Are books always better than films?

The Damned United Film and Book Covers

The Damned United, but which is better the film or the book?

As a teacher I always come across students stating that they would rather watch a film than read a book, as books are boring! This is particularly evident when films are made about books. I often hear the phrase, ‘why are you reading the book when you could watch the film?’ Whilst I am concerned with pupils literary ambition I also feel sorry for them as they are missing out on one of the strangest phenomena in the world of entertainment, the fact the book is always better than the film. I have read many books and watched the film adaptations (Lord of the Rings, The Damned United, Oliver Twist, Dracula…..the list goes on) and all have been better in literary form. But is that always the case? I used to think that the only exception to the rule was the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but now I am not so sure. Not because I have found any others but because, as explained in a previous post, coming back to Lord of the Rings as what I define as being a mature reader, the book is on par if not better than the film. This idea of the book being better that the film reared its head again recently as I have been reading The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. The film was another one of those good because I wasn’t expecting much ones and I only watched it as my wife wanted to see it after she read the book. It was quite simply fantastic. After getting into a slight World War 2 mood I thought I would pick up the book knowing it would be a good read but being sceptical as I was told it is a children’s book, in my opinion it is not but I will talk about that in a later post. What it did do was make me think about why books seem to be better. In conversation with a librarian at school they stated that in a film you are hemmed in to the director’s/producer’s ideals where as in a book you can decide what things look like and how things are. However, I personally have thought of characters, objects and architecture looking one way in a book then later descriptions change that and sometimes this can get frustrating. Therefore, I do not think this is the reason at all. I do think, however, it may be why children do not like reading over movies. You don’t need to be as creative or develop your own vision of events. Although I do think you can get closer to a book as your own subjectivities shape the way it looks and feels and this makes it a much more personal endeavour. My view is that it is the character’s inner monologues that make a book so much better. I think I can explain this in three distinct examples. Firstly, Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett. I watched the cartoon version of the fantastic Discworld tale a long time ago and was struck by a part where Magrat is flying on her broom. In the book you hear about her fears and worries, in the cartoon they cut it out for time and it does not really concern the flow of the piece. However you lose a distinct part of the character, a part that fleshes her out and makes her more human. The second example is from Dracula. One of my favourite parts of any book are the first few chapters where Jonathon Harker is stuck in Dracula’s Castle. This is the quick start to any movie but in the book the tension is built up and you hear everything from his perspective. He is so naive and you learn slowly but surely what is going on as it dawns on him. Certain things you see in a movie about Dracula you see differently in the book as it is through his eyes you see them and thus the full description is not always there or tinted by what he thinks is going on. Finally I wish to return to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. It centres around Bruno moving from Berlin to a concentration camp but the whole story is written in childish language and, despite being 3rd person, is from his point of view. He says and does things which make you realise he does not fully understand but it is that the way the story is explained that makes it seem like something completely different is happening. As a reader you know exactly what is going on but are subtlety shown the workings of a nine-year old boy’s mind and start to understand how he can be so wrong. These things are harder to show in a movie without a voice over that can make it all seem a little too The Wonder Years. My reason for books being better is therefore the characterisation, the understanding of the way characters feel and think and why they do what they do. You can see the world through their eyes, where as in a film you are watching as a 3rd person and your own personality gets in the way of who they are. In a book you might not agree with what someone is doing, you may think they are native or even stupid but at least, if it is well written, you know why they are doing it. If there are films out there that are better than the book version I am yet to find them.


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