CliqueClack Flicks

Must you read the book to enjoy the movie?

Book to film adaptations are tricky things. You either love them or hate them. But is a book required reading to enjoy the movie on which it's based?

Book to film adaptations

Have you ever read a real page-turner of a book, or one that was full of deep thinking, or one that just transported you to a different place and time and thought, “Man, I hope they make a movie out of this”? And then Hollywood does make a movie (or TV movie in some cases) from that favorite book and totally screws it up. You’re pissed because someone took everything that made the book great and totally dumbed it down for mass consumption at the box office. But then something odd occurs when you hear people raving about how good the movie is … from people who never read the book. You think they’re crazy and they think you’re just too much of a literary snob. This could all go the other way, too, when you love a movie adaptation of a book that the rest of the world hates or doesn’t understand because they never read the book.

This summer, one of the surprise hits in a season of CGI robots, superheroes and boy wizards was the film adaptation of The Help. With great advance buzz from devotees of the book and a stellar cast, the film was on many a must-see list. The reaction afterwards was curious — people who had never read the book loved the heck out of the movie, while people who knew the book cover-to-cover were disappointed with the oversimplified plot and dramatic shift in tone, making the story more about how the white characters came to the rescue of the black characters. No one disputed the lead actresses talents, but many were left insulted by what the movie had done to the book’s story.

This week saw the DVD and Blu-ray release of the film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged. The film got a very limited theatrical run before being relegated to home video, and the general consensus among the critics was that the movie was just awful (it has a 12% rating on Rotten Tomatoes … and an 80% approval rating from non-critics). Many of these critics, like Roger Ebert, have read the book and found the movie to be a jumbled and confusing mess. I haven’t read the book and I found the film to be dull and boring with not much plot exposition to give a casual viewer any clue as to what was going on. The film was produced on the cheap in about five weeks because the producer had to get something on film or lose the rights, and I felt that had a major impact on a film that should have been much more grand in scale, and much deeper in plot and character development. The reactions to my review have been interesting, with a few people deeming me not qualified to review the movie because I hadn’t read the book. Which brings up the question: Do you have to read a book to enjoy the movie it’s based on? I’ve never read a page of the Lord of the Rings books, but the movies were magnificent because they had the time and money to pour everything that made the books classic into the movie (and purists still cringe at some of the narrative changes, but it’s impossible to adapt a book to film without making changes … what works on the printed page does not always flow the same way in a visual medium). To Kill a Mockingbird is another favorite movie based on a book I’ve not read.  I saw Jaws and read the book afterwards and enjoyed both. On the other hand, I’ve read books that I loved and hated the way the movies turned out (or in the case of Wicked, the way the stage version turned out, altered from a dark, twisted fairytale to something shiny and bright for the masses).

Adapting a book to film is a tricky thing indeed. It’s my opinion that it is the scriptwriter’s job to adapt a book for film in a way that all audiences can appreciate it. Hollywood wants to make money, and they’re not going to do that if their film adaptation caters only to the book reading crowd. Reading a book should not be a prerequisite to see the movie it’s based on. Seeing the movie should make the viewer want to pick up the book and get more in depth with the story. Of course, a bad movie can also make people want to read a book just to see how badly they screwed it up. Just for curiosity’s sake, I downloaded a digital sample of Atlas Shrugged and I got more information from one sentence of the book’s introduction than I got from the entire movie. That made me think, is it my fault for not reading the book and therefore not understanding the movie, or is it the filmmaker’s fault that I couldn’t understand the movie?  I asked my collegues here at CliqueClack what they thought.

Keith: The different mediums should stand on their own and not require further reading/viewing to understand. If that’s required, then it failed.

An: Personally, I believe the filmed adaptation should stand on its own. But, if you’re a writer/producer/director adapting a literary work because you enjoy it, then don’t strip out every level of uniqueness.  My biggest problem with Hollywood is recently they’ve gone to extremes in adaptation. Their fear of cutting off non-readers, typically means they whitewash everything, forgetting they adapted the book because of its built-in popularity.

