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The Criticwire Survey: Preparing For Movies Based On Books

Criticwire By Matt Singer | Criticwire January 7, 2013 at 10:03AM

In the case of a film based on a book, do you read the book before or after you see the movie? The critics weigh in in our weekly survey.
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"Gangster Squad."
"Gangster Squad."

Adam KempenaarFilmspotting:

"I'm staunchly in the 'avoid the book' camp. As a critic, inevitably, you'll end up comparing the film to the book as you watch -- which could be fruitful territory to explore but in my mind doesn't give the book a fair chance to work on you as a piece of art/entertainment. It's virtually impossible a film will contain more than the book, so enjoy the film first and see what the book 'adds' rather than what the movie subtracts."

John Keefer51Deep.com:

"In the case of 'Mystic River,' I read the book first.  In the case of 'No Country for Old Men,' I saw the movie first. I guess it comes down to how excited I am by the prospect of a certain filmmakers' new work. Or maybe I'm an illiterate. Either way, Dennis Lehane is a good writer."

Eric HavensDownright Creepy:

"Since we're all friends here I'll be honest: I very rarely visit a novel once I have seen the film or vice versa. It's not out of laziness really (well maybe a little laziness), but more out of a sense of the narrative version of the uncanny valley. The first method of delivery of a story tends to stick with me, causing the secondary method to seem similar, but slightly different and strange. Different and strange enough to cause me to feel a little uncomfortable. The only exception to this that I can think of is 'The Lord of the Rings' films and books. That is the only time I can say I enjoyed both properties nearly equally. There it is, my neuroses all laid out in survey form."

Melissa HansonCinemit:

"Once I hear a movie is being made, I usually avoid the book because they tend to get mixed up in my mind if I read and watch too close together."

Russell HainlineThe Password is Swordfish:

"I've seen great films based on great books, bad films based on bad books, great films based on bad books, and bad films based on great books. I've seen films that struggle due to straying too far from the source material, I've seen films that struggle from staying too faithful to the source material. I've seen film adaptations in which the best scenes weren't anywhere to be found in the book. Great art should stand on its own, period. I would only read a book first if I'm choosing to write specifically about the story's adaptation from book to cinema. Otherwise, I like as a critic and a general moviegoer to judge a film's storytelling on its own merits."

Jason GorberTwitch/Filmfest.ca:

"I very rarely will read the book, both as a factor of just not reading very much fiction combined with a desire to approach the work on its own terms. In fact, I often find getting through the book version quite a chore even if read after seeing the film -- I couldn't get through McCarthy's 'No Country For Old Men,' finding all the subtle changes that the Coens made far more satisfying than anything I was reading. Similarly, I don't read scripts ahead of time, and in the best case scenario avoid all summaries or even trailers. I love to experience a work as fresh as possible, and some of my most extraordinary filmgoing experiences have been from this positions of being pleasantly surprised from the first frame. Whether or not I see the original film before a remake is a harder, case-by-case decision, one I'll leave to another Criticwire survey."

John GholsonMovies.com:

"It's never made a huge difference to me one way or another. If I know a film is coming of a book that I already wanted to read, then I'll make an effort to read the book first. Mostly, though, the film's the film. Typically movies based on books are either different enough to be taken on their own terms or similar enough to have the same strengths and weaknesses."

Kenji FujishimaThe House Next Door:

"Honestly, for me it depends on the book being adapted into a movie. I didn't go out of my way to catch up with Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code' before seeing Ron Howard's film adaptation of it, and I don't really feel like I missed out (if anything, the revelations about Ian McKellen's character late in the film probably worked better for me because, unlike the many who had already read 'The Da Vinci Code,' I had no idea about them going in). However, when it comes to film adaptations of 'classic' works of literature -- like, say, 'Anna Karenina' and 'Wuthering Heights' -- I do feel a need to be at least somewhat familiar with the source material going into it, if only because of their reputation. Of course, whether such a familiarity necessarily enhances a film adaptation or not -- well, some films try to be faithful to literary source material, while others not only flagrantly depart from the text but play off our knowledge of it. It all depends on the film, basically."

