Books Before or After a Film Adaptation?

This post isn’t about film adaptations of books. After writing my dissertation around this subject (if not specifically about it), I’m done. And, as noted film critic George Bluestone wrote in the 1950s, “the end products of novel and film represent different aesthetic genera, as different from each other as ballet is from architecture”. I can say no more than that and try to cling to that. This post is more about the correlation between reading a book before or after seeing the film.

From director Joe Wright, whose only film that wasn’t a book adaptation has been ‘Hanna’.

I’ve just started reading ‘Anna Karenina’, with the intention of finishing it before the film comes out on the 7th September. I know a number of people that try to read a book before seeing the film. Recent examples: ‘The Hunger Games’, ‘One Day’, ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ (not that recent, I guess). Mostly it ends in disappointment from the film and a greater appreciation of the book but this generally relates to poor adaptations.

Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins, first published in 2008. The sequel ‘Catching Fire’ is due to start shooting at the beginning of next year. With the final novel ‘Mockingjay’ due to be split into two films a la ‘Twilight’.

The film version of ‘The Hunger Games’, in my opinion, did a good job of representing the themes of the book. You will always get more backstory from a book – it’s inevitable – but the film tried to focus on key areas and also emphasised future moments. These include a greater focus on Gale and more time with President Snow. The main difficulty with this adaptation was that the book is written in the first person and includes a large amount of internal monologuing from Katniss. Unless you have her as a narrator, displaying there inner concerns can be difficult. Saying that, I think the film handled this problem well. But maybe on a second viewing I’ll feel differently.

Based on the David Nicholls novel of the same name, first published in 2009.

‘One Day’. Everyone was raving about the book so I read it.  I wasn’t blown away but it was still intriguing. And then there’s the film. The biggest problem with the film is the casting. As an adaptation it keeps the “spirit of the book” but throughout all you can think is: what is Anne Hathaway’s accent and why does Dexter deserve happiness? Having said this, I saw the film when it came out. It may be a very bad representation of the book and I’ve just forgotten/become too focused on Hathaway’s accent issues.

Based on the novel of the same name by Audrey Niffenegger, first published in 2008.

‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’. This is a film that puts people off the book. Ask my mother. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so disappointed with a film adaptation. From the first trailer my hopes were dashed. Not only did it seem to completely spoil the last third of the book – a major irritation in itself – but tonally it seemed completely wrong. Glutton for punishment that I am, I went to see it anyway. Big mistake. The film had been marketed as a romantic comedy/drama. The film had been made as a romantic comedy/drama. The book had much darker elements to it. Elements that I’m not going to discuss because they’d ruin the awesomeness of the book. Needless to say, it is generally agreed that a successful adaptation requires the tone of the book to be carried through to the film. This film could be an example of the benefit of reading a book after seeing its adaptation. Your heart will not be broken and reading the book can erase the memory of watching that awful film.

So these are all books that I’ve read before seeing the film. I’ve also read books after seeing the film: ‘The 39 Steps’, ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’, ‘Harry Potter’ 1 – 5, ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and various Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse novels.

Based on the novel of the same name by John Buchans, first published by 1915.

‘The 39 Steps’. I had a month that seemed to be entirely about ‘The 39 Steps’. I watched the Hitchcock film, listened to the audiobook, watched the theatre show The 39 Steps and then read the book. The theatre production is based on the Hitchcock film rather than the novel. The film strays from the novel in quite a few ways and yet, because it’s a Hitchcock film, remains more memorable to most than the novel. Mr. Memory. That’s all I’m gonna say. Reading/listening to the book after watching the film helped me to appreciate both forms of the plot. To this date, there have been no really faithful adaptations of the novel. I would recommend reading the book but I would also thoroughly recommend watching the Hitchcock film and the theatre production. I would go back and see the production again in a heartbeat. It is brilliant.

Based on the novel of the same name written by Winifred Watson, first published in 2000.

‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’. I bought the film pretty much after seeing the cover (essentially the poster above). It’s set in the 1930s. It’s glamorous. My kind of film. I wasn’t disappointed. I love the film. The story is great. The characters are fun. The cast give great performances and the costumes are beautiful. So, because I enjoyed the film so much, I wanted to read the source material. It is a very faithful adaptation. I enjoyed reading the book but it doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film.

Based on the novel of the same name by L. Frank Baum, first published in 1900.

‘The Wizard of Oz’. This is a film that has a number of differences from the novel. The Wizard of Oz is a classic and you can’t help but be enchanted by the film. When I came across a *cough* cheap *cough* copy of the novel in Florida I bought it and read it, quickly, by the pool. I was quite surprised by how dark the book is. Especially considering that it’s first and foremost a children’s book. A number of aspects just couldn’t be filmed – particularly in the 1930s. I appreciate these changes within the context of making the film. The plot of The Wizard of Oz is much more well-known than that of the novel, similarly to that of ‘The 39 Steps’.