I don’t expect a word-for-word, granular adaptation but I do expect a well-written film. However, Hellboy and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen took two quirky comics and made them into crappy action movies.  However, He’s Just Not That Into You and Adaptation went in a totally different direction of the source material to pleasurable ends.

Chuck: I enjoyed League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Adaptation … and I’ve not read either film’s source material.

Jeremy: This is why it is often useful to have multiple POV reviews for complicated adaptations, like several places did with Game of Thrones. It’s certainly not fair to say you weren’t qualified to review it, but it is true that someone who has read could offer a different perspective — like how well they thought it was adapted, regardless of whether they even liked the original material.

Michael: Let’s look at Lord Of The Rings for a moment … well … as far as I can at any rate:

I read the books and loved them. Inconceivably, I’ve only seen the first film. The long and short of it: Tons missing from that first episode if you compare it with the novel. But … does the film stand on its own? Damned straight it does. That didn’t stop the “diehards” from raising a ruckus, but that ended up fading off with the overall consensus killing the controversy in the grand scheme of things.

Now, take The Walking Dead. I specifically stayed away from the books wanting to see what season one did with it. Later, I went back and read them … and loved them, too, on their own. Did the television series stand on its own? In my book, absolutely. You could chew on comparisons, omissions, revisions, ad nauseum ’til the cows come home, but the end result is that it worked.

If, by your example, a filmmaker completely kibbitzes a property, that’s going to be on his or her head. But remember: It’s their own vision. No one goes into something like that wanting to make a mockery of it. At least that’s what I would like to think in my own little fantasy world. And I think this holds true for the most part.

But … should a work stand on its own? I’m with Keith. Yes … it should. Unless there’s some caveat detailing a viewer should be familiar with the source material (and — for the life of me — I can’t imagine that happening), the work should stand on its own based on what the filmmaker’s vision is for it.

Dan: The adaptation should definitely be able to stand alone, otherwise what’s the point? I’m seeing Andrea Arnold‘s new version of Wuthering Heights on Friday and I haven’t read it, but if it doesn’t work without my having read it then the problem lies with the film, not with me.

An: That’s true, but what if it also hinges on people doing a poor adaptation? I haven’t seen a decent post-black and white version of Jane Eyre or of Mansfield Park. The directors/writers seem so desperate to put their ‘stamp’ on it, that they drop the story or create some convoluted mess.

Katie: I liked the Jane Eyre from this past spring.

Keith: Well, likewise, a person reviewing a movie adapted from a book shouldn’t say “this book sucks,” unless they’re talking the overall story on personal knowledge/opinion of both.

You’ve seen what we think, so tell us how you feel. Should reading the source material be mandatory before seeing the movie adaptation, or should the movie be able to stand on its own? Sound off in the comments section below.




Photo Credit: Chuck Duncan

Categories: General, News

22 Responses to “Must you read the book to enjoy the movie?”

November 16, 2011 at 4:27 PM

Well, the answer to your question is “No” – as Keith et al. said, a movie should be able to stand on its own. However, I have never regretted reading a book before watching the movie. A good movie adaptation can stand on its own, but it also “rewards” those who know the book by honoring what’s in the book – all the little details, the backstory and history between characters, etc., which readers of the book will recognize and appreciate.

For example, even though Peter Jackson took many liberties with LOTR, since I know the books well, I can appreciate the layers of detail that went into the movies (from the stone Trolls to Aragorn’s ring, from second breakfast to oliphaunts), and the backstory between the characters (for example, how Aragorn and Arwen met, why Galadriel is so important, how Faramir and Eowyn fell in love, Bilbo’s history with Gandalf, etc.).

I think knowing a book before watching a movie only gives you a greater appreciation for a well adapted story (recent example: Moneyball). For a poorly adapted story (The Three Musketeers), the movie doesn’t lessen my love for the book, so I haven’t lost anything. There’s really no reason NOT to read the book beforehand, and there is much to gain.

