‘Yea, but the book was better’ Valid Criticism or Closed Mindedness?

Some of the greatest films and TV shows ever released have been based off previously released books, Forrest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption, Game of Thrones. Now in 2016, it doesn’t just end there, with what seems like an endless amount of comic book films coming out each year also. The one phrase I’ve probably heard the most when it comes to criticising a film is ‘the book was better’. Today I want to discuss this phrase, my views on it and if I think it is actually a valid form of criticism.

When a film or TV show gets announced that will be based on a famous book or comic, it seems fans of the book or comic have little else to say beyond: ‘it won’t be as good as the book’, sometimes prior to knowing a single thing about it, the actors, who is directing, nothing. Now, I do understand, if you are a huge fan of something, you don’t like the idea of someone taking it and potentially not doing it justice. I don’t like to use the term ‘ruin it’, another phrase I often hear, as making a bad film won’t ruin the original book, it will still be the same as it always was, and you can go back and read it in all its perfectness. There are even people who will flat out refuse to watch a film adaption, out of sheer determination that it won’t do the book justice. Now, I do not want to give the impression that I am completely pro film adaptions, there have been some really fantastic books turned into some pretty awful films, The Grinch (2000) and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (2003) come to mind.

As an example, I’d like to use the Harry Potter series. I have personally never read the books, but know many people who have, and peoples opinions seem to agree unanimously. I’m not a huge Harry Potter fan myself, not because they are bad films, but wands and wizards just don’t do much for me. Whilst the Harry Potter films were massively successful, and generally liked by fans, most book readers would agree that the books were better. Why? Because there were several key subplots and elements that were missed out of the films, which in itself I don’t consider to be a crime, though there were some things in the films that didn’t always make sense to a non-book reader like myself, things that would have apparently been clearer if they had included more material from the books. Now that, is a valid form of criticism when talking about an on-screen adaption. What isn’t a valid form of criticism? ‘He was taller and had blonde hair in the book’, ‘that part wasn’t in the comic’, ‘they missed out that line about…’, you get the point. The very reason it is called an adaption, is that has been adapted for viewing on a screen.

It isn’t always easy remaining open minded about seeing something come to life on screen, when for so long you’ve had your own impression of what people and things are meant to look like, based on a description. If a character is described as having brown hair and a round face on paper, but on screen they are a redhead with defined cheek bones, does it really matter? Are these things that as an audience we should really be worrying about when seeing one of our favourite stories come to life? People must also appreciate that the words and images you can view on paper can be almost limitless, your imagination can do most of the work for you. An on screen adaption has its limitations, even in 2016 with the vast amount of technology at our disposal, not everything can be recreated down to the last detail.

I am a big fan of The Walking Dead, I have read all of the graphic novels, and am currently watching the show in its seventh season on television. The show changes it up, keeping key and iconic moments from the graphic novels, whilst also adding new storylines and occasionally deviating from the original story. This allows me to see some of my favourite characters come to life on screen, whilst also not knowing entirely what to expect. For years, Game of Thrones book readers knew exactly what was going to happen on the TV show, as up until season 5, the show didn’t deviate too much from its source material. When the show did deviate from the books, many fans were unhappy. From my perspective, the Game of Thrones TV show in many ways, has improved on the books, as the author has gotten so bogged down with sub-plots and adding new major characters to the story as far as the fifth book. The TV show has trimmed much of the fat from the books, creating a more focussed and streamlined show.

Again, watching your favourite moments and characters come to life is pretty special, but if the film or show makers have done nothing but lifted the text onto screen, then you may as well just read the book.
I guess what I’m doing here is asking all of you book readers out there, try as best as you can to keep an open mind. If you hear that your favourite book or comic is being made into a film or TV show, forget the source material for a while. Forget what it is that makes it so good, and what you are expecting to see, and watch with the mind set that this is something totally new. History tells us that not every book adaption is going to work, as I said earlier, some of them have been and will be pretty awful, but a film or show is not bad just because a book came before it. A book can be good, and its on screen adaption can be good, but they can both be good for different reasons.

The next time a book or comic you like is due to get an on screen adaption, go and check it out with no expectations of what it should be, and you may just find yourself watching something good.

Stuart Keating