Riot Headline 10 Exciting Books to Read this Summer
Pop Culture

The Great Debate: Book Before Movie, or Movie Before Book?

This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Leila Roy

Staff Writer

After a lengthy stint as a children's bookseller, Leila Roy took a step sideways into the library world. There, she does the same thing she did as a bookseller—matching people with stories in any and all formats, whether print, audio, film, comic, or some newfangled hybrid—but doesn't have to deal with changing the tape on the cash register. She lives in Maine with her husband, where she runs her small-town library and occasionally tries to rescue wildlife from her cat, who is a murderer. In addition to talking books at her long-running blog, Bookshelves of Doom, she's a weekly columnist at Kirkus Reviews. Blog: Bookshelves of Doom Twitter: @bkshelvesofdoom

Do you avoid seeing a movie until you’ve read the book it’s based on, or do you consume whichever you happen across first? Do you compare film adaptations to their source material, or do you treat them as entirely different animals? What about adaptations that start out faithful, but eventually diverge (Dexter, GoT), or movies based on books so huge that beloved details will inevitably be left out (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings)?

The Talented Mr. RipleyLeila Roy: I may be an outlier here, but I prefer to see the movie before I read the book. Well, either that, or to see the movie a good while after reading the book—so that enough time passes that minor changes don’t bother me. Two examples: The Talented Mr. Ripley and High Fidelity. I saw The Talented Mr. Ripley the day after I finished the book, and it made me want to punch something—the casting, giving Ripley a conscience, everything in that movie beyond Philip Seymour Hoffman was a big ball of NO. High Fidelity, meanwhile, I saw ages after reading the book, and even though it made loads of changes, it still shared the same heart as the book, so I loved it.

Oh! Also, I think there’s a huge difference between a bad movie, and a bad adaptation. Kubrick’s The Shining is a great movie, but it’s a terrible adaptation—when I’ve read the source material too recently, sometimes I have a hard time making that differentiation.

lord of the ringsChris Arnone: I have stories on both sides of this argument. When Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy started in theaters, I decided to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s books first. Alas, I actually missed The Fellowship of the Ring in theaters because I hadn’t finished the book. However, I had finished the entire trilogy by the time The Two Towers hit theaters.

On the flip side, and this will weird some people out, I never read a Harry Potter novel until the movies were done. I was slow to get aboard the Hogwarts Express and once I got going, I didn’t want to think less of the movies because of the books. I have seen all eight movies dozens of times and yes, I have now read all seven books.

under the skin michel faberRachel Smalter Hall: I almost always like to see the movie first. When I read the book first, I just end up being disappointed when the movie doesn’t live up to it. Movies are so much more compressed than books, and I miss all the things that have to get cut to make them work. Under the Skin was a great movie, but I HATED it because I loved the book too much. There are exceptions — Revolutionary Road, Gone Girl — but these are outliers, and I say: save the best for last.

Another reason I like to watch the movie first is that I’ve always floundered with detailed physical descriptions in books. My brain struggles to picture lush fantasy wildernesses and lavish Victorian estates. When the movie takes care of these visuals for me, it helps me relax and enjoy the narrative arcs and character development in stories that can feel otherwise inaccessible.

twilight original book coverAlison Peters: I tend to read the book before the movie, because I like to have my own image of the characters firmly in my head before they’re replaced by the movie versions. Even though I loved the Harry Potter and Twilight casting, for example, my internal Harry, Bella, Edward, Ron are different than the movie versions, (Hermoine’s hair is bushier, Edward is more lanky, Ron’s facial reactions aren’t quite so ridiculous).

And while it’s fun for me, it’s not always as fun for my movie-companions when I shriek about all of the stuff they left out of the movie versions, or lament some crazy addition that wasn’t in the book but made it to the screen. I get that movies have to use shorthand sometimes to get the internal conflicts across, but I like the long, winding ways of the book and the shortcuts make me crazy.

mockingay by suzanne collinsPeter Damien: I tend to take it on a case by case basis, because I’m pretty ambivalent about which order I see or read things in. If I read the book, then see the movie, fine. Other way around is fine too. With Harry Potter, I discovered it through the movies, fell in love and rushed through the books, then kept watching the movies happen. Right now with Hunger Games, I began with the movies and realized I wanna end with the movies too. So I’ve read the first two books, but Mockingjay is sitting on my shelf, unread, waiting for the last movie to come out.

The reason I don’t care about it is, I keep them pretty separate in my head. I don’t need an adaptation to be a good version of the book, I need it to be a good film, full stop. If the movie works, is good, has something to say or do, then I don’t care about its relationship to its source. The cry of “but it wasn’t how it was in the book” bounces off me. I don’t care. I’ve got the book I love, and the movie I love, and they don’t have to connect, just work.

Gone Girl coverTasha Brandstatter: I agree with Peter, I take it on a case-by-case basis and don’t care very much either way. Generally I enjoy the book more than the movie, but in a lot of cases that’s just because I love to read, not because I think that one is better than the other. Also, my taste in movies and my taste in books is not necessarily the same. For example, I watched Gone Girl and LOVED it. Yet I have no desire to read the book because I know I’d never get through it (well, I could get through it, but it would take a month and involve a lot of whining on my part). Same way with my favorite book, Jane Eyre–every single screen adaptation of that book has bored me out of my mind. Why do I keep watching them? I can’t help myself. Gah!

