The Criticwire Survey: Preparing For Movies Based On Books

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by Matt Singer
January 7, 2013 10:03 AM
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"Gangster Squad."

Every week, Criticwire asks film critics a question and brings you their responses in The Criticwire Survey. We also ask each member of the poll to pick the best film currently playing in theaters. The most popular choices can be found at the bottom of the post. But first, this week's question:

Q: In cases where a film is based on a book -- like "Gangster Squad," opening this Friday and based on a book by Paul Lieberman -- do you prefer to read the book before seeing the movie, or avoid the book until after you've reviewed it?

Alan ZilbermanBrightest Young Things/Tiny Mix Tapes:

"It really depends. There are some movies where I race to finish the book before I see the movie; I wanted to re-read 'Cloud Atlas,' for example, before I watched it. And then there are some books where I'm indifferent to reading the book afterward. If I sense something is lost from the film version or I'm interested in the author, I usually check out the book."

Mark YoungSound on Sight/New York Movie Klub:

"I'm going to punk out and say that it depends upon the writer of the movie. I'm always curious what decisions the writer of the movie made when adapting it. So, for example, I read the book 'One Shot' after seeing 'Jack Reacher,' because I wanted to see Christopher McQuarrie's influence on the project. But for a movie that I expect the writer not to matter so much, or even something like 'Sin City' that is slavishly devoted to the book, I may read the book first or not at all."

Anne-Katrin TitzeEye For Film:

"The timing depends on the material. It certainly enriches the experience of watching Visconti's 'Death in Venice' when you have read Thomas Mann in advance. The same goes for Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut' and Schnitzler's 'Dream Story.' With whodunits it makes a lot of sense to wait, to see the way a film handles suspense. In some cases, it even works to sandwich the film in between. Last year, I picked up Nobel Prize winner Patrick White's 600 page novel 'The Eye of the Storm' in anticipation of Fred Schepisi's movie, saw the film, continued the novel, interviewed Geoffrey Rush and Schepisi, wrote about it, then continued reading the book."

Luke Y. ThompsonTopless Robot:

"I used to always read the book first, but I'm not sure that's the best idea -- it turns everything into a potential compare/contrast essay, though I often found that an adaptation's weaknesses were usually in its omissions. With a phenomenon book like 'Harry Potter' or 'The Da Vinci Code,' where your readers will most likely know it, I do think you owe it to them to know the source a bit. One thing nobody ever asks, though, is how many critics play the video game if a movie is based on one. I used to try to do that always too. Not so much lately."

Josh SpiegelMousterpiece Cinema/Sound on Sight:

"I don’t have a strategy either way regarding movies based on books. If I can read the book beforehand, depending on the subject matter, I will. Some filmmakers, frankly, rely too heavily on audiences having read the books that inspire their work, which is dangerous. A movie should be able to be satisfying separate of its source material; this audience reliance smacks of laziness to me. In the case of 'Gangster Squad,' I haven’t read the source material and hope director Ruben Fleischer can make a compelling film that will work for anyone who isn’t familiar with the topic at hand. I haven’t seen the film yet, so all I have to go on is hope, despite Warner Bros. moving 'Gangster Squad' to the dregs of January."

Matt RorabeckMovie Knight:

"My passion has always been for the medium of film and although I do appreciate the source material, I prefer to always watch the film before I check out the novel. I really hate spoiling plot points and details before watching a film and I would much rather have my first experience with the stories on a theater screen rather than reading a novel. However, if I really love a film, I sometimes check out the novel afterwards to see the differences and similarities from the adaptation. I've actually started an editorial on my website called 'Adaptation' which looks at the subject of book to screen. It will hopefully be more prominent in this new year."

Andrew RobinsongmanReviews:

"I prefer to avoid the book, unless I've read it of my own volition outside of the film being made. Too much importance is put on the notion of an adaptation and too little on how good the movie actually is. A movie adapted from any source should be a good movie first and a good adaptation last. So what I'm saying is 'first things first, then you can worry about panache later.'"

