In Defence of Reading Before Watching

Jodie considers an age-old question: should you wait to see the film until after you've read the book?

In the months leading up to the beginning of my Creative Writing degree, my Mum accused me of something I did not happily admit to: that I only read one type of book.

Sure, this was a little general, but what she meant was that this kind of course would require me to read all kinds of literature, and not just YA (Young Adult fiction) as I currently did. My reading range was going to have to broaden, and was I ready? It took a bit time to accept this (I may have been in denial) but I soon saw she was right. Whilst the books I read covered a diverse range of themes – domestic abuse, terminal illness, relationships, mental disorders, coming of age, crime, and so on – they were all, ultimately, similar.

So how to combat this? Around that time there were several films recently out, or soon to come out, that I was excited to see: The Life of Pi, Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby, and Twelve Years a Slave to name a few. Each were adaptations of popular books, both old and new, and none of them like The Fault in Our Stars or The Hunger Games. Why not try giving them a read? I thought. And then watching the film would be a kind of reward of sorts afterwards. It could work.

Through studying films – albeit casually – I’ve been able to refine the scenes I write so they can pack more punch.

And it has. I’ve kept this up for the past three or four years now, only slipping up (and accidentally watching the film first) on a handful of occasions. In fact, a few times I’ve ended up reading a book without watching its film at all. Going into my degree I felt I could sit a little straighter and answer more confidently when someone asked me what sort of things I read. It turned out I liked a lot more than the latest YA dystopian series and I’m glad I was able to realise this in time. Looking forward, I’m planning on reading Shutter Island (although I have already seen the film), Stephen King’s IT, The Circle, Murder on the Orient Express (though judging by the size of Kenneth Branagh’s moustache in the trailer, I have my reservations…), and Wonder.

But don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with loving YA fiction. I still read it. And I still write it. The point is, in varying what I read, my eyes were opened to all literature could achieve. The ways in which a novel could be composed, how characters’ pasts, presents and personalities could be expressed, and what strong writing really looks and sounds like. I was suddenly experiencing heaps of new styles and forms, both that I liked and I didn’t, which helped expand the sort of writing I was producing. Ultimately, I was no longer limiting myself. Also, through studying films – albeit casually – I’ve been able to refine the scenes I write so they can pack more punch. I know I now ‘show’ what I mean through a character’s actions more than I simply ‘tell’ a reader about their characteristics. My dialogue flows better. My writing is more experimental, ambitious, more fluid, and I say what I mean more clearly.

Rather than going to the cinema simply to appreciate a story unfolding, instead you’re testing it. Double-daring it to let you down.

There’s a split opinion when it comes to whether you should bother reading a book before seeing the film. After all, instead of being different versions of the same, one is an adaptation of the other; creative license can be used willy-nilly and films will be more styled toward a ‘viewer’ than a ‘reader’. You may know from experience but if you’ve read a book and then gone to watch its adaptation, you have certain expectations. You can’t help watching out for your favourite scenes, or for the characters you love and hate to be brought to life.

Some argue that this stance is almost unfair on the movie: rather than going to the cinema simply to appreciate a story unfolding, instead you’re testing it. Double-daring it to let you down. It begins and you’re instantly wondering, is this going to match up? If it does, fantastic. And, on those rare occasions, if it surpasses what you hoped for, then all the better. But when it misses the mark – I’m looking at you, Divergent – you’re understandably disappointed. And the thing is, in truth, you’ll never really know whether you may have actually enjoyed it if you hadn’t started out with those expectations in the first place.

For me, I’m glad I’ve been reading before watching. I’ve read tens of books I might never have considered otherwise and, as a writer, I think this has really helped me.

On the flip side, when I’m at a friend’s house, I can ruin an evening very quickly…

‘So, I was thinking we could watch this tonight, you seen it?’

‘Not yet.’

‘Really? Great, it–’

‘Oh, uh, I haven’t read the book yet, though.’

‘Oh, right. But can’t you read it after? It’s a really good film.’

‘No…it’s kind of my thing. But I’ll read it soon and we can watch it then?’

‘Alright, well how about this? I haven’t watched it in ages…’

‘I haven’t read that either…’

‘Okay, well how about this?’




‘At what point does this book-before-film thing become a bad idea?’

‘Probably when you stop talking to me.’

by Jodie R Reed