That said, even though I’m pretty blasé about the whole book/movie thing, there are a few times when a movie adaptation straight-up pisses me off for the single reason that I’ve read the book first. I like to think that in every book there’s one scene that I really want to witness on screen, and as long as the movie nails that scene, they can screw up the whole rest of the book and I’m fine with it. If they don’t nail that scene–or, even worse, don’t even include it–I get a little HULK SMASH-y.

stardust by neil gaimanJessica Pryde: I prefer to read the book first, but sometimes it’s an accident. I didn’t know Stardust and The Edge of Tomorrow were based upon books until after I’d seen them–and in both of those cases I consider the adaptations separate entities because they’re just so different. Maybe if I’d read Stardust before seeing the movie I’d be a Neil Gaiman fan. Or maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to see the movie–which would be a shame because I adore that movie. Can’t say the same about the book. Like Tasha, I saw Gone Girl at the request of my husband and really liked the way it was done. Unlike her, I still have absolutely no plans to read the book. At all. Like ever.

For the most part, I am definitely a RTBF kind of girl. If I hear that a movie or television show is coming out based upon a book I have on my list, I’ll move it up to get it out of the way in time. Sometimes I’ll even put off seeing or watching it until I can make it through the source material. I do get a little snarky when I discover something wasn’t included in the film, particularly if it assists in understanding to plot (or if I just thought a scene in the book was particularly cinematic). In those times, I am particularly happy that I can understand what is going on whereas I might not if I hadn’t been exposed to the source material (I love Joe Wright and his directorial eye but have you seen Anna Karenina?). Does it influence my reading if I’ve seen the film first? Nah. Do I prefer to have my own internal 12 hour miniseries before enjoying something on film? Most definitely.

game of thronesS. Zainab Williams: I lean books before movies or television series except with Game of Thrones because most of my friends watch the show and don’t read the books. I like to share the thrills in tandem (and while I’m pretty good about keeping spoilers to myself, best not to tempt the fates). And I don’t mind when a movie or series, like Game of Thrones, diverges from the book as long as it’s well-executed and tells a good story in its own right.

But, for the most part, I’m with Alison in that I prefer to create my own vision of a character and direct the story in my head before I see someone else’s version. While this often leads to disappointment, BBC’s Pride & Prejudice stands as proof that I’m not entirely impossible to please when it comes to book-to-movie adaptations. Anyway, at the end of the day, a bad movie will never ruin a good book.

Revolutionary Road by richard yatesJessica Woodbury: Book before movie unless I don’t plan to read the book. For me, the one you do first is the one that takes up the most real estate in your head. It’s the one that sets the foundation for how you’ll view the story. I generally find that I like the broader, more expansive world of the book taking up residence in my head and then allowing the movie to help me visualize it.

However, I tend to avoid movies that adapt books I love because of fear they will ruin it. (We shall not speak of the travesty that was Revolutionary Road, a truly great American novel and a truly awful film.) I also tend to share Leila’s view that I’d rather see a movie that gets the book’s aesthetic and emotional core than one that stays true. I tried to watch The Age of Innocence and found I couldn’t because it was so close to the book that it wasn’t giving me a new experience. A movie coming out for a book I haven’t read usually just means it’s time to read the book!

coralinecoverKristina Pino: I used to be strictly in the read-before-watching camp, but what ended up happening is I would go to the movies and be disappointed in what I saw. I got way too wrapped up in the details and wouldn’t appreciate the movie on its own terms. I’ve found that I have a much better watching experience when I see the movie first. These days, I just choose my battles, though. Some films coexist with their books effortlessly, like Coraline and Life of Pi. Others don’t, and that’s OK.

A.J. O’Connell: I watch the movie first. I do this because I like to enjoy both book and movie for what they are, and I can’t do that if I read the book first and have high expectations for the film. I realized that this was the way I wanted to do things when The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen came out. I had a great time at that movie. Then I picked up the comic and realized just how good it was. So I was able to enjoy the same(ish) story twice.

watchmenSometimes, I will avoid a film if I’ve read and loved the book. I did not see Watchmen and I will not watch Revolutionary Road. I do make exceptions for films and shows like The Lord of The Rings trilogy, The Hobbit, and Game of Thrones. Maybe it’s because I love those universes so much, maybe it’s because I (mostly) trust the filmmakers, or maybe it’s because those books are so ingrained in my head that no movie can displace my own vision of the characters.

Andi Miller: Book before movie, all the way. Basically, if I don’t read the book first and I go on to watch the film, any hope of ever reading the story is dead and buried. I need a significant level of surprise in my reading, and film adaptations kill it…even if they change some things up.

So that’s where we stand. What about you?


Book Riot Live is coming! Join us for a two-day event full of books, authors, and an all around good time. It’s the convention for book lovers that we’ve always wanted to attend. So we are doing it ourselves.