This post was originally going to be just a straight reaction to the fifth Harry Potter film but as I began drafting a lot of my ideas/responses, I found my words gradually veering into a treatise on our tendency to compare movies with the books on which they are based and why I find that to be such an empty endeavor that ultimately does a disservice to both. So I decided to go ahead and "bite the bullet" and just put down my thoughts on that subject.
About ten minutes into Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (the fourth entry in the series), Harry and his friends attend the 422nd Quidditch World Cup. The movie then immediately cut to afterwards and I remember at that moment sitting in the theatre overhearing a teenage girl in the row behind me whisper to her companion: "Oh man. They didn't show the game." Two things crossed my mind at that point. 1) "Oh no. Unlike me, these girls have actually read the book and I'm gonna have to endure the entire movie listening to them whine about how it's different" (which, thankfully, didn't happen), and 2) "I am so glad I don't read these books before I see these movies." I mention this anecdote only because this Friday I went to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and heard two girls (for all I know it could've been the same pair) whispering behind me at a certain juncture in the film. I couldn't hear what they were saying but I knew that tone all too well and although I didn't have the first thought this time I did have the second one.
I'm sure you've heard this statement before: "I'll wait for the movie." Oftentimes when one hears it one immediately makes assumptions about the individual who expresses such a sentiment. They must be lazy and/or illiterate Philistines with short attentions spans who don't want to take the time or effort to simply sit down and read something; they'd rather let someone else do the work for them and wait for a movie adaptation to get made. I know I think those things whenever a student comes into the video store asking for John Ford's Grapes of Wrath or Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans, not because they are great movies but because they have a book report due the next day. And yet, as time has gone on I've found myself operating by a mantra that is--if not identical--rather similar to it: "I always wait to read the books until after I've seen the movie." To many this may seems backwards but to me it feels like the most logical approach to take and my reasons are as follows.
One of the things I have observed in numerous conversations with people over the years is that 99% of the time, folks who read the books first are dissatisfied with the movies. This leads me to one of two conclusions: a) moves are always automatically inferior to the books upon which they are based because cinema is an inherently inferior medium to literature or b) something else is going on. Since I absolutely refuse to accept the former, I am forced to go with the latter. So, what else could be going on? Why is it that people seem to always prefer the original books to their movie incarnations? My theory is simply this..... because they read the books first. They imagined what the characters looked like and how they dressed at any given moment, they heard their voices speaking the dialogue recorded by the author, they saw the events described on the page unfolding in their own minds and the filmmakers weren't able to capture what they envisioned in their heads. The objectification of their fantasies on the movie screen fell short, as they had to. They really couldn't do otherwise. Our imaginations are always going to be more wild, more vivid and more personally satisfying than anything any director could ever put on screen.
There is something else at work here too though. By definition, the accumulation of human knowledge is such that we build upon former knowledge. The formation of new ideas and concepts naturally comes from previously held ones. Thus, when we evaluate something we do so on the basis of our earlier experience. We see a Harry Potter story told cinematically and we can't help but analyze it through the "lens" of the book we read, it is the standard by which we judge the movie. Does the movie make us feel the same way the book did? Is our favorite moment from the book present in the movie? These are often the questions we find ourselves asking rather than questions about how well the movie functions in itself . This is why I tend to think people confuse the ideas of a movie being a good adaptation and a good incarnation.
A good adaptation is a something that stays true to the source material, that captures the "essence" of the original story, that maintains the integrity of the characters/events and which satisfied a fan of the book. In other words, that changes as little as possible. A good incarnation, on the other hand, is a movie that works on the basis of its own merits, that does not depend on the book for its good qualities. It may alter the story, characters, structure or details of the original book (either subtly or drastically) but in doing so it creates something wholly original that is quite excellent on its own way. I think these are significant distinctions to make because a film can be a great adaptation and a lousy movie. Likewise, it can also be a lousy adaptation and a great movie. Is it possible to be both? Sure, but it is rare (the BBC Pride and Prejudice mini-series being, in my mind, one of the few examples). What is unfortunately not nearly as rare, though, are movies that totally suck as both. I gave up a long time ago comparing books with movies, but sometimes it just can't be helped. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is one of the greatest books I've ever read and Roland Joffe's movie is one of the worst films I've ever seen. It was not only a lousy adaptation, it was a lousy movie.
