Reading v. Watching

If you could only have books or movies in your life, which would you choose?

My answer has changed over time. Before middle school, I’d have answered movies. Now, I weep for the Bravehearts and the Good Will Huntings I’m giving up by going with books over films.

There are many reasons for this change.

  • My love of the English language. I love words and syllables and sentences and stanzas. Stringing letters together in new ways to affect people in the deepest recesses of their hearts and minds—that’s my favorite thing (apart from being affected in this way myself.) The only language you really get in most films is in the dialogue. Often the best parts of books take place outside of conversations. Because there is more language in a book than there is in a movie, books take the cake here.
  • Characterization. No offense to Johnny Depp, but Gene Wilder is irrevocably Willy Wonka in my mind, just as Anthony Hopkins is Hannibal Lecter. There are a handful of other movie characters for me like this. Rupert Grint, though, as funny as he is, does not hold a candle to JK Rowling’s Ron Weasley. I build that character in my head as I read; I’m sitting in the director’s chair, and the manifestation of Ron that lives in me is different from everyone else’s on the planet. It’s a funny little paradox. The characters are often more fleshed out in books than they are in movies (at least internally), yet the nature of books also leaves more to the imagination. I can mentally paint whatever grin or grimace I wish on Ron’s face when he delivers a line in the book; I quite obviously can’t do this when I watch the films. Chalk another one up for books.
  • Plot. You lose so much when you cut hundreds of pages down into a 90-minute film. Just this year I’ve seen two independent films based on Philip Roth novels, Indignation and American Pastoral. I’ve never read the former, but I’ve read the latter. The movie is not very like the book at all, to the point that it’s offputting. I don’t believe the director or the studio has some intrinsic responsibility to the source material. That belief notwithstanding, these films simply were not very good. Some books are best left unadapted, I guess. Back to my Harry Potter example. The fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is my favorite of the series (for a long time it was my favorite movie in the series as well). There is no mention of Dobby or Ludo Bagman or Winky or S.P.E.W. in the movie. The Harry-Ron rift is heart-wrenching to me when I read, lukewarm when I watch. There are so many other tiny details that make reading more enjoyable than watching.

I was taught that there are three basic elements of fiction: language, characterization, and narration (plot). Those are the three criteria I used just now to defend my choosing books over movies. I will admit there is some synergy that exists in the realm of cinema. For a book to be shredded, have half its pages—sometimes more—tossed out, and be spliced together again by dozens of people, each with clashing opinions about what it should be, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the silver screen version of every book blew chunks. This fact makes it all the more amazing when an adapted screenplay turns into a great piece of art, greater even than the source material. The Godfather is one of these examples. That book is fantastic, but the movie is just better. In the vast majority of cases, though, books are better than movies. To read a book is to have a waking dream. Movies are someone else’s dream, and they don’t ever change. A book changes every time you read it. I wouldn’t give up reading books for all the movies in the world. Good thing the question is hypothetical.

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