Mario Alegre FemeníasPrimera Hora:

"I don’t mind reading the book if the movie’s release is at least a year or two away. If I hear about a filmmaker or studio contemplating adapting a novel, I will probably pick it up before production even begins. I really don’t like having the book fresh in my mind when I see the film. Otherwise I can’t avoid nitpicking it to death and it gets in the way of me enjoying the film for what it is."

Jessica ElgenstiernaThe Velvet Café:

"I’m actually fine both ways. I don’t go out of my way to read a book before I watch a film adaptation of it, but on the other hand I don’t avoid it at all costs either. I try to think of the film as a work in its own, not bothering too much about whether it’s faithful or not to its origins. Of course I fail at it sometimes, especially if it’s an adaptation of a book that I love deeply and that has made a very strong impression on me. My experience is that the version of the work that I encounter first -- be it the film or the novel -- is what I’ll end up loving most."

Alonso DuraldeTheWrap/What The Flick?!:

"I make it a point whenever possible to avoid reading the book when I know there's a forthcoming movie version, because I think the movie has to exist on its own, independent of the source material. (Odds are also good that, among readers of the review, more of them won't have read the book as well.) When it's a book I know, then I'll talk about the film's specific strengths and weaknesses as an adaptation, but all things being equal, I'd rather avoid the book the same way I'd avoid spoilers or trailers or leaked screenplays. Tabula rasa, for me, is always the ideal."

Edward DouglasComing Soon:

"I've gone a lot of different ways on this and there have been many examples where reading the book before seeing the movie spoiled the experience of enjoying the movie. For example, 'The Silence of the Lambs.' I really liked that book a lot and when I saw the movie right after finishing it, I was disappointed because it didn't live up to what I had read. Yes, you read that right. I was disappointed with 'The Silence of the Lambs,' but that was only the first time I saw it. The movie's grown on me the more distance I had from the book. On the other hand, I really wasn't into 'Hannibal' as a book and it took me over a year to finish reading it. By comparison, the film by Ridley Scott was a lot more exciting and I liked it better. Then we get to something like 'Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist' which I read before seeing the movie and that book was way better than the movie. So going by these examples, I've sort of learned my lesson about reading and falling in love with books before seeing the movies. Now I'll read most of a book but not finish it until after I see the movie so it leaves something to enjoy. This is how I did 'Cloud Atlas' and 'Jack Reacher' (based on the novel 'One Shot') and for the most part, this gave me the best of both worlds but also allowed me to enjoy how the movie ends without having already read it in the book. Does that make sense? Probably not. But whatever."

Billy DonnellyAin't It Cool News:

"In the past, I've been one to read or have read plenty of books ahead of time before seeing their film adaptations, both by choice or by some sort of duty to put in the research to know exactly what I'm getting myself into ahead of time -- after all, there is going to be a segment of your readership that has read the book already, too, and, as fans, might want some perspective on if the movie holds up to what they liked about the book to begin with. However, I think I'm starting to veer in the direction of avoiding the book, if possible, before seeing and ultimately reviewing a film adaptation, because, in many cases, it just ruins your experience with the movie. Let's face it: as hard as they try, they're just not going to be able to make the book exactly (with the exception of 'The Perks of Being A Wallflower' which came about as close as I've ever seen, thanks to the author being the one behind the creative decisions of the film). And, while we all go into films with our own baggage to begin with, this adds an extra layer, because it sets us up for the inherent comparisons between page and screen that the film can never win. There are going to be changes for time purposes or cinematic effect that fans of the book aren't going to like, and, if you enjoyed the book, you'll find yourself focusing on a lot of those alterations that may make for a weaker story -- not necessarily a weaker film, but, compared to the book, a lesser experience. Therefore, if you're going in looking at a picture as just that -- a movie -- you're probably better off never cracking open its source material's cover."

Steve DollarWall Street Journal/GreenCine Daily:

"If it's a book I haven't read, I don't read it before seeing the movie (unless, maybe, it's something I wanted to read anyway). The only exception is when the movie is inspired by a short story, since it's revealing to see how the filmmakers interpret and expand on the source (and it's not time-intensive to do so). I do a little research on the book if it feels necessary or worthwhile, but it's really apples and oranges -- unless your piece is specifically focused on adaptation."

