Films vs Books: A Never-Ending Debate
The debate about whether a book or film based on the book is superior has likely been ongoing for at least 80 years and possibly over 100 years, ever since the first film based on a book, “Frankenstein,” was brought to life by Edison Studios in 1910. Contests between book and film lovers tend to be fairly balanced; a recent poll from Debate.org is currently listed as 56% favoring books, and 44% favoring film, but films have been a larger segment of the entertainment industry for decades. The current worldwide film, TV, and video industry is worth about $325 billion per year, while the worldwide book publishing industry generates about $120 billion annually.
Book lovers tend to be passionate about their preferred medium. They love the tactile texture of paper in its binding, the mobility of a book, the ability to stop anywhere, go back or forward a section or a page, but the greatest power of a book is to transport the reader into another world. Whether fiction or nonfiction, a well-written book evokes a new and different environment, with characters that spring partly from the author, but largely from the reader’s imagination. Film lovers appreciate being immersed into a new environment that stimulates their visual and auditory senses. Theaters are best, with their large screens and huge speakers, but you can use your imagination by concentrating on a small television or tablet, too.
When is the book best? Most of the time, stories that draw events out across a long period of time or distance work best in print. A book shows the outline of its characters, and an author can take as much time as necessary to develop those characters. As the book progresses, we can feel the development of the main characters, but we also feel the discovery of finding and growing with a new friend or someone with power or someone to fear. A film shows situations, but a book really develops characters. As good as the Oscar-winning film is, only the book reader really senses the full agony and growth of the Joad family in “The Grapes of Wrath.”
When is a film best? Visual media drop the viewer into the action with an immediacy that text cannot match. A powerful score penetrates your mind and elevates the emotions portrayed on screen. Events that happen quickly (especially, action or horror films) are best captured on video, so you feel the tension and adrenaline as if you were a secondary character on the scene. The sensuality of “Babette’s Feast,” while described superbly in Isak Dinesen’s book, does not compare with the visual celebration of Gabriel Axel’s film. Dinesen’s focus is on the tension between the puritanism and fear of the host sisters vs the grace and sumptuousness of the meal prepared by their grateful servant.
Fantasy genres, including science fiction and “otherworldly” stories, fall on both sides. The “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series of books by Douglas Adams is irreverent and humorous, a wacky sendup of science fiction stories. The protagonist, Arthur Dent, grows across the books by virtue of experiencing picaresque adventures, but (like other picaresque novels, such as those by Robert Heinlein), it is the reader’s imagination that brings the environments into reality.
In contrast, William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride” reads like a rough draft of the film script, setting up the visual and verbal humor that only the movie could bring to full color. The book refers to Inigo’s sword-fighting techniques by dropping the names of several famous fencing teachers, but only when we see Inigo talk through the swordfight dropping all of the names and techniques does the viewer grab the humor of the scene. And Miracle Max’s accent and phrasing when praising a mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich is just too precious.
The truth is that books and films do not really compete with each other; they are symbiotic. Almost every major film is an adaptation of a successful or insightful book of some form. In 2017, many blockbuster films have been based on comic book series, but these are books as well, just in a different form. And the list of top books for the year reads a lot like the list of top films a year or two later, especially in the Young Adult category.
- Debate.org. Are Movies Better Than Books? http://www.debate.org/opinions/are-movies-better-than-books . Accessed 7/6/2018.