Is it a rule that the book is always better than the film?

With more and more novels being turned into feature films, the question of whether the book is better than the film becomes more emotive with every new cinema release.
To answer this question, I interviewed a number of writers to get an author’s perspective. The resounding overall answer was ‘No… but there was this film…’ In other words, the gut reaction from 95% of the 80 writers I asked was that the book was always better than the film- and then they’d promptly come up with an example that contradicted that first reaction.
For instance,“No… but then I loved Cold Mountain the movie, but couldn’t get through the book.”

One author commented, “I think it depends. Sometimes there are really good adaptations of books, but they are never really similar. For instance I love Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which are are the same but different. The name of the main character and basic plot are the same, but the rest isn’t. I find that with watching movies I don’t always have to concentrate as much, with reading books I do. Books are not better; they are just different, because we use our imagination in a different way when we watch, rather than we do when we read.”
This is an excellent point. The frame of mind we are in when reading is very different from that when we are watching a film on the television or at the cinema. With a book it is our own imagination that is engaged by the words before us. With a film, the work is being done on our behalf by the visuals and sounds we are presented with. It is often the case that we see the book as better than the film when we have read the book first. If we see the film and then read the book, our perspective is more likely to be the reverse, and we will declare the movie better.

Script editor and film expert, Lucy V. Hay says, “There are loads of films that are better than the book, especially when plotting is an issue in the book, because movies cannot get away with plot issues in the same way. A good example is The Maze Runner. There are so many good things about the character and dialogue in the book, but the plotting is nonsensical in parts and exposition is back-ended towards the resolution. The movie takes all the great bits from the book regarding the concept, characters and dialogue and streamlines the plot.”

Another argument often voiced in the book versus film debate is that bad books make good films. This concept, known as fidelity criticism, has some merit as the film maker takes the idea and strips it into something far superior than the original text. Two examples often cited in this instance are The Godfather and Trainspotting. Though there are plenty who would disagree and give their own choices. Again, all highly debatable.

In the end, however, whether you think the book is better than the film, or vice versa, it must be remembered that they are fundamentally different mediums. In a book you can spend several pages on a character’s internal dialogue or in describing a landscape but these techniques do not usually translate well onto the film screen. Added to which, if a director included every single plot detail in a film then most would probably be a day long…. again not something you want.

When we read the book first, we often feel that the film should mirror every part of that story; but what if the director interprets the book differently? In short, it is very difficult to adapt a book for film, and it would be impossible to please everyone who’d read that book. Perhaps it is best that we view each of them as different concepts, mediums, and creative works in their own right, rather than compare them to each other.

For more information about specific books and that have been turned into films, see Lucy V Hay’s site-

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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