I think there’s a significant level of bullshit in the statement “the book is always better than the movie.” Still we hear it so often in theatre lobbies that it’s become a mantra. It’s like a proverb or commandment– an accepted truth. I think it’s time this “truth” was challenged. Sure, there are plenty of books that are better than their filmic counterparts, but I don’t think the evidence points to any universal law on the subject. Instead, I think there are a few external factors that have contributed to this misguided notion of book superiority:
- People read the book first
- People lack an understanding of the medium of film
- People are making unfair comparisons
Fans of a particular book, say The Lord of the Rings, have certain expectations about how that book should be presented on-screen; when their expectations are not met, they are disappointed. These expectations, however, are unreasonable. Plot points or characters may have been altered due to considerations of time, budget, or aesthetics. This is as it should be. One should not expect anything else. For every book suggested to be superior to its film, there is a film that is better than its book. For example, people often cite Jaws, The Godfather, Jules and Jim, and The Shining as films that were vastly superior to their source material. Either way – the book is better than the movie, or the movie is better than the book – misses the point: Books and films should be judged as entirely separate entities.
The medium of literature and film are distinct, with different strengths and weaknesses. Film is largely visual and therefore descriptive passages of a book may be difficult to translate. Does this mean the book is better? Not necessarily. While the film may excise a character’s internal monologue, a particular plot point, or a lengthy descriptive passage, it’s also important to recognize strengths of cinema. Beyond visuals, film is an all-encompassing sensory medium. It is more multifaceted than literature. When we watch a film, we can appreciate the artistry of the acting, set design, cinematography, and music–in addition to that of the screenwriting–while the process of reading literature focuses on the written word alone.
I would suggest that someone who says “the book is always better” is probably someone who either doesn’t understand cinema, or is not watching the right films. Instead of focusing on what it lacks, one should think of how the art of cinema enhances the experience. Look at the director’s style, the selection and use of music, or the choices the actors are making. People are trained in school to take literature seriously; they’re trained how to read books closely. Film and visual literacy, on the other hand, is usually absent from school curriculums, and that’s a shame, because it leaves much of the public with moderately well-honed abilities to interpret and appreciate written texts, but rather limited skills in other forms of reading, such as film and the visual arts.
A film has no obligation to it’s source material. Zero. I realize there may be contractual requirements and a desire to meet the expectations of book-readers. However, a pure cinema, if it ever existed, would disregard such pressures. If necessary, the source material should be sacrificed for the betterment of the film. A director need not consider how close her finished product is to its source, but should always consider, “What will make this a better film?” This means that some in the audience will be disappointed. This also means that some of the best films will be those with original screenplays, where the director feels no sense of obligation to anyone or anything. Take, for example, the Coen Brothers. With the notable exception of No Country for Old Men (which is a great film, but actually rather atypical for the duo), the Coen Brothers best films are those with original screenplays (Fargo, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski) rather than their adaptations (The Ladykillers, and True Grit, for example.)
Rather than compare the two, we need to judge movies and books against other examples within the medium. If a film can be said to be within the upper echelon of film, while a book is a middling book, one might, in this case, argue the movie is superior to the book. Yes, some of us like books better than movies or movies better than books, but that’s an entirely different topic. The point here is that there is no universal law declaring one to be superior to the other and the notion that there is such a law comes, I believe, from a misunderstanding of what film is, what it should do, and how it should be viewed. I’d even suggest that if film education was ever made a priority, we would see a significant decline in the number of people chanting the mantra “the book is always better” and a similar decline in the number of people making such comparisons in the first place.