Well, almost universally.
Goodreads users put together a list of more than a thousand books that are better than the film adaptation—their top picks include the Harry Potter books, The Da Vinci Code, and Twilight—while over at Total Film the team compiled fifty films that blew the book out of the water. Before we end up in a Jets-versus-Sharks dance battle, let’s settle this debate once and for all.
If you read the book first, you’re almost certainly going to prefer it to the film. Books and films are, of course, very different mediums. They use different tools to tell stories—even when they’re the same stories—and judging one against the other is less like comparing apples to oranges, and more like comparing apples to banjos. Films are limited by budget, run time, and special effects technology, while books are limited only by the imaginations of the author and reader.
“Ask any reader who has seen the movie version of a favorite novel, and the answer will usually be, ‘The book was better.’ That's because readers of a novel have already made their own perfect movie version. They have visualized it, fleshed out the locations and set the pace,” writes Fantasy Author Lev Grossman and others for Time Magazine. We’re almost inevitably disappointed by the choices the filmmakers make: That’s not exactly how we pictured Edward, and we definitely thought Peeta would be taller.
If a director changes too much in an adaptation of a book, fans will riot. For example, thousands of readers protested when scruffy blond actor Charlie Hunnam was cast as the lead in 50 Shades of Grey, and he later backed out due to “scheduling conflicts.”
If, on the other hand, a director follows the book too faithfully, it probably won’t be a very good film. Very few movies manage to strike the right balance. Consider the first two Harry Potter films, both directed by Chris Columbus, which attempt to recreate the books as closely as possible. In an interview with Empire Magazine, Columbus recalled how difficult it was to please both die-hard fans of the books and newcomers to the story: “I loved the book so much that it was extremely difficult to cut elements out. One of my favourite characters never made the film – Peeves, the annoying, sort of, mischievous poltergeist. Those sorts of things, there was just too much to film.”
Despite cutting nearly an hour of footage, The Sorcerer’s Stone was still criticized for its plodding pace and by-the-book direction. Elvis Mitchell’s review of the film for The New York Times described it as having “a dreary, literal-minded competence, following the letter of the law as laid down by the author.”
In any bestselling book franchise, whether it’s Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, or 50 Shades of Grey, millions of readers have already journeyed with the characters for hundreds of pages. As Rich Santos puts it for the Barnes and Noble blog, “500 different readers of the same book may have 500 different ideas of a character’s appearance.” You can get lost in a good book for hours on end, living whole other lives and exploring imaginary worlds. Books are immersive in a way that movies will never be, despite the incredible visuals and talented actors involved. A teen critic for The Guardian said it best: “Books are magic.”
At Grammarly, we’re dedicated bibliophiles and word nerds, so we might be a little bit biased, but we think that reading is a much more rewarding experience than sitting in front of a screen for two hours. Books require the reader to meet the author halfway; it’s an active experience compared to the passive experience of watching a film. That’s why the movie version will never live up to the book.
Except for The Princess Bride. The book and movie versions of William Goldman’s post-modern fairy tale are both perfect.