November 16, 2011 at 5:04 PM

Agreed on all points. If you’ve read a book then seen the movie, it should enhance the experience all around, but the movie does need to stand on its own because there will be differences between the two. It’s almost impossible to do a film adaptation exactly as the book is written. The two media have a completely different flow, and books offer much more detail. But a writer/producer/director shouldn’t strip away all of that detail either, because that will just make the film incomprehensible to those who didn’t read the book (I submit Atlas Shrugged as Example A). But I’m not saying you shouldn’t read a book before (or after) seeing a movie, but you shouldn’t be required to read the book to enjoy the movie.

I’m looking forward to David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo even though I’ve been struggling to get through the book. If a book doesn’t grab me in the first chapter or two, I’ll most likely put it down. I loved Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain, and really hope there is a movie based on the trilogy. Hopefully, with del Toro behind a film version of his book (not that there’s even a film in the works yet), there’s little chance of him mucking it up!

November 16, 2011 at 5:53 PM

This reminds me of when I was reviewing Legend of the Seeker – I tried to read the books at the same time. Unfortunately, Goodkind’s (many) novels are each about 1000 pages long. So when the TV show would pull an event from one of the later novels, I would just review the episode without referring to the books. Once I dared to say, “Hey, this particular spell makes no sense.” And then fans of the book got on my case, because the spell was drawn from one of the books and apparently it made sense in the books. But my point was, it DIDN’T make sense as portrayed in the episode. That’s where book fans can get annoyingly defensive. Yes, I realize it makes sense to YOU because you’ve read a detailed explanation of it, but this “lite” version on the screen doesn’t make sense for the rest of us. We have to point it out, Chuck! :-) And intelligent fans will appreciate a newbie’s perspective, as evidenced by the great response to Carla’s Game of Thrones reviews.

But further complicating things, when you’re dealing with really passionate fans (and Atlas Shrugged has a strong fanbase), you also have to accept that if you say something critical as a dispassionate reviewer, some fans are going to assume that you are bashing their fandom – and that perhaps you are a member of a rival fandom. (Example – over on CliqueClack TV you can visit the Lamest Vampire poll and see the True Blood fans bashing each other for liking or disliking Bill Compton.)

November 16, 2011 at 8:43 PM

. . . . .


I read Wicked when it first came out before all the hoopla. Loved it. Ad you’re right: It was a dark, twisted (and nifty) fairy tale.

I’ven’t seen the stage production and have no desire whatsoever to do so. And, it’s been eons, but same for Phantom Of The Opera. I’d’ve rather stuck a needle in my eye.

November 16, 2011 at 10:05 PM

I saw Phantom and really didn’t get what all the hoopla was about. I was actually kind of bored by it. I wasn’t even all that impressed by the chandelier. Wicked just pissed me off for completely watering down the story for mass consumption. I hope some day someone will be able to make a movie based on the book and retain all the darkness therein. But, the people who love the show love The Wizard of Oz and haven’t read the book. I’m sure they’d be mortified :-)

November 17, 2011 at 11:34 PM

I’m still bitter at what Webber did to Phantom. And, I’ve never liked the dude. Arthur Kopit came out with a stage version before Webber (note: not the hideous NBC version) which was far closer to the novel.

However, Chuck, forget about adaptation for a moment, you haven’t read ANY of the LOTR books OR To Kill a Mockingbird?

* grabs pearls in shock *

Dude, I don’t know if we can talk anymore …

* shakes head *

November 17, 2011 at 11:51 PM

Yeah, there have been stagings of the other Phantom here in Baltimore. But, if I had time to read a book, I’d be writing for a book review site! ;-)

November 20, 2011 at 7:21 AM


After I read Wicked the first time, I loved it. Thought it was brilliant. Then I tried to read it a second time, and over the course of about a year, I couldn’t get through even HALF of the book.

