Book/movie, chicken/egg…the “which comes first?” quandary

Bookworms Carnival #23, “Books to Movies,” is currently posted at The Bluestocking Society. In addition to links to posts about books into movies, movies into books, books about movies, etc., Jessica poses a question: Do you prefer to read the book first or see the movie first?

My short answer: I’m not a stickler either way. There are some cases where I planned to see the movie version but wasn’t all that interested in the book, and the movie made me want to go back and read the book anyway. Sometimes I like the movie better – or in the case of The Lord of the Rings, the movies, despite the heresy of that position. Sometimes I still prefer the book, in part because of the parts that don’t make it into the movie. Sometimes I will dread the movie adaptation of a book I loved and be won over despite myself, as happened with Wonder Boys. Sometimes seeing a favorite book turned into a movie actually helps me visualize parts of the story that I had trouble imagining on my own. Sometimes I didn’t even realize a movie was based on a book, and if I liked the film, I’ve found something new I want to read.

I think one thing that factors into how one answers this question is one’s feelings about “spoilers” – how adamant one is about not wanting to know about the story in advance. That used to bother me, but it hasn’t for awhile, especially since we began recording TV shows on our DVR to watch later; I still read the online recaps even if I haven’t seen the episode yet. I like seeing how it plays out even if I already know what happens, and since some of my favorite shows, like Lost and Life on Mars, have complicated plotlines, it actually helps me to have some advance intel.

For me, though, I think the bigger factor is seeing “the book” and “the movie” as related but different, and taking each on its own merits. In a Sunday Salon post earlier this week, Literary Feline talked about how reading, and falling in love with, the novel The Princess Bride made her appreciate the movie – which she had seen numerous times before she got around to reading the book, by the way – more. I saw the movie first too, and I’ll always love it more than the book, but I appreciate them both as the separate works they are. Especially when the movie is “based on” or “inspired by” a book rather than “adapted for the screen,” I think holding it apart from the source material probably causes a lot less frustration over what the movie “got wrong.”

This is actually a topic that comes up pretty often around our house. My stepchildren’s mother has a rule that the kids cannot see a movie based on a book unless they have read the book first, and it’s a rule that has to be followed in both households. As a mother and a reader, I understand this thinking – the main concern is that the kids will feel like they already know the story and won’t want to read the book, and we don’t want to discourage reading – but I don’t really agree, and their father agrees even less. The kids in this case are already readers, and we don’t think they’ll start ignoring books.

On the other hand, we wonder if making the book a prerequisite to seeing the movie has taken some of the fun out of reading, or pushed them to read books they weren’t ready for just because they wanted to see the movie. Our nine-year-old has already read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on his own so that he’d be permitted to watch the movie – and not to take away from that accomplishment, but I don’t think that the material in the later Harry Potter books or movies is really appropriate for kids that young. Still, “first the book, then the movie” will probably be a fact of life for him and his sister for a while longer, which means he’s still got at least a year to read The Hobbit before that movie comes out.

As long as I get something enjoyable or interesting out of each, it doesn’t really matter to me whether I read the book or see the movie first. What do you think – book first, movie first, or do you just want to be entertained?

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,358 other subscribers


  1. I’m just looking for entertainment, usually. In some cases, the movie completely overrides the book for me (I’ve seen Anne of Green Gables too many times to ever read it without seeing the movie in my head), but others remain pristine (like Harry Potter).

  2. Generally, I prefer to read the book first. If I’ve seen the movie, I’m probably not going to read the book, especially considering the size of my TBR pile! With my daughter, I try to get her to read the books first.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  3. Janssen – I used to be much more of a stickler, but I think I’ve come around to that viewpoint now myself. However, I do visualize the Harry Potter books based on the movies now :-).

    Anna – If I see the movie first, wanting to read the book afterward depends on how much the story grabs me. Also, I need to be able to find a copy of the book that doesn’t have a movie tie-in cover :-D!

  4. I like to read the book first, too. In fact, I was just in my local Half Price Book store today and grabbed a paperback of The Reader because I want to read it before seeing the film. Great topic!

