Why are movies never as good as the books?

Ah, the age old question, capable of sparking such impassioned debates. It is, of course, a loaded question, and “good” is a matter of taste, which is why this question is infinitely interesting–and infinitely fruitless. To truly understand the difference between the mediums, we need to ask the more appropriate but admittedly duller question: “Why are movies never the same as the books?”

Well, there are many reasons, but there is one in particular that drives all the others. Books are limited to words while movies are multimedia, integrating both audio and visual. People often cite this as the power of movies, and they are right. But it’s also its Achilles heel. Some things are only possible through the written word.

Being limited to words is actually a blessing in disguise for writers. Since each reader must project the words using his own mind, each reading experience is highly personalized. In other words, the writer gets to speak powerfully to each and every one of his readers by tapping into the reader’s imagination and memories. Villains are more sinister and heroes are more personable because the reader is able to fill in the details as he sees fit. In these “theaters of the imagination,” anything is possible. Characters can say and do anything. Writers can take their readers anywhere and everywhere in just a few pages or lines. Books particularly excel at delving into the human mind.

These things are impossible to do with film. The director cannot take the viewer “anywhere and everywhere” on Earth much less into the human mind. For budgetary reasons, films are often not shot on location, and some locales must be changed or merged. Being a visual medium, all thoughts must be translated into dialogue or action in order to be expressed, which is difficult if not impossible to do in some instances. Characters cannot say whatever they want because five minutes monologues would probably bore the typical audience. These are just some of the reasons why books must be “adapted” before making their way to the silver screen. In film, you are also seeing the story through the eyes of the director and screenwriter. The nature of the visual medium leaves little to imagination; everything is fed to you. What if the hero isn’t charismatic enough for you? What if the villain lacks the gravitas you desire? Tough.

Yet when films get it right, it is magical. This happens in two major instances. One is when they create masterful scenes. Scenes of sheer joy and terror. Scenes that seem to be the very definition of true love and heroism. Some of the most indelible memories I have come not from life but from film. The other instance is when movies capture the true essence of the source material. If a director can somehow achieve both, then he has created a timeless masterpiece.

So what have we learned? What can we take away today? How about these three things:

  1. Books and movies are just different methods of storytelling. Appreciate them for what they do well!
  2. Film lovers, check out the book version. It will give you a different and perhaps deeper appreciation of the characters and the story.
  3. Book lovers, save your breath. Stop clamoring for literal film translations. Most of the time, it is either impossible or undesirable. For a film adaptation, it is far better to be faithful in spirit than to be literally faithful.

Credit: I was inspired to write this article by a lecture from Timothy Spurgin’s The Art of Reading series. I recommend this series to all reader but especially to those who felt like they “never had a good English class.” I’ve become both a better reader and writer because of it.

3 thoughts on “Why are movies never as good as the books?

  1. Dear Justarius

    I think that your piece gives a decent answer to the question, ‘Why, *in principle*, are movies never as good – or, rather, often not deemed as good – as the books?’

    But what about why, *in fact* – i.e. given how things currently are – movies of books tend to be poor? Surely the answer to this is (in rough) the following. Movies are more beholden to profit, and thus to the lowest common denominator, than are books – especially books of yesteryear. Witness – an example close to my heart – the film version of *The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy*.

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  2. You bring up a good point, Nick. Movies are certainly more expensive to produce than books, and studios are anxious to see a return on investment. This often causes movie makers to alter the story to appeal to the greatest possible audience.

    Authors these days face similar pressure. If they write children’s fantasy, publishers pressure them to write at least a trilogy and in the same style as Harry Potter. Fortunately, authors have a viable alternative. They could always self-publish. It’s harder to make and distribute your own movie.

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  3. ‘Fortunately, authors have a viable alternative. They could always self-publish.’ Well, self-publishing is not viable in that / insofar as self-published books don’t get taken seriously (by critics and by some book buyers). However, the proliferation of self-published books is, I think, somewhat changing that attitude; and – I think I’ve heard – sometimes successful self-published books get taken up by publishers.

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