Culture Vulture

Watch the movie first, then read the book

When you read a book after seeing its film adaptation, you get to marvel at what the film-makers condensed or expanded on

What do Stephen King and E.L. James have in common? They are both best-selling authors whose success depends on adding a sadistic twist to human relationships. Both also had books adapted for film this year.

With every such page-to-screen adaptation, the question dominating social media is: Should you read the book before watching the screen version?

My answer - the answer of a confirmed bibliophile - is no, absolutely not. Not unless the book in question is a comic book or being made into a television series.

For anything else, it can be too painful to read the book first. A reader's mind creates images that can easily be destroyed by the film.

The old adage says a picture paints a thousand words, but the actual relationship between print and screen is more complex. This is because of the way the two art forms engage consumers.

Consider the time allotted to a commercial film. Not many people can finish a novel in the same span. Fifty Shades Darker, which showed in cinemas in February, was a little less than three hours long, but James' forgettable pseudo-romance ran to more than 500 pages in print.

King's gunslinger fantasy The Dark Tower is eight books long, the screen version which came out last month is only 95 minutes long. The novel It, his macabre vision of childhood, ran over two hours on screen, but to more than 1,000 pages in print.

Novels are meant to be enjoyed over days. Textual tricks seduce a reader into creating his own vision of the author's story. Characters build up in a reader's mind not just through pages of description and narrative, but in the holes the author leaves for the reader's mind to fill in.

Take the first line of The Dark Tower series, released in the late 1990s: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." Paragraphs follow describing this desert, the hazy mountains in the distance, the dried-up track no vehicle now followed, but they are almost unnecessary to the picture the reader has already created based on prior knowledge of arid landscapes.

In contrast, movies inundate the viewer with pictures - dusty landscapes, characters facing off, guns smoking in the air. Movies offer one particular interpretation of an author's vision and it is rarely the same as the reader's. Idris Elba's stoic heroism may have charmed in the film version of The Dark Tower, but it probably also destroyed the picture book-lovers had built up of their hero - a figure overshadowed by his hat and revolvers, perhaps.

Perhaps the only books that can be read before watching the movie adaptation are comic books, in which the visuals are already confirmed by the creator. For any other book, if you are intrigued by a film based on it, do not read the book before watching the film. Read it afterwards to marvel at what the film-makers condensed or expanded on.

Often, the book may be completely different from the resulting film, as was Lizard On The Wall, a movie screened on Sept 9 during the Singapore International Festival of Arts. Lizard On The Wall was inspired by a novel, Inheritance, written by Singaporean author Balli Kaur Jaswal, but the scenes in the movie never took place in the book. Even the setting changes from an ordinary HDB flat to a lush bungalow.

It can be more rewarding to read a book after watching the film, if the film-maker uses visuals and sounds to create context for viewers that may not be obvious from reading the book. This is especially true of historical novels.

William Makepeace Thackeray's 19th-century novel Vanity Fair is better understood after watching the 2004 film by Mira Nair. To readers of the 19th century, the Napoleonic wars would have been an omnipresent shadow casting domestic dramas in a different light. An estrangement between husband and wife could be forever, with the husband heading off to the battlefront. Present-day readers and viewers benefit from Nair highlighting the war in solemn, background drums or wordless scenes of poverty and debauchery.

Jane Austen's understated novel Mansfield Park is also illuminated by a 1999 British film version. The movie expands on the ugly secret behind the stately home of the title, namely that it is built on wealth accumulated from slavery. It makes the eventual come-uppance of some of the characters much more satisfying.

Novels such as Mansfield Park or Vanity Fair were meant to be read over a period of time, offering entertainment for days. Their narratives were meant to unfold, double-back and slowly build psychological or romantic tension between characters. Even today, books are read over days and often revisited during the course of reading to confirm that the author is finally delivering on a promise or hint made on an earlier page.

This layering of narrative and ensuing long-running engagement is also what creators of successful television series deliver. Which is why the only time it is worth reading the book before a screen adaptation is if the book is being made into a number of episodes for the small screen.

Take, for example, the Game Of Thrones series on HBO, based on George R.R. Martin's A Song Of Ice And Fire novels, or American Gods on Fox, based on Neil Gaiman's 2001 book of the same name. Both series have delivered on the large cast of characters and complex political relationships between these. Both have even expanded on the authors' original intent, with the blessing of the authors in question, in the luxurious, multi-season span granted to adaptations for the small screen.

So, if you are wondering whether to read the page before watching the live-action adaptation, go ahead only if both you and the adaptor can spare the time for the story.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2017, with the headline 'Watch it first, then flip the pages'. Print Edition | Subscribe