Reading the Book Before Seeing the Movie: When Does It Matter?

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If you had asked me the above question about five or six years ago, I would have vehemently argued that you must always read the source book before seeing a movie.  True, I had fudged a few times (I love Jurassic Park, but I haven’t read anything by Crichton…shh…).  My feelings were largely because, around that time, I mostly considered myself a book person.  I regarded the written word as inherently higher than other media, which forced me to need to experience a story through reading before seeing it play as a movie.

But as I started getting equally interested in movies, I had a new realization: if I wanted to be well-versed in film, reading every single book than was turned into a movie would take me an eternity.  After careful thought, I devised the following rules for myself, though I occasionally do break them (more often than not, by accident):

  1. If a movie is based on a work of classic literature in the literary canon, then I will read the book first.
  2. If a movie is based on a play or a short story, then I will read the source work first only if the play or short story itself is of note.
  3. If a movie is based on a true story turned into a book, then I do not necessarily have to read the book first.
  4. If a movie is based on any other type of book, I will look at it on a case-by-case basis.

My fourth rule is the biggest departure from my previous feelings, and I implemented if for myself because of my love of classic film.  Several classic movies are based on novels that were popular at the time the movie was made, and the books are often now out of print or somewhat difficult to find.  I am more likely to read a contemporary novel turned into a movie than a novel written in the 1940s whose film version has had more staying power than it.

My first rule means that there are some classic films – like Rebecca, The Maltese Falcon, and Mildred Pierce – that I haven’t seen because I haven’t yet had the time to read their source books.  Furthermore, I’ve wanted to read Anna Karenina for some time, but I only got my act together and started reading it in anticipation of Joe Wright’s upcoming film.  Similarly, I only read contemporary books like Atonement and The Help because I couldn’t resist the hype surrounding their film releases – but I ended up really enjoying the books on their own merits.

But this, of course, begs the question: am I reading these books – both the classics and the contemporary ones – for the right reasons?  Of course, it would be ideal to discover certain books on their own, but just because I happened to hear about a movie before its source book doesn’t make reading it wrong.  And that’s one thing a movie can do: introduce a whole new audience to a book.  So, now with my defined rules, if I hear about a story in movie form, I’ll see if I feel it necessary for me to experience it in written form first.

Do you have any rules for reading books before seeing their movies?  If so, do you follow them casually or strictly?  Do you think that reading a book just because you want to see the movie is somehow wrong?

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3 thoughts on “Reading the Book Before Seeing the Movie: When Does It Matter?

  1. Pingback: Captain Blood: His Odyssey from Page to Screen (GUEST POST by Natalie) « the motion pictures

  2. Pingback: It’s My One Year Blogoversary! « Many Media Musings

  3. Pingback: Introducing a New Reading Project: From the Film Back to the Book « Many Media Musings

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