Jordan RaupThe Film Stage:

"I've actually gotten into many arguments regarding this topic. I've been lambasted over reading scripts, and books to a lesser extent, and 'ruining the experience' of the film, but I've always been more fascinated in how a director translates the written words to the screen. Recent examples include QT's 'Django Unchained' script and Dennis Lehane's 'Shutter Island' novel, but I didn't feel diminished returns after viewing the respective films, even with the twist in the latter. Read on!"

Kristy PuchkoCinema Blend:

"I don't think a movie adaption should require me to read the book to understand it, so I don't consider it part of my duties as a reviewer to read the source book first. But I like to read. So, if a movie adaptation seems interesting, yes, I often read the book before seeing the movie. I find this usually enhances my viewing experience of the adaptation. Like, I know how I felt about the book, what it meant to me, what it's characters look and sound like to me. But I enjoy seeing what a filmmaker made of it. It's like a vivid book club discussion that I can revisit again and again, by watching the adaptation or reading the book. Sometimes it makes me like the movie better than I think I would have otherwise ('Cloud Atlas'), and sometimes it gives me a new appreciation for a story I didn't connect to when I read it ('Wuthering Heights'). Of course, sometimes the result is just me moaning, 'The book was so much better!' ('The Time Traveler's Wife')"

Matt PriggePhiladelphia Weekly:

"Because I'm actually literally illiterate, I am almost always faced with the shame of seeing a novel (or self-help book) adaptation based on something I haven't read. (Or in the case of 'On the Road,' one I read at 16 and have next-to-no recollection of.) Every now and then I rally and tear through a book before seeing its movie. But that's not such a hot idea: I'll probably be more critical of what the film chucked or modified (or kept) than I should be (Such was the case with Stephen Frears' 'High Fidelity,' whose novel I finished roughly an hour before seeing it). If I can think of a case where it might be preferable to be basically ignorant of the source, I would actually argue for Pier Paolo Pasolini's 'Trilogy of Life,' namely 'The Decameron,' 'The Canterbury Tales,' and 'Arabian Nights.' Faced with, well, quite a lot of stories to adapt, he doesn't remotely try to be comprehensive. Instead he takes the stories that fit his particular interest. In this case, they tend to be the bawdy/saucy/sexy ones (Or as a friend pejoratively put it, 'the ones that Beavis and Butthead would have chosen'). For those who are intimately familiar with the originals, it can be understandably galling to see, e.g., Chaucer reduced to a proto-'Penthouse Forum.' However, that's reductive, too. Knowing the sources can also be conceivably distracting, as there's a lot more going on in Pasolini's renderings than just casual nudity, buttsex, and demons farting monks (an actual thing that happens in 'Canterbury'). Just to take one of its aspects, the matter-of-factness with which he presents sex and lust as a (mostly) happy, joyous activity is radical, in the 1970s and even today in our comparatively lax but still very Puritanical society. The potentially impossible utopia Pasolini presents is a world where complete nudity and carnality is not weird but casual and ever-present. And I'm not 100% sure that's in the Boccaccio, the Chaucer or the '1001 Nights.'"

Dan PersonsMighty Movie Podcast:

"I don't go out of my way to actively do either, but since I cannot seem to put aside expectations once I've read something, I think it's better going in not having read the source material. The film should stand on its own."

Jenni MillerJenniMiller.net:

"I like to read the book beforehand, if it's fiction, although that's not always possible. I've been bookworm my entire life, so in a lot of ways, books are my first love. They're two very different mediums, and it's justifiable to argue that they shouldn't be compared, especially in a review, but I find it fascinating to see how novels can be adapted for the screen in wildly different ways. Andrea Arnold's 'Wuthering Heights' is a prime example of this. On the other side of the spectrum is 'Savages,' which suffered from sticking a little too closely to some of the book's tics; O's narrative voice works better on paper, and even so would annoy some readers. And, of course, you have something like Julie Taymor's adaptation of 'The Tempest,' which changed Prospero to Propsera and starred Helen Mirren. I felt that Taymor didn't go nearly far enough in reinterpreting the text when presented with such a juicy opportunity. I admire her risk-taking and thought her version of 'Titus' was incredible, so 'The Tempest' was doubly disappointing."

