Why the book is (almost always) better than the movie

2nd July 2018

Many a good novel is called upon in the making of a movie or TV drama. And folks often get into heated arguments about whether a story they have enjoyed can succeed in becoming a good movie, too. Some even go so far as to contend that the movie can be better.

old movie shot of shocked faces, black and white
“It’s true. The movie can never be better than the book!”
The problem is that a successful film based on a novel invariably has to be shortened and simplified to make it commercially viable. We can spend days - perhaps weeks - reading a good novel. And can sometimes spend just as long thinking about it afterwards. But the movie must be condensed into a couple of hours. Even the plot might be altered along the way.

There’s a great tale about the author John Buchan. During an interval (reel change) at the premier of Hitchcock’s 1935 adaptation of his novel The Thirty-nine Steps, he was quizzed by the famous director about what he thought of the film so far. Buchan - ever the gentleman - replied that it was quite fascinating and that he was looking forward to seeing how it would end.
colourful  movie poster from 1935 showing man woman and action packed background
1935 movie poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s 'The 39 Steps.'

The long-suffering novel

But its not just about what gets abandoned in the process. A novel has one significant advantage over the movie. It is always set within a comfort zone of life-experience of the reader. A magical space where the reader’s imagination is actively engaged all the while. I think this is especially the case with historical fiction. Thus, scientific studies suggest that the reading of novels is demonstrably stimulating for the brain, while watching TV or motion pictures has little or no effect.

Reading has also been shown to lower stress levels. It can enhance our sense of empathy and creativity. Movies cannot achieve this. Some might say quite the reverse.

But Why?

Life experiences

Violence - that mainstay of the movie industry - is a good example of the distinction. When someone reads a novel, any violence encountered is always viewed in the light of their own understanding and expectations. Someone who, fortunately, has never been exposed to too much murder and mayhem will be perfectly at ease with the descriptions of ‘the body’ discovered at the beginning of their favourite cosy mystery novel. But the same individual could be less at ease, in fact possibly quite disturbed, by the gory details of the same scene served up in a movie.
early book cover to Agatha Christie novel, red background, dagger
Everyone dies (well almost everyone). But we don’t really mind.
Conversely, someone with first-hand experience of genuine conflict, might well find some depictions of war in movies to be tame in comparison to their own real-life experiences. But not in the novel. Never in the novel. The reader will only be taken as far as they are able to go. Or, in this instance, as far as the can go.

This is the magic of literature. It is the unique and personal experience of the reader that is being evoked. Movie-goers, on the other hand, will be taken on someone else’s ride from start to finish, channelled into an improbable and artificial universe of experiences that do not belong to them at all.
graphic - grey-scale - of movie reel
“Relax. We’ll do all the thinking for you.”

But what about sex?

Yes, but what about sex, I hear you say - that other great mainstay of the movie industry? Well …. I would suggest that it follows much the same principle. But it’s probably best if you work that out for yourelves. (Now, where did I put that row of asterisks I was using the other day ..?)            
* * * * *
photo, from movie, of therapist and patient on couch
'So … you say you find sex in movies "tame" by comparison to your own experiences? Is that correct?'

But wait! Sometimes the movie really is better

Right, so having just alienated half the regular readers of this blog who love movies, I should perhaps now play Devil’s Advocate and make a case for why the movie can, after all, sometimes be better than the book. It is, of course, in those instances when the book is really not so very great to begin with. And, in the hands of a skilled director, a film adaptation on the big screen can provide us with something that a poorly written novel can never achieve. Movies can be magnificent, beautiful and inspiring, then.

Costume  dramas in particular fit the bill. Many popular writers of historical fiction are indebted to film-makers for filling in the gaps in their descriptive skills. Their readers’ recollections of historical scenes in movies come to the rescue when turning the pages.
movie poster - man and woman dramatic scene
“Abandon those trashy novels at once, my dear! A good movie is far more descriptive and historically authentic.”

What writers of fiction can learn from the cinema

Regarding the craft of writing, there are in fact a whole lot of things that authors can learn from the cinema. The modern novelist has greatly benefited from exposure to the succinct and compact screenplays or a typical on-screen drama. Journalism and the art of précis has, likewise, done much the same for dialogue. We now expect our stories to ‘cut to the chase.’ We expect them to deliver plenty of tension and intrigue from the word go. A far cry from many a 19th century classic.
industrial doorway with sign stating 'Editing Room'
Has anything been lost along the way? Most certainly yes. A lot of the poetry and Romance of fiction has suffered. But much has been gained, too. As writers we should probably be bold enough to seek a compromise between the two extremes.

In conclusion

So … the moral of this story has to be that both are good. The novel and the movie. Each has its place in the world of entertainment. Perhaps we should simply relax and enjoy the differences - which will no doubt continue to throw up surprises and conflicts. And long may it continue.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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