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Read the Book First

by HPR Contributor | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Culture | September 26th, 2018


by Nathan Arel
arel.nathan@hotmail.com

“You have to read the book first.” This phrase is a piece of folk wisdom everyone is familiar with. It’s generally accepted as true and I believe its origin is inherently logical. Many films are based on literature for the simple reason that literature is an older medium. From there, it makes sense that you cannot truly appreciate a retelling of a piece if you haven’t experienced that piece in its original form. Therefore, “You have to read the book first.”

Unfortunately, the attitude surrounding this phrase seems to come from a toxic mentality. The most memorable example I have of this phrase being used was when I told my high school English teacher I had watched “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” She was disappointed that I hadn’t read the book first, apparently because the film wrought havoc on the original novel. Now, I still haven’t read the book, but the movie is a Best Picture winner that is lauded as an masterpiece in American filmmaking, yet I was being told that it was sub par.

I began mulling over this paradox and questioned why, when I could enjoy two pieces of art, the film and the book, I was being told to intentionally experience one first for the express purpose of causing me to hate the other. The phrase seems to have evolved into, “You have to read the book first so that you can hate the movie.”

But this mentality comes from an even deeper cultural mindset than just the quality of specific works. It isn’t that most films are in fact worse than the book, it’s that there is a general misunderstanding about the nature of adaptation and American culture adheres to a hierarchy of mediums. We tend to hold older narrative tools above younger ones. Painting over photography, literature over film, film over video games, and I don’t even think YouTube is considered to have a rung on this ladder yet.

The truth is, film is not beholden to literature. The Harry Potter films are not a “remake” of the books. The Marvel movies do not get some things “wrong.” And no matter how many differences there are between Peter Jackson’s and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” Jackson cannot “betray” the original story. The nature of adaptation is that it attempts to adapt the original, not to copy.

Even though film is a respected art form, since it is a younger medium than literature, it is more often seen as entertainment rather than art. This creates a discrepancy in people’s standards. The existence of this discrepancy is ironically proven by its absence when there are adaptations within the same medium. The American version of “The Office” is well loved and judged on its own merits. No one comments on plot discrepancies or how the tone is wildly different from the original British version. Likewise, while “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is a very lackluster film, many people criticized it for being unrecognizable to the King Arthur legend. Yet no one complains that Marion Zimmer Bradley’s 1983 novel “Mists of Avalon,” doesn’t adhere to the precedent set by Chrétien de Troyes’ 12th century “Arthurian Romances.” Because that would be ridiculous.

The reason why these comparisons between film and literature largely shouldn’t be relevant is specifically because they are wholly different storytelling mediums. Honestly, I have always been one to compare apples to oranges. They are both warm colored fruits that grow on trees. That’s a lot of similarities. And I do think comparing films and novels is valuable. But there is an unrealistic expectation when this comparison manifests itself in a way where the film is obligated to reflect the novel beat by beat. Partly because of the reasons stated above, and partly because these two mediums have completely different narrative tools. In fact, one of the only tools they share in common is dialogue, and even then one must consider the vast interpretive gulf between the written and spoken word. A film can show in a second what a novel takes pages to explain, and a novel can express in explicit detail what a film must subtly evoke through lighting, set dressing, acting and cinematography.

A piece of art should stand on its own. If it is to be compared to outside elements, the comparison should be how it reflects the cultural climate and how it furthers all art as we know it, not its fidelity to an earlier piece. In reflection of this principle, we should be willing to make sacrifices, even if it means the Burrow burns down, Tom Bombadil is absent or Peter Parker wants to disco his way down Fifth Avenue.

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