Also: I love the stage production, but it just easier for me to believe in my head that they are just completely different stories, with little to no connection beyond the character’s names.

In fact, it is probably my favorite musical ever.

November 16, 2011 at 9:07 PM

Well, I don’t believe you must read the book, I never read the book Debbie Does Dallas, nuf sed :-)

November 16, 2011 at 9:10 PM

. . . . .

Oh … and Chuck?

May I humbly introduce you to my good friend bronsont … ???

… heheheheh …

November 17, 2011 at 2:50 AM

One Word – Depends…no that’s an adult undergarment..okay two words – It Depends….I’ve seen it go both ways. As much of a book nerd as I am, and as often as I find myself lamenting, “the book is better than the movie” sometimes I’m surprised.

To wit: I’ve tried to read the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Quadrology actually if ya count The Hobbit…Quadrology? Is that a word? If not, it should be) about a billion times. I usually peter out by the first quarter of the Return of the King. I guess I’m just not that much of a geek. There were different facets of geekdom when I was coming up. A geek heriarchy if you will. Star Wars I was totally down with. The original 24-book Tarzan series by Edgar Rice Burroughs..oh my freakin god..awesome…I think the shift came in early high school, I guess, when we all began to bracnh out into various social groups…ie the Jocks, The Heads and the geeks..I had a foot in all three worlds..yes, my secret is out, I have three feet…I was kinda into the Dungeons and Dragons scene for a while…but suddenly Tiffany’s ass became a lot more interesting to me than Orcs, hit points and 20-sided dice…..

I think part of my aversion with Lord of the Rings is that I’m terrible with names..and trying to add an appendix for the challenged like George Martin has done for the Game of Thrones books (which I’m totally diggin on right now, along with Steven King’s son’s books and an old classic called Alas Babylon by Pat Frank)really just makes matters worse.

Needless to say, as much as I enjoyed the Lord of the Rings movies (and as much as I love any movie with a 3-plus hour running, seriously…not a big Oliver Stone fan but I’d sit n watch 3-hour history flicks like JFK and Nixon back to back without even getting up to take a whiz….but be this all as it may, I’ve had trouble making it through Lord of the Rings movies. In fact, my drop-off point in the films is the same place in the books, about 45 minutes into Return of the King. Screw it, maybe it’s just not meant to be….

Moving right along….

I’ve seen some movies that are better than their literary counterparts…One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest comes to mind. As does the original Shining. Dead Zone too for that matter.

Jaws – Torn. Hooper annoyed me. Ifn’ ya ask me he and Brody should have been eaten and Quint should have lived..but hey, I’m just funny like that…

Great book, terrible movie – I am Legend…

Great movie- Great Book, but very different…For those of you who have never read First Blood I’ll spoil it for you now. Rambo gets killed at the end…..The thing I liked better about the book, besides the tragic that there weren’t any big “they drew first blood not me”, “i fought for my country n came home n got spat on and called baby killer” speeches from Rambo…he was kinda creepy like that..a little edgier, a lot more wounded by the time he got chased down and blown away by Col. Trautman….

Next up: Apocalypse Now versus Hearts of Darkness….ya know, come to think of it..i don’t have a month to pontificate on this one ad nauseum….but love both….

the movie that I thought “SURELY” I was going to be terrible and that I would hate with a passion…Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas….

night kids

November 17, 2011 at 12:27 PM

Ash, you Have to read Tolkien’s Silmarillon it’s AWESOME, and is the prequel to TLOR and Hobbit, it explains who the elves are, where they came from, & who formed Middle Earth, Awesome I tell you, Awesome! And only about 1,800 pages if I remember correctly.

And don’t be giving Ayn no crap, she’s like Stacy’s Mom, she’s got it go’n on!


