Have you ever been involved in a conversation about a particular movie with a group of friends, when that one friend inevitably posits, “the book was better than the movie,” or “well, see, in the book…,” or, possibly the worst of all, “have you read the book”? If you’re an avid reader maybe you have read the book, but it’s more likely that you’ve only seen the movie and must therefore capitulate to the friend with the almighty book knowledge; but what’s the deal with that? Is the book always better than the movie? It seems like that’s always the case, but if you’ve read the title of this post then you know my possibly controversial stance on the issue. I’ll even agree that most of the time the book is better, but not always.
I recently picked up a book copy of The Prestige, Christopher Priest’s fantasy novel about two feuding magicians at the turn of the 20th century. The book was made into a film in 2006 by acclaimed filmmaker Christopher Nolan, and holds an 8.5/10 ranking on IMDb.com, as well as the prestigious (see what I did there?) honor of being “Certified Fresh” by RottenTomatoes.com. While in theaters, this movie went under the radar for me but when it was initially released on DVD I picked up a copy. It has since become one of my favorite movies, so when I decided to read the book I was hopeful that it would enrich my enjoyment of the film. However, the book emphasized different themes than the movie and had an altogether different tone and form of storytelling — this is not my complaint, but it is worth noting.
Ultimately, the book was less than the sum of its parts; it told its story mostly through the diaries of the two main characters. It’s an interesting approach but it separates two sides of the same events by sometimes more than a hundred pages and in some instances can invoke confused back-and-forth page flipping. The movie version of The Prestige excels by intertwining the viewpoints of both characters into a single narrative causing the “big reveal” at the end to be effectively shocking, whereas the book splits the “reveals” between the two characters in a segmented and less graceful fashion. The book is actually quite enjoyable and stylistically is written quite well, but in what seems a practically impossible task, it serves as a rough sketch of story and characters for the movie version to distill and refine into masterpiece.
Lest you think me a bibliophobe, I have to say that McCarthy’s The Road is a much better read than the movie is to watch. The film serves as a good facsimile but with so much of The Road’s substance being in the prose, the book easily overshadows the film version. To my original point however, Palahniuk has said that he thinks Fight Club was improved by David Fincher, and having read the book (once) and seen the film (several hundred times), I’m inclined to agree. And then sometimes, going back to Cormac McCarthy, you get a book like No Country For Old Men, adapted to film by the genius Coen brothers, and the book and film versions are both so good that they are virtually equals in their respective medium. You just have to know that films and books are both equally valid forms of art, and comparing them can sometimes be like comparing apples to oranges.
I say reject the notion that books always possess intellectual superiority over films, but know that there’s a good reason that mindset exists. So the next time that friend tells you “the book was better than the movie” know that it really depends on which book and movie, and consider that each is its own iteration of the same story.