The book/film quandry

OK, here’s the dilemma. The adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo hits cinemas on Friday. So, do I rush through the book in time to see the film, or read the book afterwards (assuming I feel the need to)?

Perhaps this raises the question of why would anyone even want to read a book after having seen the film. Well, given the amount of praise lavished on both the book and film, the chances are I might want to read it after. Here’re my thoughts as to why:

Film adaptations are a tricky thing, but good ones pretty much rely on the strength of the source material. I can’t think of many examples of mediocre books that get adapted for screen (Flashforward might count, but the show is more of a re-imagining).

My reasons for not having read Tattoo yet are a) because it’s now impossible to avoid the hype around the book and b), I hate the looks that commuters and the like give when I read something popular. That’s right, their screwed up eyes and knowing looks are stunting my literary appreciations. Damn them!

Obviously it depends on the film, but reading a book afterwards can serve several functions:

1) It can clarify points that don’t come across too well in the film
2) It offers a chance to spend a little more time in that world and its characters (Frank Herbert’s Dune being an extreme but prime example)
3) It can often serve as a kind of literary DVD extra, providing background details on aspects that the film couldn’t or wouldn’t cover (Let The Right One In is a good case in point)

Here are a couple of examples of books that actually add something to their film adaptations.

No Country For Old Men
Well, actually, this doesn’t add anything to its film adaptation, but that’s pretty much the point here (or anti-point); comparing film and book confirms how slavishly the Coens stuck to the source. Apparently, when asked how they went about adapting the book, the Coens describe the process as one of them reading aloud while the other types. It’s intended as a joke, but that approach definitely comes out in the reading/viewing. In the most positive way, the book is exactly like the film, almost page for page, and it’s interesting to see that play out.

Let The Right One In
The questions raised in the film made me immediately want to read the book. And the book answers those questions. But these do not rise out of poor storytelling. There’s a definite effort to credit the viewer with the intelligence to puzzle over some of the story. I imagine that reading the book first might make for a slightly less enchanting viewing of the film, but then that can be said of most film adaptations.

In fact, for its intended audience, Let The Right One In feels like a film that’s designed to compliment the book instead of offer an easier way to consume its story. There’s a neat connect in what you can take from the film, which sustains it easily without giving everything away, and how you can “go further” with the book, which gives you the whole story. It’s almost certainly accidental, but I would love to see more of this approach in adapting books for the screen.

Generally though, film adaptations are forced to leave out reams of detail to fit the format, and they’re destined to fall short of the expectations of avid readers ([don’t] See Time Traveller’s Wife, The Lovely Bones etc).

All of which means that there are no solid conclusions to be drawn. Bad stories can make good films or TV. Amazing books can make for poor movies. Generally, the book tells the stronger story, except when it doesn’t… and that every now and then, a film manages to take everything that mattered about the book, and leave out just enough to make you want to read it anyway.

Which is either the product of a true artist, or a twisted genius (neither of which have gone anywhere near the Predator novelisation).