What should come first? The book… or the movie?
It’s a question that’s come into play for me a lot in the past. Is it better to read the book before watching its movie or TV show, or is it okay to switch it up sometimes? Up until a comparatively short time ago, I would have told you that you should read the book first—always, without question, no matter what. I’m afraid I had (and still have) a bit of a tendency to be a purist. How could anyone taint the meaning and initial impact of a story by watching its adaptation first?
And for a while, I was able to adhere to that, at least when I was aware that the movie or show in question was based on a book. Why on earth would I want someone to form my opinions for me? To fill my head with their own idea of what the story was and distort whatever thoughts I may have formed on my own? I made sure to follow this regimen with Lord of the Rings, with Harry Potter, and with pretty much any other story that I held in high regard.
But then, whether by accident or deliberately (I’m no longer sure which), I started watching movie versions of books before I had read the story. I began to fudge on my steadfast rule by watching movies like Pride and Prejudice and Emma and North and South, and, more recently, shows like Game of Thrones. And I discovered that by viewing one artist’s representation of another artist’s work, I was able to more fully grasp and enjoy the book that the adaptation was made from. I could take from the film version that which helped me to understand the book better, and I could choose to discard what didn’t. I could use the artist’s imagining of the book to expand my own imagination, or I could reject it and form different opinions altogether. I was beginning to make room for change amid my former rules for reading. In short, I began to discover that neither order of consumption is good or bad; both have their own merits and disadvantages, and neither form of the story necessarily has to compromise the other.
With Lord of the Rings, reading the book first worked well for me. Though they’re lengthy, complicated books, I enjoyed the challenge of constructing Middle Earth in my head, on my own terms, even though it probably took me until the third reading or so to really get it right (and yes, I am the biggest nerd ever…). I wanted the freedom to choose just how far I was willing to take my imagination during the scarier bits, and I wanted to see the faces of the characters themselves, rather than those of the actors who portrayed them. And I got the added benefit of pointing out to everyone watching the movies with me that “Oh, this isn’t the way it was in the book at all. What is Arwen doing there? There were no Wargs before the battle at Helm’s Deep…and where the heck is Tom Bombadil?!” I’ve since realized that this is pretty foolish (not to mention annoying); why on Earth should the filmmakers’ vision for the story be the same as mine? And how could they possibly be expected to fit something close to 3000 pages’ worth of story into eight hours of film? I digress…but my point is, reading these books before watching their movies allowed me to make the experience my own, and I was glad I’d done it that way.
But a week or so ago, I had a very different experience. After having both the book and showGame of Thrones relentlessly recommended to me, I finally watched the show’s first season. In one weekend (I regret nothing!). After my hedonistic GoT bender, I became extremely excited to start reading a series I hadn’t even definitively decided to tackle. I loved watching this complex story come to life, and I very quickly fell in love with Daenerys, Jon Snow, Arya, Bran, and so many others. Throughout every episode, I couldn’t wait to see what they’d do next. And though I haven’t read the book yet, I know that I’m going to love getting even more deeply involved with the characters and the vast story even more when I do read it. In this case, I’m quite certain that preempting my reading of the book by watching its television adaptation first will enrich instead of compromise my enjoyment of the story.
I’ve learned for certain now that there isn’t one set way to do this, at least not for me. It depends on the story, my current mindset, the timing of the adaptation’s availability, even the urging of friends to follow one way or the other. But what do you think? Which order do you prefer? Are you a purist, do you go with the flow, or like me, do you end up somewhere in the middle? Or do you do it some other way entirely?