To read, or not to read: Pros and cons of reading novel prior to seeing film

TORONTO - As Ang Lee's striking film "Life of Pi" rides a wave of awards season glory, with 11 Oscar nominations and many other honours, the boy-tiger shipwreck story it's based on is also enjoying a boost.

Saskatoon-based author Yann Martel's Man Booker Prize-winning 2001 novel "Life of Pi" has been in the Top 20 on the New York Times Best Sellers list (and in the Top 10 several times) every week since the film came out in November.

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The question is, are readers taking in the book before seeing the film, or vice versa?

If Martel had his way, it would be the former.

When it comes to book/film adaptations, "One should start with the original work," Martel wrote in a recent email to The Canadian Press, via his publicist.

"So read the novel if it came first (so read 'Life of Pi' the book before seeing the movie) or see the movie first if it was done first (so '2001: A Space Odyssey,' which was a movie and then became a book).

"That way you get the originating artist's work in its first format rather than an adaptation."

CBC Radio "Writers & Company" host Eleanor Wachtel agrees, noting "movies colonize your imagination."

"If you see the movie first and then read the novel, it's virtually impossible to block out the actors who play the characters that you're now reading about," says Wachtel, who also hosts TIFF Bell Lightbox's "Books on Film" subscription series.

"So if you want to have that primary, intimate experience with a novel, it's much, much better I think to read a book first and then see the film."

In some cases, movie-goers might even have a better understanding or appreciation of a film if they've read the book first, she adds.

"Something like 'Cloud Atlas,' which is quite a stupendous adaptation, I think it's much better to read the novel first," says Wachtel.

"The movie jump-cuts a lot ... but the novel is like six nesting bowls cut in half, each written in a different style, and if you don't read the novel first you won't really be able to appreciate that."

Stieg Larsson's bestselling thriller "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is another example of a novel that should be read before seeing its cinema version, says Brandy Dean, a board member of the Toronto Film Society.

"I saw the David Fincher adaptation of it and I think that there was a lot of shorthand there, and if you hadn't read the book, the plot was a little confusing," says Dean, who also writes the blog Pretty Clever Films.

"So in that case it's almost like the user's manual for the movie. I watched it with a friend who hadn't read the book and I found myself doing a lot of explaining on just the plot points."

And with literary awards, social media platforms, book blogs and websites like Goodreads creating much buzz around books these days, it's hard to put off reading a story before its film release, notes Viveca Gretton of the Toronto Public Library.

"People want to be part of that reading community," says the librarian.

"One of the good things about reading the book is that it's going to take you to other books as well. It might start you on a path of reading similar books or books that interest you."

That's especially true when it comes to readers of fantasy and science fiction, adds Gretton, noting they're voracious readers who usually embrace film adaptations.

"If you're part of a fan site or participating in fan fiction or something like that, if you haven't read the book, you're seen as a bit of a poser, you're fake," she says.

"There's a certain cachet to having read the book."

Of course, when a book is read first and beloved, it can lead to high expectations for its big-screen adaptation — and then crushing disappointment when the film doesn't deliver.

"The directors are working in a visual medium and they're going to compress and eliminate elements from the book, so you might be distracted when you're watching a film saying, 'Well, that wasn't in the book,'" concedes Gretton.

The blow can be worse when casting doesn't jive with readers' vision of a beloved book hero/heroine. Just look at the recent backlash over Tom Cruise being cast as Jack Reacher in the feature adaptation of Lee Child's books (the Facebook page "Tom Cruise is not Jack Reacher" has over 9,000 "likes").

"My mother has said she's never going to read Lee Child again after that (casting)," says Caroline Walker of McNally Robinson Booksellers in Saskatoon.

That's why Walker prefers to read a novel after seeing its film.

"My personal opinion is that the book is always better, so I think if you liked the movie, you'll love the book," says the inventory manager, who has seen a spike in sales of "Life of Pi" recently.

"If you love the book, you don't always like the movie, because they can't do justice to a book in a movie. Even a really excellent movie doesn't always really do justice to the author's original conception of the story.

"So I think it's usually better to read the book afterwards."

Some readers come to love a book so much they refuse to see its film adaptation for fear of not liking it.

Dean, for instance, never wants to see the recent big-screen version of Jack Kerouac's seminal novel "On the Road."

"That's a book that to me, personally, was really, really important," she says.

"I read it at the exact right moment — I was 15 — it had a giant impact on my life and on my writing, and I just feel like it means so much to me and I will never like the movie and it will make me mad."

Walker feels the same way about Louis de Bernieres' "Captain Corelli's Mandolin."

"I actually avoided the movie because I didn't want to have it spoil my feelings for the story, because I knew the book was so wonderful," she says.

Wachtel says she's never avoided a film just because she loved the novel so much.

"The book is still there. It's not damaged in any way, it's not tainted," she notes.

And how do actors feel about the issue?

"It depends," says Julianne Hough, who's in the upcoming romantic feature "Safe Haven" that's based on the Nicholas Sparks novel.

"Because there are so many twists in this film and surprises I would rather, as an audience member, I'd rather go see the movie first and then go read it."

"Yeah. I would say: See the movie first," adds co-star Josh Duhamel. "But for Nicholas's sake I would rather them read the book and see the movie."

Actor Jay Baruchel thinks it's better to read the book first "because most adaptations are dreadful."

"I've had my heart broken plenty of times by seeing books that were dear to me just ruined, and having people then equate that title and those characters and those themes with something that (bad) when the book is so much better," he says, citing Alan Moore's comic book limited series "The Watchmen" as an example.

"That being said, there are a bunch of movies and TV shows that are better than their source material. ... I don't know that there's a rule. I think it depends who you are, it depends which book we're talking about."

There are some cases where both the book and film are equally enjoyable.

Dean says she thinks "The Maltese Falcon" 1941 film starring Humphrey Bogart is just as brilliant as the book by Dashiell Hammett.

"I find both the novel and that adaptation equally pleasurable and kind of distinct things, even though it's the same story and the same character," she says.

Gretton feels the same way about Stephen King horror novel "The Shining" and Stanley Kubrick's film version starring Jack Nicholson.

"So for people who loved 'The Shining' and said they refuse to see the film, they're missing a very interesting Kubrick film."

Keeping an open mind and not clinging to every plot point seems to be the key to making the film and book experiences equally pleasurable.

"I think it's just much better to be open to change or imagination and the fact that it's a different medium, it's a different art form, and it can be a different experience but not necessarily an inferior one," says Wachtel.


With files from Canadian Press reporter Cassandra Szklarski.

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