Was the Book Better?

I have compared books to their movie versions a few times on this blog, and of course that topic comes up pretty often in conversation. The universal conclusion that I hear from everyone is “the book is [almost] always better than the movie”. Although I agree with their sentiment, I don’t actually think that it’s true. Here’s my explanation.

It is true that when a movie adapts a book, it’s almost always a disappointment compared to the original. But it’s also pretty common for people to write novelizations of movies. No one ever says “Yeah, Back to the Future was a good movie. But the book was so much better!” I remember, as a kid, finding a book version of Ghostbusters years before seeing the movie, but even though I read it first there was never any doubt that the movie was better. These days, movies often have comic adaptations instead of prose novels, but no one is talking about how the graphic novel of Django Unchained is the real masterpiece.

Your first reaction is probably to dismiss those examples by saying that those books don’t count. We don’t take novelizations of movies seriously. But that’s my point. We don’t take them seriously because the movie came first. Instead of saying “the book is always better”, we should be saying “the original is always better”.

Every medium has its own strengths and weaknesses, and almost no good works are going to translate easily into another medium. When someone tries, they’re likely to be hobbled by the need to “feel like” the original or please its fans, and they’re also more likely to be motivated by money than the original creator. In those rare cases where a movie does surpass a book, it’s almost always because the creators of the movie were confident and free enough to turn it into their own thing.

This rule is true for just about any creative medium you can imagine, and it does always work both ways. Video games based on movies are usually unimpressive cash-ins, for example, but it’s also the case that movies based on video games are consistently awful. The important thing to remember is that one medium is not inherently better than another. Instead, a fundamental truth of the creative process is that you get the best results when you’re not trying to duplicate something else.

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