Why I Don’t Watch Movies Based on Books I Care About

I have never seen The Lord of the Rings movies and probably never will. Whenever I have mentioned this to anyone, the most common response is, “But they’re so good.”

The fact that they’re good makes me want to see them even less.

Why?

I read the books many years ago, and the experience was so powerful that I walked around for days only partially aware of my own reality. Scenes from those novels played in my mind almost as vividly as my own real memories. I don’t want anyone else’s scenes to replace the ones in my head, any more than I would want someone’s film adaptation of my childhood to replace memories of my actual childhood.

That’s why I have stopped going to movies made of books that are really important to me. Doing so has usually led to disappointment. The worst examples are movies made from the books of Ernest Hemingway, who is an important writer to me. I have never seen a satisfying movie based on one of Hemingway’s better books. The better the book, the worse the movie. If I had never read the books, maybe I could have enjoyed some of those movies, but I regret seeing every one of them.

I watched the Robert Redford version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby long before I had adopted this practice of avoiding such films. It is a decent and enjoyable movie, but now I can never read Gatsby without picturing  Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and all the others in their various roles. I wish I could set aside that version and read the book fresh, but I can’t.

I recently read that HBO is planning to develop a series of films based on the novels of William Faulkner. I am very nervous about this. I teach As I Lay Dying every semester, and I do think it would make a good movie. I could make a movie of it myself if it were possible to directly transfer my mental images onto the screen. I see the oldest son, Cash, lifting up each board for his mother’s inspection as he slowly builds her coffin. I see the wagon carrying the family into town, vultures swirling around the smelly coffin as Cash sits nearby, his damaged leg patched with cement. The movie is all there in my head, but since I can’t simply download it, I don’t want to replace it with someone else’s version. So I won’t see the film.

I do make exceptions with some books and films. For example, I enjoy John Le Carre’s spy novels, but I don’t mind watching movies made of his books. His novels are fun and entertaining, but they are not the soul-shaking, core-of-my-being kind of books that stick with me for years. The Tailor of Panama, for instance, was a worthwhile but minor movie, and I would say the same for the book.

I realize I may be missing out on some excellent movies by following this practice, but for me, some mental images are worth protecting.

18 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Watch Movies Based on Books I Care About

  1. As I think about this blog, I do agree that I’ve only ever been disappointed by films adapted from books I’ve loved. I spent most of my time watching the Lord of the Rings movies thinking about what they were missing from the books. The same with the Hemingway books, though “To Have and Have Not,” not the best Hemingway book, did become a kind of cult favorite among movie buffs, with Bogart and Bacall in it.

    I do try to accept that when I see a movie, I’m engaging in a very different form of story telling than I am when reading. Reading–the Hemingway novels, especially, or Faulkner–depends so much on this narrative voice, and the only way to give that experience is to have someone doing a voice-over of the actual prose of the novel. This isn’t a good movie technique, though. I think the best movies adapted from books are those that come from books that aren’t well written in terms of narrative voice, books that are basically plot-driven. I may sound elitist in this, so I should add that I do enjoy fast-paced movies and books. But I do think that fast-paced books, with little apparent reflection or style or voice, make the better movies.

  2. I understand what you mean. Well-chosen words can put readers into a fictional world in a way that movies never will. Even in 3D. Or IMAX. It’s a different experience.

    When I read LOTR after watching the movies, Peter Jackson certainly had an affect on my imagination. But I didn’t mind too much. I enjoyed both. Yet I can see that if you are comparing your memories of childhood to your experience with reading certain books, you probably shouldn’t mess with it. You care more than most. Which is probably why you do what you do.

    What about when you watch a movie, then read the book? What is that experience like?

  3. When I watch the movie first, then read the book, the movie feels like the “real” story. I once taught a course that used World War II narratives, and we watched “Saving Private Ryan” and also read the novel that was based on the movie. In that case the film really did come first, so the novel was a bit disappointing, even though I probably would have liked it more if I hadn’t seen the very powerful movie version.

  4. I have had these thoughts many times myself, though I don’t mind picturing Mia Farrow and Robert Redford in the Great Gatsby. IMHO, the biggest difficulty in making movies from books is that much of what happens in books happens in someone’s head, and that is difficult to dramatize. For years, I held the opinion that ONLY TWO movies were better than the actual book, and for the life of me, I can only remember one on my list… Giant by Edna Ferber. I really thought the movie was much better than the book.

