Murphy’s Law – Put the book down

Joel Murphy

Joel Murphy

On my mother’s side of the family, everyone is a voracious reader. Books are passed around and discussed at great length. Summers at my grandparents’ house, I would often entertain myself by picking books off the shelf and reading them. And I loved it.

I was always in the Pizza Hut Book-It club growing up, earning free personal pan pizzas for the books I read over the summer. As a teenager, I vividly remember going on a camping trip with my dad where I spent most of my time in my tent trying to finish up a book I was particularly enthralled with.

I have a bachelor’s degree in English. I took an accelerated summer class in which I had to read Moby Dick in three days. I kept most of the books I was assigned to read in college because I plan on reading them again – for fun. The only Greek club I joined at college was Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honor Society.

So trust me when I say I liked to read.

Which is why I don’t make this next statement lightly. But it’s something that has to be said.

When it comes to Hollywood adaptations, we all need to stop reading the book before seeing the movie.

This realization came to me with the recent summer blockbuster The Hunger Games. As the hype began to build for the film, it seemed like everyone around me was suddenly picking up the books and plowing through them. Everyone wanted to read the books in preparation for the movie.

When the film came out, I saw a screening of it a few days before its release. I didn’t read the books. I knew very little about the film, outside of what parts of the basic premise I could piece together from the trailers and conversations I overheard with people who had read the series. I went in cold. And, outside of the mild nausea I felt from the overuse of handheld shaky camera shots, I really enjoyed the film.

So I was a bit surprised to discover that many of my friends were disappointed by it. Those who had read the books couldn’t help but find flaws in it. They had problems with specific casting. They were peeved that certain things were left out of the story. They scoffed at the film’s explanation of the Mockingjay pin. They were very worried that people like me – people who hadn’t read the book – would be confused or unable to figure out certain things that were explained more clearly or in greater detail in the novel.

In essence, the book ruined the moviegoing experience for them. And these were people who were much more excited to see this movie than I was. They had much more invested in it. Yet I had a much better time. Ignorance truly was bliss.

This concept became crystal clear for me with the Game of Thrones series. I watched season one of Game of Thrones without having read any of the novels and I loved the show. I loved it so much that I got the books and started reading them. I’m currently on book four.

Now that the show is back on the air for season two, for the first time I’m watching things that I read about first. And while I think the HBO show does a good job adapting the series, there are still things that I’m having to adjust to. I’m more aware of the shuffling they do with events to pace each episode. And characters that didn’t exist in the first season – like Melisandre – don’t look the way I pictured them in my mind. I’m still enjoying the show a lot, but I’m nitpicking it in a way I never did before.

The book is always going to be better than the movie. (Except in rare cases like Lord of the Rings or Fight Club, where the movies are actually much better than the books.) Even a television series like Game of Thrones, which has more time to tell the story, has to make changes or cuts for various reasons.

When you read the book first, you create an impossible bar that the movie can’t possibly live up to. Frankly though, the movie shouldn’t have to. Film is a completely different medium. It’s job isn’t to faithfully adapt a book. The film’s job is to condense the story down to a manageable theatrical length while still giving you the essence of the original story. Thing will be lost or changed for various reasons. And you’ll never be able to look at those changes objectively if you read the book first.

So if you plan on seeing a film adaptation of a book, do it before reading the source material. Your moviegoing experience will be much better for it. The great thing about reading is that the entire story exists in your head and it’s up to you to decide how things look. So either see the movie first or skip it altogether and just leave the story in your head where Hollywood can’t fuck it up.

Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at murphyslaw@hobotrashcan.com.

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