Buried at the back of this conversation regarding books and movies is, I think, an unfortunate prejudice that seems to peek its head out occasionally. If a person is obsessed with movies to the point that their knowledge is encyclopedic, they are called "geeks" and looked on with pity or told they need to get a life. If a person is obsessed with books such that their knowledge is encyclopedic, they're called "educated" and made into college professors. Is this fair? I don't think so, but it's a reality. Literature is still esteemed as a higher, purer form of art and communication than cinema is. It's sad but true. The written word has been around for thousands of years while the moving image has only been around for about a hundred, so it's had a bit more time to get a reputation and gain a following.
At this point I should probably confess my own prejudices on the subject. I am not much of a reader, or at least not as much as I would like to be. Despite attending a liberal arts college where I spent four years reading the greatest books ever written, I am (and always have been) a more audio/visual person. It's just the way I'm oriented. I watch far more movies than I read books (although I am currently reading a fascinating book on Michael Eisner and his tenure at the Disney company; it may prove to be the subject of a future post) and as such I know more about movies and I prefer movies. However, I would NEVER say that movies are "better" than books. I may happen to like movies more but to say that they are inherently superior to books is absurd (although I know there are people who believe books are inherently better than movies). Books and movies are two completely different art forms with their own unique rules, conventions, language forms, etc. They both have strengths and weaknesses. One is no better than the other any more than photography is superior to painting, or sketching is inferior to sculpture.
This brings me to a rather important point. Since cinema and literature are such radically different art forms, why do we feel the need to compare the two? People don't often compare a work of sculpture with a painting, do they? Normally not, because they realize the criteria for evaluating the two is so different that such an enterprise would be futile. Especially since--and I firmly believe this--the qualities that make a work of art truly great (i.e. brilliant, timeless, etc) are going to be unique unto the format in which that work of art is created. I have long been convinced of this. The things that make any book a masterpiece have to be elements that are specific to writing. Same with movies. This is why, I think, no truly great book (Crime and Punishment, Les Miserables, The Sun Also Rises) will ever be a truly great movie. They might become decent, perhaps even good, movies but they will not be great. They can't be. Crime and Punishment was meant to be a book. The written word was the medium in which that particular story was meant to be told. Dostoyevsky knew it and that's why there will never be a definitive movie version.
Some people might argue that there are glaring exceptions to this. Grapes of Wrath, Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird are all hailed as great books and their corresponding movie versions also seem to be great as well. How do I account for this? Well, firstly I have to acknowledge the possibility that such critics are correct and that these films are indeed exceptions to the rule... but they are rare. Secondly, I have to propose the possibility that in any or all of these cases, either the original book or the movie adaptation is not truly great. In fact, one of the things that I have often wondered about To Kill a Mockingbird (one of my favorite films) is whether or not it is a truly great film or whether it's source material was simply so excellent that even a decent adaptation couldn't help turning out quite good. In other words, did the greatness of the book simply "rub off" on the movie. I still haven't made up my mind about that (it should be noted that I saw the movie before reading the book).