Mike McGranaghanThe Aisle Seat:

"I prefer to read the book after I've seen and reviewed the movie. If I read the book first, I sit there noticing all the things they changed or cut out for the film, which can occasionally be a bit distracting. If I see the film first, I can sit back with the book and just enjoy reading all the added detail. This approach isn't always possible, of course, but in general, I find that it maximizes my enjoyment of both on their own individual terms."

James McCormickCriterion Cast:

"When it comes to films based on books, I used to want to read the book before the movie came out to get a better sense of what the story was and how characters were portrayed. This stems from my obsession with Stephen King at a young age and wanting to devour every word he put to paper before an adaptation. An example is 'The Stand,' which I read the huge extended edition, then watched the mini-series and wished the mini-series had a ton of the extended stuff, such as more of the Trash Can Man. The older I've gotten, the more I've actually stayed away from books before a movie comes out because I've realized I like to judge both on their own merits and flaws. I was happy to watch 'Children of Men' first, then read the book (which I thought was a bit boring and inferior to the film adaptation). Each are different in their own way, and when someone tries to adapt what people call a book that supposedly can't be done, like Cronenberg has done twice with 'Naked Lunch' and 'Cosmopolis.' But remember, as many kids never learn, you should never watch a movie for a book report. It never works and I've seen people get found out in the funniest ways. So in short, it depends on your preference, but I go with movie first, book second."

Vince ManciniFilmdrunk:

"I think of them as separate entities. I wouldn't avoid a book so as to go in fresh for the movie, but I wouldn't treat a book like homework for a movie either. Either I've read it, like 'Life of Pi' and 'The Rum Diary,' or I haven't, like 'The Hunger Games' and 'Cosmopolis.' What I want to know is, how the hell was 'Pitch Perfect' a book? 80 percent of the movie was rehearsals and a capella covers. Is the book just 50 pages of Blackstreet lyrics interspersed with snappy dialogue? Someone needs to read that and find out. Not me, but someone."

Joey MagidsonThe Awards Circuit:

"I really don't have a strong point of view one way or the other. I rarely go out of my way to read the book of a film that's close to release, but if I'm already interested in the book I don't avoid it either. I even read scripts on occasion before the films come out, so I'm never especially worried about having a virginal cinematic experience with the material. I guess that's a long-winded way of saying I have no preference."

Scott MacDonaldToronto Standard:

"You can read the book before or after seeing the movie -- that's up to each individual reviewer -- but I truly do think you have to read the book before writing a review. That's part of a critic's job -- providing context, and giving the reader a sense of how the adaptation has been handled. That said, this is my 'perfect world' argument. In reality, there's only so much time in a day, and when most of us are doing this job for pennies and have other obligations, reading all the required books isn't realistic. My personal rule is this: if the movie is based on a more-or-less well-known property ('Life of Pi,' 'The Deep Blue Sea,' 'Midnight's Children,' etc.), I make a point of reading the source material (sometimes, of course, I've already read it.). If it's based on material few are aware of ('Silver Linings Playbook') or material of presumably limited literary merit ('Jack Reacher'), then I'll read it only if I have time (meaning: I probably won't read it). This year, for instance, I started reading 'Anna Karenina' in order to review the movie version, but it's such a freaking long book, and by the time the critics' screening came I'd only made it through a couple hundred pages. So I took the easy way out: I just didn't review it. I'm actually still reading the book -- I'd always wanted to read it anyway -- so if I don't finish it soon I may miss the movie entirely."

Adam LowesHey U Guys:

"I'm currently trying to get through 'Cloud Atlas' before the film is released over here in the UK this February. If I can, I'll always try and read the novel before seeing the adaptation, regardless of whether I'm reviewing the film or not. I always find that comparison much more satisfying, rather than embarking on the novel afterwards."

Andrew LapinThe Atlantic:

"Except in cases where memories of the book are impossibly ingrained in my consciousness (e.g. 'Cloud Atlas' or the 'Harry Potter' series), I try to separate the film and the book as much as possible. But I don't think seeing a film before I've had the chance to read the book impedes me in any way from enjoying the book just as much. If anything, the adaptation simply gives me a reading recommendation."