November 17, 2011 at 3:15 AM

Oh.and Ayn Rand….never got into her..not the books nor the movies…somebody should have just grabbed her by her shoulders and shook her at about page 20 on her first book and just yelled, “what the hell are you thinking woman? enough already…do not pass not collect $200…no, wait, I’ll give you $200 if you promise to never write another book again”

Same with that Maya Angelou….damn that woman thinks awfully high of herself..she’s a snitty little bitch….gave the University I went to all kinds of crap and snottiness when she came here as a guest speaker….

Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) didn’t act like that when he was here..he was cool…even cooler the Schindler’s List guy…i stood there and chatted with him for about 45 minutes at a book signing in college..fuck, i thought he and I were gonna end up down at the pub gettin drunk before it was all said n done..he was a cool guy but I never got to read a book I bought from him that got lost/flooded in Katrina..The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith

November 17, 2011 at 10:46 AM

. . . . .

Chuck … ???

My other friend, Ash.

His bark is worse than his bite. Or … so I’ve heard.

November 17, 2011 at 6:49 AM

READ: The Greatest White Shark Story Ever Told!
“My Friend Michale” a true story about the real Jaws.
It will warm your heart.

November 18, 2011 at 12:54 AM

I feel that a lot of times, reading the book first ruins the movie for me, because so much gets left out in the film version.

BTW, another of Michael’s friends, checking in.

November 18, 2011 at 1:30 AM

I agree. I read Jaws after I saw the movie and enjoyed it. I’ve read a lot of movie novelizations in the past and enjoyed them as well since there was usually an added depth to the story, and not just a word for word re-write of the screenplay. Reading a book before seeing the movie inevitably leads to disappointment because it’s impossible to translate a book to film as written (and I’ve tried adapting a book I read in college to a screenplay, and as much as I tried to keep it “by the book,” changes had to be made to make it flow visually). So, yeah, I’m totally in that boat with you.

And who knew Michael had so many friends?! :-)

November 18, 2011 at 6:38 AM

I have to admit that reading Twilight before I saw the movie was a smart move, because there are so many details that a movie can’t cover and it’s recommended to have the full picture of that story before watching the movie, and not after.
I think I was lucky to find all twilight volumes on all you can books and now I’m looking forward to see the new Movie:) I wonder what they’ve cut from the book?

November 18, 2011 at 11:18 AM

One of the best books I ever read as a kid: “Starship Troopers”
One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen as an adult: “Starship Troopers”

And then there’s the time I stayed up all night reading “Sum of All Fears” before seeing the release the next day. While reading it, I could imagine the scenes on the big screen. The movie was horrendous. The ONLY things they got right in the movie were the title and the fact that there was a nuclear bomb involved — somehow.

While I have thoroughly enjoyed the adaptations of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, more times than not Hollywood ruins good books.

November 20, 2011 at 7:35 AM

Larry, that’s where you and I differ … I loved both the Starship Troopers book and movie. The movie was obviously different from the book, but when you look at as an exercise in modernizing a propaganda film, it was brilliant. Was it campy at moments? Absolutely … But it was supposed to be.

And I’m not sure what to say about Sum of All Fears. Anytime a Clancy book gets adapted, you have to know that 2/3s of the story has to get jettisoned, just because he writes such complicated narratives (note: complicated does not necessarily equal complex). In making Jack Ryan a younger character in the narrative, they created the opportunity to rebirth a franchise. It was a concept even Clancy got behind, as it prompted him to write Red Rabbit, a new story of Ryan in his youth.

I guess my point, which goes directly to the last thing you said, is that a film (or stage, in the case of the aforementioned Wicked) adaptation shouldn’t be judged on how faithful to the source material when deciding its quality. Moreover, I disagree with the sentiment that Hollywood has “ruined” good books. They may have produced some shitty adaptations (and we all know that they have over the years), but that takes nothing away from the source material that was (theoretically) great in the first place.

November 18, 2011 at 11:22 AM

Retraction I now believe you MUST read a book prior so seeing the movie, just read Debbie Does Dallas, and the movie makes sooo much more sense now! :)

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