The Film or the Book? Why this question just doesn't make any sense to me.


It’s a question I’ve heard before, but recently I’ve been seeing it come up a lot. Which is better, the book or the film? Truth be told, I’ve never fully understood this question, and when people ask it I have this sort of weird knee-jerk reaction where I want to pick it apart and make them define for me precisely what they mean.


The thing is, better at what? What are you talking about? Watching a film is a drastically different experience from reading a book. I’ve done both, more than once, and they’re really not comparable. For one, whether you care to admit it or not, watching a movie is less of a commitment, and therefore for many people is easier. Of course, there’s an argument to be made that this is because reading books is somehow more “intellectual” than watching films. I don’t really subscribe to this idea, but it is likely true that a book is always going to make work more because you have to imagine everything as you read.


So, if the question is “which is better at making you work” then it’s probably going to be the book. But then, if that’s the question why ask it? It’s almost always going to be the book. What a pointless and slightly loaded question.


I don’t know if that’s really what people mean when they ask it, though. I think quite often what people really want to know is which one did you have the better experience with, and it’s here that things start getting a little more complicated.


This may come as a shock to some of you, but I like movies. I like watching them, I like analyzing them, I like discussing them, picking them apart, and basically everything else one can do with a movie. It’s kind of like my thing. So, when it comes to experience, my answer to the question “which is better” is almost always going to be the film.


That’s not to say, of course, that there are books I haven’t read and then had a better experience with than the films. The first two Harry Potter books come to mind (although I don’t have a particularly good experience with anything Harry Potter anymore… thanks J K!). Likewise Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. The film is phenomenal, and David Fincher is probably my favorite currently working director, but the film simply could not match the experience of the twist that the book gave me. I remember very vividly reaching that mid-point, turning the page, and reading that beautifully written line. I mean… wow.


But then is it possible, I hear you ask, that the book in this instance will always be better because you didn’t know the twist?


Well, I suppose that certainly could be true. Would Gone Girl the film have worked better for me had I not read the book first? Would the twist have had a far bigger impact because I didn’t know it was coming? Maybe. I don’t know. But, I don’t think so…


It definitely isn’t the case that it’s as simple as preferring the experience of whichever one you read first. I read The Lord of the Rings when I was a kid, before the films had even been shot, and it sucked. I was obsessed with all things Middle Earth at that point in my life, and I would always draw my own maps and try to write my own fantasy books, but… let’s be frank here, The Lord of the Rings is a really difficult book to read.


I know people love it, and of course you’re entitled to your opinion, but for me, its long, rambling, and goes into way too my depth about things I simply don’t need to know for the sake of the story, and the Peter Jackson trilogy is a vast improvement.


Sitting in the cinema watching those films when they came out was an experience and I’m not sure any film has ever quite managed to match for me. I was gripped to my seat, and I have been gripped every single time I return to them. I return to the book too (more often than I’d care to admit) but often don’t ever make it past the first chapter. It just doesn’t do it for me.


But then, if you were to ask me which one was more imaginative, epic, and better at world-building… well, of course it’s the book. All those long ramblings that don’t do it for me are, undeniably, the work of a genius of his craft. Tolkien basically invented the fantasy genre as we know it. Like… it pretty much didn’t exist before, and then he wrote it and it did. That’s insane. Which has more impact on culture? Of course it’s the book! Which is more impressive in terms of imagination? Of course it’s the book! Which was more enjoyable? The film, mate. The book is dull as fuck.


But isn’t it true that the book is always going to more inventive, or more original? I mean, usually, the book comes first, right? By definition, it has to be more inventive and original.


Well, not quite. Have you ever read Peter Benchley’s Jaws? I mean, it’s a thing, sure. But then you’ve seen Spielberg’s movie, right? The film that literally invented the summer blockbuster and changed the way movies were made. Yeah, I feel pretty confident saying that the film version of Jaws is way more inventive and original than the book. It’s also much more fun. And that’s a trick Spielberg is particularly good at, in my opinion. Jurassic Park the movie revolutionized cinematic technology and actually made me believe they’d brought dinosaurs to life. Ready Player One has The Shining bit.


When we ask a question like “Which is better, the book or the film?” we’re asking for an impossible comparison without any context. It isn’t simple, and the answer depends on so many different aspects that it’s almost impossible to really figure it out. It would be good if, instead of trying to pit two wildly different but equally valid mediums together, we just enjoyed each for their own very different but brilliant qualities.

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© Alex Secker 2018