  5. I always read the book first if I ever intend to read it. I hate reading with visuals from the movie stuck in my head, instead of the descriptions from the book. I’ve been talking on my blog about movies that are better than the book. Which ones have you liked better?

  6. I used to be a purist. But then I saw The Butterfly and the Diving Bell and so loved that movie that I rushed toward the book, which was glorious and deeply moving, too. Both works of art stand entirely on their own, but it was by watching the movie first that I was given the gift of the desire to read the book.

  7. Karen – I don’t actually want to read that one, which is probably one reason I’m not planning to see the movie either (despite Kate Winslet’s award-winning performance, and I do like her generally). But if I did see and like the movie, I’d probably go back and read the book too.

    Magpie – Well, that makes it easy then, doesn’t it :-)? Truthfully, it’s probably the book most of the time for me too.

    Belle of the Books – I actually don’t mind having the movie’s imagery in my mind’s eye while I’m reading the book.

    My favorite personal example of “movie I liked better than the book” is definitely the Lord of the Rings trilogy – I got bogged down with the books, but I LOVE the films.

    Beth – I’m so glad you said that; I’ve had similar experiences. I’m much less of a stickler than I used to be about “book first.” As you note, both books and movies have their own merits as forms of art and storytelling.

  8. Generally, I want to read the book first. On the other hand, there have been many movies that I’ve seen and never read the book it was based on. In those cases I don’t go back and read it.Like you said, I think it’s because of spoilers. I don’t like them at all. My wife has learned not to tell me anything about a show we are watching.

  9. Mike – You make a good point: many movies are based on books that people either are unfamiliar with (because they weren’t bestsellers) or don’t even know about, and then it’s not usually a question about whether to see or read first.

    I think you’ve mentioned your spoilerphobia before. My husband is the same way – I can’t say anything about those Lost recaps I read :-).

  10. This won’t add much to the discussion, but my answer to these Qs is always ‘it depends.’ Sometimes, the time between reading the book and seeing the movie is important. For example, I read The Reader YEARS ago and loved it a lot and have yet to see the movie but will be excited when it’s released to DVD. But for LOTR, I rushed to read them as soon as I heard about the filming. It was the push I needed to tackle it. I can’t say I like either more than the other. Sometimes, I am fascinated by the process of how a film crew can tackle the source material and what it takes to put anything on screen – my favorite example of that is No Country For Old Men. The book is a lot of philosophy and thoughts of the sheriff. I love both book and movie; I read it first, and was so curious how the Coens were going to do it.

  11. In the past I’d say book before movie, obviously, but more recently I’ve started to rethink that, in part because I liked Stardust as a movie better than I liked Stardust as a book, and at first I could not figure out why! But, I think what it comes down to for me is how well the story is told — given the medium a creator (author or director) is working with, how well do they tell a good story? The book Stardust is a good story, but the movie does a nice job of fleshing out characters and making the story a little more nuanced, which I appreciated. So, I guess I’m an “it depends” and I’m just happy to be entertained.


  12. Care – I finally went back to the LotR books not long before The Return of the King movie came out; as you say, that was the push I needed. I had read the first two books twenty years earlier, but stalled 1/3 into RotK and never went back until I felt like I needed to be “ready” for the film. I still like the movies better in this case, though :-), and I very much agree with you that “it depends.”

    Kim – I thought your combined review of the book AND movie High Fidelity made some very good points about this debate, too. And it’s true that different media may lend themselves to different storytelling methods, and each has its strengths.

  13. I’m with you, I go either way on this one. Usually I’d say that I’d watch the movie first. Only because if I read the book than I’m expecting something with the movie and it hardly lives up to it. If I watch the movie first then at least I’ll have enjoyed the movie for itself. Then I’ll read the book and enjoy it more because I usually find the book is better. The spoiler thing doesn’t really bother me too much because I like my books to be more character driven rather than plot.

  14. Michelle – I agree. I think there’s definitely more to the book, in any case, almost every time. Some elements of literature just don’t translate well to film. But having seen the movie first, I don’t mind knowing the basic story.