2012-04-04

I liked the book better

A while back I was discussing entertainment at the bar with a friend of mine. We were talking about a movie, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I think, and I mentioned that I really liked the film but had not yet read the book. He responded that this was because I was a "movie guy," whereas he was a "book guy." For several reasons, this was not a particularly insightful nor correct thing to say - his stubborn insistence on this position despite my counterarguments is why the incident made its way into this article today.

First off, it's a false dichotomy. I like both books and movies. I am not a "guy" defined by either of them. I also enjoy television, video games, music, sports, and a variety of other diversions. It's like someone saying you can't like cheese because you're a "pretzel guy" - those two things, like books and movies, are in no way mutually exclusive.

Second, even if there was some bizarre rule where you had to self-identify with one of these media, I'm not sure I'd go with movies. In fact, I probably spend more time reading than I do watching movies. When I read about the new HBO movie Game Change, I went and checked the book out of the library and read it. Book guy!

Third, and this feeds into the broader point of this article, I see the two media as complementary rather than competitive. There are cases where I've read the book but not seen the movie (Bicentennial Man, The Golden Compass), films whose source books I've never read (The Godfather, The Natural), and others where I've both read the book and seen the adaptation (Fight Club, Cold Mountain). Both media offer things that the other cannot - film offers a whole visual palette and the expressiveness of acting, while books offer far greater characterization, inner dialogue, and opportunities for the reader to stretch his or her imagination

It's become very cliché to offer the assessment that is my title to this piece: "I liked the book better." Everyone says this, even, and I am very convinced of this, when they in fact preferred the big screen version. I think there's a fear that one will be perceived as non-intellectual if one expresses a preference for the movie. In my view, the truth is simple: sometimes the book is better, sometimes the film is better, and oftentimes they are both very good and neither one needs to be selected as the winner.

I will allow, however, that in many instances the fans of a novel are legitimately disappointed by its film adaptation; I also think the order in which one experiences the two versions is crucial in which will be preferred. It's not exactly symmetrical, however - readers feel let down by a movie more than filmgoers are disappointed with the source novel. As such, I would suggest that the ideal approach, when both are available, would be to watch the movie first, then read the book. That way you can avoid the seemingly-inevitable letdown (or having to feign said letdown) from seeing it in the theater, and simply enjoy the movie. Then you can go back and fill in the details and get all the other extras the text provides. In terms of net enjoyment (or utility for you economists), this seems to me to be the optimal strategy.

The drawback is, of course, that this approach can inhibit one's ability to create mental imagery while reading, since the film will have already planted visuals in your mind prior to sitting down with the novel. I suppose the individual has to decide how important that is to him or her and plan their entertainment strategy appropriately.

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