Joanna LangfieldThe Movie Minute:

"I try to read books before they hit the screen for a few reasons: 1) I like having my own experience with a piece, before it is interpreted by someone else and 2) I feel it's important to know the work, as a benchmark, to be able to better compare and contrast what's onscreen. Of course, all that lofty talk being said, I don't always have the time for each read! Skimming can be a girl's best friend, she admitted, a bit embarrassed."

Jonathan LackWe Got This Covered:

"I prefer to not read the book and go in cold, if I have not already read the book for my own enjoyment before. My general philosophy on such matters is that if the movie itself cannot be successfully viewed and understood on its own, separate from the book, then it is a failure as a film, and one of the best ways to judge this is to go in cold, with no knowledge of the book."

Peter LabuzaLabuzaMovies.com/PressPlay:

"I do whatever comes naturally, meaning if I haven't read the book, I usually don't seek it out necessarily. I enjoy reading criticism that compares films to their source material, but I also think sometimes it's best to look at the images and sounds as images and sounds. To retreat to an old party line, great books don't necessarily make great movies, and visa versa. That being said, I'm still waiting for someone to do the ultimate adaptation of Tanizaki's 'The Key.'"

Gary KramerGay City News:

"I review books based on films regularly for one of my outlets, so I grapple with this all the time. My theory: bad books make good movies. When the story is there, a film version can make it come alive. As for reading before seeing, I think it depends on the work. 'On the Road,' a recent adaptation of a major literary work can be seen before reading the book since no film can possibly capture the flavor of the dense and legendary novel. And, not to compare the sublime to the ridiculous, but you don't need to read Nicholas Sparks before seeing 'The Notebook,' 'The Lucky One,' or 'Dear John.' That said, some books need to be read before the screen version comes out. 'Perfume' and 'Notes on a Scandal' were two notable examples for me; the films touched on but never captured the strengths of those literary works. I do think pulp stories like 'Gangster Squad' can be translated to the screen -- check out 'After Dark, My Sweet' as a good example. But then you have 'The Black Dahlia' adaptation, which proves that theory wrong. But I generally encourage folks to read a book first to get the images in your head, and form your own film version."

Chris KlimekWashington Post:

"A film adaptation that requires you to have read its source material is a failure -- see 'Hobbit, The: Extraordinary Journey, An,' or better yet, don't. Book-to-film comparisons are often interesting, but that's a different beast from making a critical assessment of a film on its own merits. Often I've gone back to a book after admiring the film that was derived from it -- James Ellroy's 'L.A. Confidential' and Nick Hornby's 'High Fidelity' are examples that spring immediately to mind -- but I don't feel any responsibility to read a novel before reviewing its film version. I'm more likely to read the book first if it's a decades-or-centuries-old classic than if it's a contemporary book, if only to try to determine what has made the story resonate for so long."

Glenn KennyMSN Movies/Some Came Running:

"Interesting question. To be entirely honest I'm too disorganized a person to have anything resembling a system with respect to this issue. On general principle, it kind of doesn't matter, since the book and the movie are, to my mind, entirely discrete objects. So as a critic all I'm concerned about is whether a movie succeeds on its own terms. With particularly iconic or notorious books this can be a more pronounced problem. I think my attachment to the literary original of 'Lolita' certainly contributes to my perception of it as Kubrick's weakest film. My reservations concerning 'Killing Them Softly' weren't all that strident, but they were based in the irrefutable fact that Andrew Dominik would have done well to have stuck even closer to George V. Higgins' novel than he had. In the same genre, I feel almost certain that I'm gonna be frustrated by the Jason-Statham-starring 'Parker.' Donald Westlake/Richard Stark's books in that series are practically perfect for cinematic transposition, and yet... oh well, doesn't matter, is my point. The books are still the books. Whether I've read them or not could be my loss as a reader, but in terms of looking at the movie they shouldn't really enter into the equation. I did not hate 'Cloud Atlas' but seeing it was a sufficient experience that I have very little inclination to look into the book, which I had intended to read, yes, before I saw the movie. Back to that thing about not being sufficiently organized."

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