. What seems even sillier is when people dismiss their enjoyment of a movie because it didn’t portray what they imagined from the book.

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Can you compare a film and a book?

Could they ever though? A book is one of the most personal experiences you have. As amazing a job of describing a character, situation or event as an author can do, the reader is still the person who has created that scene in their imagination. It means that movies will already be on the back foot when characters don’t look, sound or fill the shoes of the same person the reader imagined.

The most recent example of this was the Jack Reacher film. Tom Cruise did not fill the prerequisite blonde, 6 foot soldier that was described in the source material so was instantly dismissed. It was only on a solid performance and a blessing of the novel’s writer, that people managed to overlook the difference between book and screen.

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The Cruise as Jack Reacher argument seems to have died away

This comparison becomes more complicated when movies try to follow a book’s story. A book has the freedom to be as long, intricate, complicated and expansive as it wants, often including many different stories, inconsequential moments and red herrings for the reader to enjoy. A movie can’t. It has a definitive run-time and can’t afford to include anything but the essential narrative. To criticise a movie for dropping your favourite part of a book, although not essential to the main story, is ridiculous. If everything was included, the complaint would be the four hour running time.

Even when a movie does try to be faithful to the book, it can sometimes cause issues with the way the film flows. The new trend of taking the final, usually larger part of book trilogies and splitting it, like in both The Hunger Games and final Harry Potter movies, means that one film can often underwhelm. This is no surprise as audiences are treated to half of the story, the initial set-up, rather than a condensed, full-tale like the author originally intended.

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Did being two-parts help this movie??

That is just with books that have traditional narratives. Books have the luxury of using fluid narratives and being able to jump around, be conceptual and often use imagery almost impossible to capture on-screen. Some books are deemed “unfilmable” but this doesn’t stop the studios. It becomes further bizarre when people then criticise the writing or the structure of these movies, citing that it doesn’t do the book justice.

The main reason for not comparing the two is simple though – they are completely different. It becomes irrelevant as to whether the movie is as good as the book because it hasn’t replaced it. There is no reason for a movie to try to surpass it’s source material. The idea of these adaptations is that they support the original, make more people aware of the initial book or even get people to read the source material.

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Could the film ever match the book?

If audiences are so set on movies of their favourite novels meeting their high expectations, they are doomed to be disappointed. If they go in with an open-mind, intrigued and without prior judgement, they may find they like the film, regardless of whether it was done better in a completely different medium.

Overall, “the book was better” seems like a poor and often ridiculous statement. It is meaningless and bares no indication of a film’s quality. Instead, try not to compare two different mediums but appreciate what both of them are doing and if the film doesn’t match your expectations, at least you still have the beloved book.

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Maybe don’t compare them at all



15 thoughts on “Is “the book was better” ever a valid criticism?

  1. This is a really interesting post. Adaptation is something that intrigues me very much so because of the points you mention. We’re looking at two completely different mediums when we consider books and movies. We should view them as completely different, standalone sources, but then again it’s hard to do that if you’ve developed particular feelings about a story and characters and you see them portrayed in a way that clashes with your intial perception.

    Brokeback Mountain is one movie which is extremely loyal to the source, the original short story. The movie and events are pretty much 99.9% word for word, action for action.

    1. That’s interesting because it doesn’t always necessarily work when you do a straight adaptation. Sometimes what reads very well becomes quite bring on-screen.

  2. You pose an interesting question Ben. I think there are many ways to look at it. I feel that with the book, your form your own picture of things. That can really play into how you view the movie.

    1. That seems to be the main “issue” though. People’s view of what the book should be can skew their view of the movie – sometimes unfairly.

      1. I think that if a movie does a reasonable job of the book and captures some of what you want, it can be successful. You seriously can’t get everything from the book into the film, it ain’t going to happen.

      2. I agree with that too and most manage to do that very well. It should always be a companion to the book, not a replacement.

  3. Great article. I think that it usually takes time for film fans to come to this conclusion on their own; the movie is allowed to be different than the book. But it takes us a while, especially when we have a favourite book that we have strong feelings towards. But when we learn to appreciate the films for what they are, then we can enjoy the story in two different forms.

    I was in early college years when the Lord of the rings trilogy came out, being a big an of the books. The things they changed bothered me, but I also recognized the films as the powerhouses they are. Over time I realized that I can separate the two in my head; my own vision of these characters and settings that I developed from the book are still there, maintained, but I also have these three excellent films that excite me in their own way.

    I have also done this with Game of Thrones; I stopped worrying about whether they were getting the book right, and was able to enjoy the series on its own merits. Because the books area always there.

    So yes, I agree with you; its not a fair criticism. But I think most people who really get “into” movies eventually come to that conclusion. Its usually the more casual movie-goers who make those claims.

    1. That is a fair point. It is almost preaching to the converted with a post like this but is worth the conversation out of interest more than anything else.

  4. I stand with you in agreement that the two mediums are completely different. They must not be compared. In fact, a movie, if ever has to be compared, should be compared with other movies of similar genre. So must be the case with books.

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