I’m not sure how differently I would have reacted to the three above films had I read the novels first. I’ll never be able to know that. But, as I still appreciate both forms I don’t think that’s a problem. Adaptations that I’ve had problems with would probably have acquired similar reactions without having read the book, or having read the book after watching the film. What I’d really like to know is whether other people have had similar reactions to me? Do you ever read a book after seeing an adaptation? Does a film adaptation encourage you to read the book or dissuade you? Let us know! This is a discussion that combines books AND films – what’s not to enjoy?

S x


6 thoughts on “Books Before or After a Film Adaptation?

  1. Agree with all of the above.
    I too read Hunger Games in a quick dash before the film. What a disappointment that made the film! I didn’t love either of the characters as I did in the book and didn’t feel anything for their ‘relationship’ – the hardest thing to capture in an adaptation I think.
    Most recently I read The Lucky One and then watched the film. It was like they weren’t the same story – horrendous casting and horrendous screenplay. Just. Awful.

    On the flip side I saw the film of Atonement before reading the book. The film fast becoming my favourite film and ditto with the book. It made aspects of the book come to life when reading (as sometimes characters just don’t come to life in my imagination and the film just put them there) and it made me realise just how accurate the adaptation was.


    • Thank you for your comment! I think with ‘The Hunger Games’ the biggest issue was due to Katniss’ narration in the book not being in the film. Any feelings for Peeta and Gale, no matter how complex and undecided, had to be portrayed through looks or other characters discussion.

      ‘Atonement’ is one of my favourite films and one of my favourite books too! When I saw the film I hadn’t completely finished the book and was quite annoyed with minor changes. When I watched the film again, because of the costumes, I felt more of an appreciation for it and how the changes were made for cinematic purposes. I have since re-read the book and consider this one of the best adaptations.

      How do you feel about reading books before seeing the adaptation?

      S x

      • From experience I’d say it is best to read the book after to avoid any disappointment.

        After all, who’s going to want to see a film of 50 Shades for example when no acting performance will ever match what every woman has imagined as their ‘ideal’ man.

        That was a bad example, but hey.
        Let your imagination and the text build upon the film rather than a bad adaptation ruin your fabulous memory of the book.


  2. Just going through and replying to all your posts, don’t mind me.

    Anyhoo. I haven’t read The Hunger Games and I can only assume that the books must be better because the film was, in my opinion, pretty terrible. Strangely enough that has actually encouraged me to read the books because I want to know whether certain things were explained that left me guessing in the movie. I also want to know more about the characters, who were left feeling very un-fleshed-out. If that’s a word.

    So for me, sometimes, a bad film can act a bit like a teaser for a book. Hey here’s some interesting ideas and characters, why not read the book and find out a bit more about them!? Similarly, if a film is awesome then I’ll want to read the book too, just to get as much out of the text as possible.

    Alternatively, sometimes film adaptatations of books that I love make me sad to my very core. Spawn? Harry Potter? Need I say more.

    When done well, I think that movie adaptations of books can open up a whole new world on the text that we wouldn’t otherwise have. When they’re done badly the best we can hope for it that they act as poorly made adverts for the book.

    (I did an essay on this subject toooooo.)

  3. I completely agree with two things on your list. Firstly, ‘One Day’ – I could not understand Hathaway’s accent, it was so muddled it would have been much better to have cast a British actress in her place. However, she did pull off Emma very well. And yes, Dexter is a dick so the only time he deserves to be happy is when he has stopped being a dick.

    As for ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’, WORST ADAPTATION EVER. I have never been so upset with film creators/producers etc for doing such a bad production (was upset by ‘Never Let Me Go’s’ ending and lack of emotion but not as much as this movie). Complete waste of two hours. I was just in ranting on Facebook about terrible it was.

    Great blog!

  4. Stumbled upon this blog post whilst looking under the ‘Books’ category. I personally agree with reading the book after you’ve watched the movie adaptation. I too agree with The Time Traveler’s Wife movie being awful, I made the mistake of watching the film before reading the book. I was shocked the direction that the creators decided to go with, the same could be said with P.S I Love You (yes Cecila Ahern is one of my guilty pleasures) & Eat, Pray & Love- loved the books, hated the films. However, We Need To Talk About Kevin & The Perks Of Being A Wallflower (which i’ve only just recently finished reading- i’ve got too much free time/sick days on my hands at the moment) are examples of where i’ve read the books, after the film and i’ve felt that they complimented each other beautifully which I feel an adaptation should do. Atonement is also the perfect example of that, cannot express how many times i’ve read/watched the film simultaneously.

    I’ve yet to read/watch Hunger Games.. Might switch it up and read the books beforehand

    Great post! x

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