Is the book better than the movie?

Leila Raines/The Miscellany News.

Is the book better than the movie? 

This age-old question continues to persist as more books and written texts are translated onto the big screen. As a book-loving English major, my knee-jerk reaction is to always assert that the book is better than the movie. For me, reading has always been centered around my own imagination and interpretations. The images presented in written text have given me more agency in constructing the visuals for myself. And a lot of times, if a book I am reading has a movie adaptation already released, I have the most productive reading experience when I read the book before watching the movie, or else I approach the book with the specific images instilled in me from the movie.

A lot of book-to-movie adaptations that miss their mark usually prioritize trends that producers will think will make them the most money as opposed to the fans at the heart of the work being adapted. While many of the movies that flooded the YA fiction trend of the 2010s were disappointing, the one film franchise that proved the most disappointing was the “Percy Jackson” adaptation. I approached the 2010 “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” adaptation having grown up reading the beloved book series, which already set my expectations too high for the film, especially as it followed in the footsteps of the ever-successful “Harry Potter” film series, a similar fantasy middle-grade series. However, looking past the unrealistically high expectations set by my nine-year-old self, many of the decisions that the creators of the first “Percy Jackson” adaptation made ultimately resulted in the film’s downfall. For example, the characters in the movie were aged up; in the original series, the titular protagonist Percy was 12 years old, adding to the childhood charm of the book series, as readers got to see the characters grow into adolescence and young adulthood. However, the movie version of Percy is 16 years old, presumably to better appeal to a teen audience, as the author of the original series Rick Riordan—who famously criticized the film adaptations of his series—elaborated in a note he wrote to producers back in 2009. As Riordan expressed, aging up the characters felt like a complete departure from the core essence of the series, which was centered around the adventures of a young kid who matures into his power.

A more recent example: the 2022 adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion.” After witnessing many disappointing book-to-movie adaptations that have let me down time and time again, I went in with very low expectations, which surprised me, considering my love for Austen’s novels. And while I definitely enjoyed it more than I thought I would, there are many elements of this new version of the much-cherished Austen novel that definitely relate to these broader discussions on the role of the audience and the fanbase in the production of these adaptations. Austen lived and wrote in the early 19th century and her writing expertly navigates and plays with the conventions and customs of this time period. So, Netflix’s attempts to modernize often fell flat throughout the adaptation. The inclusion of 21st-century, Gen Z terms and phrases like “ex” or “he’s a 10” felt distanced from Austen’s period, completely overpowering the subtle, clever nuances of Austen’s story. I often wondered as I was watching the film: Would I have enjoyed this more if I hadn’t read the book and didn’t have such a heightened understanding of the world of Austen’s literature?

This is not to say that book-to-movie adaptations are essentially bad, or even that films in general are inferior to books. There have been numerous great book-to-movie adaptations. For example, Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of “Little Women” not only excels in cinematography, but Gerwig brilliantly incorporates context surrounding the book and the author, Louisa May Alcott, into the film, particularly in regard to the ending. As Camille Canti explains in her introduction to the Barnes & Noble edition of “Little Women,” after the initial publication of the first part of the book, many readers at the time pushed for all of the women, including Jo, to marry. And while Alcott doesn’t have her protagonist marry readers’ first choice—Laurie—Jo still marries nonetheless, despite her resistance to marriage throughout the majority of the book. However, instead of adhering strictly to the plot of the original novel, Gerwig creatively reimagines the ending of her own adaptation of the story, flipping back and forth between the romanticized ending that Alcott had originally written—Jo’s marriage to Mr. Bhaer—and an ending that adhered more to Alcott’s own biography, with Jo meeting with a publisher over the draft of her novel and debating about the ending of that story, with the publisher pushing for Jo’s character to marry. Thus, Gerwig preserves the published ending of “Little Women” while also expanding upon it, capturing the deeper narrative underlying the surface of Alcott’s original novel. However, this artistic move would not have held as much significance, or even happened at all, without these literary complexities grounded within the creation of the original text.

Of course, there are many other notable book-to-movie adaptations; some of my favorites include “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” the first two installments of “The Hunger Games” film series and the 2005 adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice.” And sometimes, especially with more difficult texts that are harder to read (cough cough, Shakespeare), watching the movie becomes more insightful than trying to parse through 16th-century English.

But a lot of book-to-movie adaptations respond to a strong appraisal from an audience of readers; people obviously have read and enjoy these books, and studios create these movies in order to continue feeding off of this fanbase. And while the overarching question—“Is the book better than the movie?”—exists in a larger discussion on the continuing pattern of remaking fan-favorite stories (e.g. live-action remakes of old Disney animations), it continues to reveal what needs to be at the core of these adaptation projects: the readers and their experiences reading the book.

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