  5. But, really folks, do you want me to give up all six, seven, or eight film adaptations of Jane Eyre? Each film is an interpretation of the text, like each theater performance is an interpretation of a play. For the record, I try not to see a film adaptation unless I’ve read the book.

  6. I have seen at least two film versions of Jane Eyre, but that book isn’t that important to me (sorry, Emily), so that doesn’t bother me. But certain books that I teach, and that are vividly burned into my brain, such as Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, would be spoiled if I saw a film version. To me it’s much different from a play, which is written to be performed. A novel is written to be imagined. But I’m not really “recommending” my quirky attitude toward this. Some people aren’t bothered by these movies as much as I am. I have to guard against the way my brain latches on to certain images.

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  8. I went ahead and saw the Jackson movies of LOTR anyway, though I’m a devoted Tolkienist and had taken ten years to wash the bad taste of Ralph Bakshi out of my head. I had three reasons:
    1) Active in Tolkien circles as I am, I couldn’t avoid the movies by not watching them. Their imagery was going to permeate my mind anyway, I might as well see the movies and judge for myself.
    2) Only by seeing them could I fairly and accurately denounce them. (They are eminently worth denouncing.)
    3) Know thine enemy. Seeing the movies’ changes of the plot, character motivation, etc. enables me to watch out for and counteract against their inaccurate filtering into descriptions of Tolkien’s book.
    These concerns may not be so important or necessary for you, and I respect your taking the more abnegatory path. I’ve seen it so you don’t have to.

    • Thank you for that perspective, David. I could understand why you would feel more obligated to see those films, given your place in the Tolkien community. Your comments on the films themselves make me not feel so bad about missing them!

  9. I have this issue with songs as well, believe it or not. If one gets into my head, that rendition by that performer is THE version of the song. I’m big on originals, knowing the history of things and it annoys me to hear a song that is covered especially these days, knowing that a whole generation is going to hear that song and will come to believe it is the original, knowing that playing the real original version for them will mean nothing as the “best” version has already been implanted in their heads.
    Same with re-imaginings of films, new versions of this, that or the other; surprisingly, about the only place where this doesn’t bother me is when it comes to comic books. Folks can mash that beloved superhero up as much as they want to and it doesn’t affect me the same way. Why? – Haven’t figured that out yet. Perhaps it is because while I do love me some comic book heroes, I’m not wedded to them like I am film, lit and music.
    The John Carter film is a perfect example (for me); quite a few Burroughs fans (dyed-in-the-wool, named their kids John, Dejah & Tars types) love it, and all I can see is how terribly they’ve treated the main character and destroyed or eliminated the very things that make the novels what they are (not great lit, but certainly a great ‘something’ to have lasted a century in print with so many adaptations and inspirations).
    I’m not so concerned about a director’s imagery replacing my own in my head so much as I am concerned that the ability to render just about anything imagined these days AND taking advantage of that ability in film and increasingly on TV/online is atrophying the ability to imagine on the part of younger viewers who don’t have the benefit of growing up with limited television fare (in B&W) and radio plays. They go straight to the visual.

  10. I have heard many people make comments consistent with this post: The powerful visual images of a movie adaptation would detract from a beloved novel. For me, the experiences are so different, the book and the movie stand apart. I can (and do) love the LOTR novels, and can (and do) love the movies at the same time, for different reasons. Or enjoy one but not the other. When I re-read Tolkien, I admit to seeing Elijah Wood in my head, but the Frodo of the books and the Frodo of the movies are distinct characters to me.

    PS: Thanks for the Ridgecrest seminar, Joseph, and I look forward to future posts.

  11. Thanks for the comment, Jim. It was great to work with you and get to know you at the Blue Ridge conference. I look forward to see where your writing goes from here.

