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Books before Movies, Movies before Books, and other Not-So-Important Dilemmas

A few weeks ago I finally watched the first Lord of the Rings movie. Yes, thirteen years is a long time to avoid a well-respected cultural touchstone of cinema, based on a cultural touchstone of literature. I understand that. But you know… elves. Trolls. Orcs. Dragons. Three hour movies about elves and trolls and orcs and dragons.

But also, I wanted to read the book first. I always want to read the book first. My reasoning has always been that I would prefer to meet characters in their primary setting – between two book covers. Through my actions, I make a fairly unsupportable assumption that books are always better than their adaptations. But I don’t even think I believe that. I think I just like the scramble – quick! Find the book and finish it before we go! And probably more importantly, the ritual strokes my literary-ego. I am a person who chooses books before movies. Please, everyone line up to admire my giant brain.

Book-Before-Movie feels virtuous but does not always result in a more enjoyable reading/ watching experience. Re-reading a favorite just before taking in a film adaptation can be especially hazardous. I watched the first Hunger Games movie with a friend who had just finished a re-read; we all agreed it was a great film and a great adaptation, but my friend had a laundry list of “well, they skipped THAT part and changed THIS part” to discuss as well. I re-read Perks of Being a Wallflower before watching the movie and felt the same way, but also felt like there was something different, something so good about the book that wasn’t in the story but in the narrative. Something that didn’t translate to the screen – maybe something that couldn’t.

Then there is the Lord of the Rings dilemma. Over thirteen years, I told plenty of people that I was planning on reading the books. But I wasn’t going to read them. I didn’t really read fantasy. I was in grad school. I was always going to read something else instead. It wasn’t going to happen. It hasn’t happened. Stalemate.

But what really tipped me over was my experience with Game of Thrones. I chose to watch the show because I was coming around to fantasy, because I wanted to watch a show with The Boy, and because everyone on the planet was obsessed. I didn’t feel a need to read the books before I watched because I didn’t even know if I would like the book. Lord of the Rings was a classic. A Song of Ice and Fire was thousands and thousands of pages long.

Anyway, you are all well-aware that I loved the show and launched quickly into the books. And while I read it was fairly clear that if I had come to this book cold I never would have made it through the first few chapters. There is just too much going on and too many characters. Watching the show gave me a leg-up, and then reading while I read helped me understand some of the more subtle scenes in the show. Some folks make the argument for Book First because you get the pleasure of imagining characters on your own, without input. But when a movie or show is cast as well as Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, then I don’t mind. My endearment to the characters of Westeros made the books worth the effort.

And I never would have read the books if I hadn’t watched the show. I could have gone to my grave Jon Snow-less, Rob Stark-less, Tyrion Lannister-less. Stalemate broken.

In conclusion, I have spent 500+ words on an issue of little or no importance. Read before you watch, watch before you read, do what you like, do what you do. But if you’re spending decades of your life making excuses for reading a book or watching a movie, you should probably just do what you have to do. You’re not getting any younger, you know.

P.S. My extreme LoTR avoidance also allowed me the very rare pleasure of meeting Boromir for the first time, screaming “NED STAAAAAARK!!!” into the small space of my living room, The Boy laughing at my inverted cultural priorities over the last 13 years.

P.P.S. Now, next time I go home to Michigan, I can play Lego Lord of the Rings with my sisters. I am excited. This is a very legitimate reason for an adult woman to be excited. I promise.


  1. Amanda says:

    With the exception of Silver Linings Playbook last year, I’ve always read the book first. I definitely agree that books are a better medium for imagining characters and settings, and usually there’s a lot more detail, which I appreciate. But I’m biased because I love books in general more than movies. Also, when I stop reading in the middle of a chapter to gasp, look back at a previous chapter, rant, etc. it’s a little odd but not too disruptive to other people. But I do the same when I’m watching movies (I try to say “pause” first!), and after the fourth or fifth time, no one really appreciates me chiming in any more (except my family, who all act the same way – I don’t think we could even sit through a 5 minute SNL short without commenting). And . . now I’m rambling. So, yes, I like books first – no logical reason needed 🙂

  2. SB says:

    All caps because I mean it with all my heart: THIS IS A VERY IMPORTANT TOPIC. It can be really hard to read the book before the movie! For so many reasons. And I always want to read the book beforehand, but for some books, it’s going to be a while (decades?) before I get to it. I spend lots (LOTS) of time trying to decide if I want to “sacrifice” my reading experience by seeing the movie first. Am contemplating seeing The Monuments Men in the theater, which means not reading the book beforehand. GASP. In this case, I think it’s probably okay because I have a good idea what the ending will be. Over-thinker-book-readers, unite!

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