John DeCarliFilmCapsule:

"For me, there's no magic formula. If I've read the book or have never even heard of it, I remind myself that they're two different works in two different media, each with its own unique set of challenges and attributes. I think reading a book first has rarely negatively impacted my enjoyment of a film, and adds an extra layer of understanding to see the decisions that were made in adapting the book. However, recently I've enjoyed going back to the source material after loving a new film. For example, I've read some John le Carré since I saw 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,' and that film only grows in my estimation understanding all the complex le Carré mythology that's peppered throughout that elliptical film."

Michael DaltonMovie Parliament:

"I used to attempt to read the book before seeing the movie. However I now prefer to avoid the book until I've seen and reviewed the film. I believe that film adaptations should stand on their own and have failed if they rely on the book to explain elements of its plot. Concurrently I believe a critic should be as untainted as possible by preconceptions when reviewing a film. Overall, I find the viewing experience more enjoyable and the reviews more apt when a film is experienced as such and not as an adaptation of a book. I find myself frequently annoyed by those who point out the differences between the film and book rather than discussing the film itself and its merits (or lack thereof) within its own medium. Films and books are two different kinds of art and an attempt should be made to approach them and discuss them as such."

Marc CiafardiniGoSeeTalk.com:

"Easy. See the movie, then go read the book. To make something screen ready, film adaptations sometimes commit near criminal acts refining or reworking a well-received book. Unless you're Peter Jackson and have the studio's patience for 10 hours of story you'll never get everything from the book on the screen. It's a necessary and sometimes unfortunate evil in the editing process. But it's not all bad because let's face it, not everything in a book is geared to or needs to be told cinematically. So to avoid the heartache in the theater it usually pays to see it onscreen first and then, if you like it, seek out the novel. I'd much rather say 'that wasn't in the movie' but have the book make more sense than say 'oh, they changed/omitted that' and be disappointed by the adaptation any day of the week. It's not a foolproof stance to take but it works most of the time."

Fico CangianoCineXpress:

"I prefer watching the film and then maybe checking out the book. In college, I had to read the books and then watch the films for my movie classes. I remember having to read books like 'The Shining' and 'War of the Worlds,' and then watching the films. I wasn't particularly fond of that. Nowadays, I prefer to just watch the movie and then maybe read the source. For example, I remember watching 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy and then going back to read the books. Most recently, I've done this with the  TV show 'Game of Thrones.'"

Christopher CampbellDocBlog

"Currently I’m way too busy and am a very, very slow reader, so it’s very rare that I am able to read the book before seeing the movie. Last time I could was with 'The Hunger Games,' because it’s so short and I read it on my honeymoon in between beach naps. I wish I could do it more often with more substantial works, especially nonfiction titles associated with docs. When I was young I read everything beforehand, including (and especially) novelizations. Now I can barely get through a magazine article sourced as the basis for a film. Any films based on haikus coming out soon?"

Danny BowesYahoo! Movies/Movie Mezzanine:

"I never avoid a book because there's a movie adaptation coming out, nor do I usually go out of my way to read something I haven't yet read. I say usually because when that first six-minute 'Cloud Atlas' trailer dropped, I went 'Oh, wow, I should read that book,' but that was only because I'd owned the book for eight years and never made it past the first twenty pages. And I read 'The Hunger Games' because it only took about a day and it helped me keep a straight face when those names were said out loud in the movie. But as far as reading the book first being an across-the-board preference, no. There's a lot of compartmentalization involved in watching a movie adaptation that deviates from the movie one imagines in one's head while reading, and sometimes it's easier to just watch the movie."

Edwin ArnaudinAshvegas:

"Neither. I like for movies to surprise me, so I prefer to know as little as possible going in. If it happens that I've read the book before the movie is released, hopefully enough time has passed so that I will have forgotten nearly every aspect besides the basic outline (That's what happened with each 'Harry Potter' film and 'Life of Pi'). As for reading a book after seeing the film, unless the writing is radically different (i.e.'The Prestige') or in the super rare case where I like the film so much that I simply have to experience it on the page, I'd rather just watch the movie again. Otherwise, I'm going through the motions of a story I already know when I could be reading a different book or watching another movie."

The Best Movie Currently In Theaters on January 7th, 2013:

The Most Popular Response: "Django Unchained"
Other Movies Receiving Multiple Votes: 
"Amour," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Argo," "Holy Motors," "Lincoln," "Rust and Bone."

This article is related to: Criticwire Survey


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