  12. Thanks for posting this Joe, there are a lot of interesting responses above that have made me think about the movies I have seen that were adaptations of books. I can see and respect your desire to want to preserve the purity of the impact a book has on you, and that goes double if the book was something that left a significant mark on you as a person. I however, do not watch movies just for the story. The more I read the comments above, I think I am in the minority at this point as the reason I watch a movie is to see an interpretation of a idea, and enjoy the craft that is movie making. I will be first to admit that my normal list of authors includes names such as Robert Jordan, Brandon Saunderson, Neil Gaimon, and Christopher Moore. My point being, that I’d be hard pressed to argue that any of these authors are of the caliber of Tolkien, Hemingway, or Faulkner. In fact, I would kind of love to see Tolkien sit someone like Stephanie Myers down and give them a lesson in basic sentence structure, but I still enjoy reading her books. I recently saw the new Movie of the Hunger Games, and I did see the latest installment of the Twilight movies as well. The reason I enjoyed those movies, having already read the book, was that I am the kind of person who likes to see things from more than one point of view. Both of these projects were adapted from books written in fist person present perspective. As it is incredibly hard to execute this in a mainstream movie, the movies allow you to have a perspective that was not present in the book. The more I experience life, the more I understand that life is really about not just the context of an event, but the kind of lenses we have available to observe those events. Not to get too literal, but Movies are about applying a lens to a medium and reinterpreting that material. So, to make a very long post even longer: You are right. The whole concept of making a movie out of an existing book is at it’s core a process of adaptation into a new medium. This means that the movie going experience will never be exactly the same as the reader’s experiance. However, I would also argue that in cases with books like the Lord of the Rings the story resonates differently depending on the place in life you approach it from. Who we are today is not who we will be tomorrow or next year. Every time we pick up that story we were so captivated by the first time we read, if we truly are in a different place in live then we may a different set of glasses on that let us see things differently. At some point the choice really becomes about seeing the story through OUR eyes, or thought the creative eyes of a screen writer and director on the screen.

  13. Tim, you have almost persuaded me to ease up on my “purist” view of this issue. What you say near the end of your post reminds me that even reading a book a second time really means putting new images in my head, since I won’t see it the same way I did ten or twenty years ago. So maybe I should learn to have multiple interpretations of a story floating around in my brain. I will think about this some more. Thanks for your post.

  14. I really relate to Tim’s response – I don’t think I’m that singular. Likewise, Steven Davidson’s reaction to songs, I just what a loss! There are so many great covers of so many wonderful songs – obviously one prefers one to another (or certain aspects of one to another) but the core of the song, that’s untouched.

    I love Tim Powers’ response to Disney optioning his pirate novel, “On Stranger Tides,” for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie (which uses the title and Blackbeard and the Fountain of Youth but not much more): when people would say, “but look what they’re doing to your book!” Tim would point at his bookshelf and say, “what, they’re all right there!”

    But I do understand those folks who get images fixed in their brains and can’t shake them… I’m just not one of ‘em.

    I really enjoyed the movie, “The World According To Garp” BUT I hadn’t read the book! I noticed everyone who read the book was disappointed in the movie and everyone who hadn’t read the book really enjoyed the movie, so I suppose you could argue that if you’ve not yet read the book and the movie is being made, you may as well wait… but only if you’ve got good power over your imagination and mental imagery!

    So, Joe, now that Baz Luhrman is remaking The Great Gatsby, will you see that? Do you think it will displace Redford and Farrow in your imagination?

  15. Yes, I’ll probably see the new Gatsby film. Any of my original mental images of that book are way beyond recovering anyway. But the trailer doesn’t look promising–the music seems all wrong to me. But I do like Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby. So I’ll give it a try.

  16. I often struggle with the idea of seeing the film adaptation of a novel that I love. However, I almost always give in due to pure curiosity. Often though, I find that a movie trailer for a book I haven’t read leads me to read the novel. This then leads to a moment when my friends refer to me as a “book snob” when I refuse to a see a movie with them if I want to read the book first.

    But the issue for me really comes into play with the idea you suggested regarding the “Gatsby” film you watched. Once I see a film, I can never remember how I initially viewed the character. As I discussed in a previous blog post, part of the beauty of the literary experience is that we as readers experience these moments where we create our own image of characters that is unique to each individual.

    Yet, as a passionate reader, my biggest issue often results from changes that deviate from the novel. To this day, nearly a year and a half later, I’m still angry about changes made to the final “Harry Potter” film. Mind you, I reread the last three novels each year along with “The Bell Jar,” an odd combination, I know, but I will never forgive the director of the final HP movie for altering the storyline of Harry’s wand. It sounds silly, but I think the change took away a huge part of the novel. I won’t go into the details, but small directorial changes can do more than alter storylines. Often, small changes, like the issue of the wand, result in eliminating crucial details that contribute to a character’s overall arc.

    Okay, I digress on the Harry Potter issue. While I understand your reason for avoiding film adaptations, I do think that in some, often rare, situations, film adaptations add a creative element that contributes to a written work.

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