Consider for a second what it would be like going the other way. A phenomenon that has long been in practice (although Woody Allen's character in Manhattan "can't comprehend it") is movie novelizations. I used to collect a number of these when I was younger and sometimes, on rare occasions, they lent some insight into the film that I wouldn't have gotten otherwise. Usually, though, they were redundant. Plus, none of the novelizations I ever read were for great films. I don't even know what such a thing would look like. (Citizen Kane: the novel?) No, it seems to me that great films don't make great books either. I do think, however, that mediocre books, supermarket trash novels, short stories or novellas usually serve as better source material, because a potboiler or short story usually has a "germ" of an idea but doesn't utilize it as well as a movie could. In a movie, a premise with promise can be expanded on, developed and enhanced rather than having to be condensed, simplified and composited as films tend to have to do with large books. Some of the best films I've ever seen (The Godfather, Jaws, The Shawshank Redemption, Psycho, Schindler's List ) all came from books/novellas but they were (at best) pretty good. Yet they made for great films... not least of all because the filmmakers made changes. In all of these cases people who might've simply wanted "the book with pictures" would've been sorely disappointed. What they got instead, however, were films that retained what worked about the original incarnations and added elements of their own that elevated the material. These filmmakers understood that creating a great final product was preferable to simply doing a faithful adaptation. William Goldman (who is both and author and a screenwriter) understood this as well when he said "In adaptation, you have to change things. In any adaptation you simply must." In the changing, these movies ended up being better movies than the books were books (notice I did not say that the movies were "better than the books," that's a whole different statement).
So, what purpose are we really serving when we pull completely different entities out on the table and try to determine which is "better?" My opinion is that we are ultimately serving no purpose whatsoever. For some reason we are creatures that just like to compare things. It satisfies a rather juvenile tendency that goes back to our childhoods ("Who's better: Spider-man or Batman?"). Sometimes the comparisons might be based on some sort of miniscule connection between them but oftentimes it's pretty arbitrary. Forget apples and oranges. One might as well compare apples and rocks. I long for the day when people are finally going to be able to say: "You know what? The book and the movie are both good in their own unique ways. It's not that one is necessarily better than the other, they're just different." No more comparing, no more contrasting, no ranking... we approach things individually take things on their own merits (or lack thereof) not on the basis of something else which may (or may not) be connected to it but in a tenuous way.
This is why I choose to see the movies before I read the books. Not because I am lazy, not because I am illiterate and not because I think movies are always "better" than books, but because I want to be as open as possible to where the movie will take me, to have as few expectations for the experience the film will provide, to be able to see the flaws contained therein without having a "manual" to refer to in order to make them clear to me. I went into it Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix knowing extremely little about what would happen (aside from the death of a major character which is pretty hard not to know about, even if you haven't read the book). Consequently, I didn't have anything to compare it to other than the previous Harry Potter movies. I still haven't read any of the books other than the first one (which I did so after seeing the movie naturally). Many of the reviews I've read from these films mention differences from the books, differences which were lost on me. However, judging it simply on the basis of being a good movies, I thought it worked quite well (arguably the best one so far), though I have no idea how good it was as an adaptation.
I find that in following this pattern it is much easier for me to enjoy the movie for what it is and then, if I think it's worth it, to read the book afterward and discover some of the subtleties that had to be cut from the movie for whatever reason (time, simplicity, etc). One thing that is certainly true is that books are able to contain more information than a movie can. Again, in some people's minds this makes them "better" but, as I said, I think this just makes them different. So, while I'm not ready yet to call a ban on reading all books before seeing their movie counterparts, I would recommend people try as best they can to stop using the books as criteria in evaluating the movies. If you avid readers and filmgoers are able to be objective enough in your analysis of any given film to not use its original book as part of your "measuring stick" but simply try to determine whether the movie is good as a movie, then I implore you to do so... whatever it might entail (for me it entails watching the movie first). Try writing a review that doesn't even mention the book. It may be difficult--perhaps even impossible--but it is worth trying and, frankly, it has to happen if film criticism is ever going to achieve the stature I think it deserves, which is one equal to (but different from) literary criticism. No more cries of "the book was better" or even, as can be occasionally heard, "the movie was better." Books and movies ought not be competitors and they should never have been pitted against one another in the first place. They are two excellent art forms that each have their own place in our world. They're not enemies... and they never were.