Should you always read the book first?

Writing up my queer retellings book recommendations post got me thinking about adaptations, which could arguably be considered a different form of retelling. And with the seemingly endless stream of announcements of new adaptations being initiated or released, this is a question that’s been on my mind:

Should you always read the original book first, before you watch the movie or TV show?

Obviously, it can depend on the circumstances.

Sometimes it’s just out of your control. Maybe the deciding factor is when you can get access, e.g., will your library hold come in before the movie date you made with your friends? (Remember going to movie theaters with friends?) Or maybe you’ve already read the book long before the adaptation was announced, or you saw the adaptation before you knew it was based on a book. Or maybe you are a literal child and your parents are taking you to see the movies even though the last book in the series isn’t out yet. 

Sometimes it doesn’t really matter. The adaptation could be only superficially based on the book (see: The 100), to the point where they’re essentially separate entities. Familiarity with both would help you pinpoint all the ways they diverge, but direct comparisons of the two may be pointless.

Sometimes you make a case-by-case decision. If your friends and/or “book influencers” you follow have already seen the adaptation, chances are they’ve offered opinions on whether you should or shouldn’t (or alternatively, whether you need to or don’t need to) read the book first. Perhaps the book just doesn’t sound all that interesting, or you read a few pages and gave up, or you already know the author’s writing style doesn’t work for you, whereas you’re excited about the cast or the director or something else unique to the adaptation. Or you came across the adaptation while scrolling through Netflix and decided, spur-of-the-moment, to give it a watch.

(And sometimes the book isn’t the original; there are plenty of books based on movie franchises or video games. But for the purposes of discussion, in this post I’ll be sticking to cases where the movie or show was based on the book.)

In Favor of “Read the Book First”

Let’s start with this one because it seems to be the more popular approach, and it’s where I started. While I can’t speak for everyone, I can certainly share why this made the most sense to me.

I wanted to get a “proper” introduction to the narrative. Somewhere along the line I picked up the idea that the original version is the “real” version of the story, so it should be my first impression of the work. Whether that means we only get one character’s POV throughout or every character gives a monologue explaining their backstory and driving motives, the author’s chosen lens may not align with the director’s vision or what’s possible for a movie or TV show. You can only experience something for the first time once; if we’re considering the book and its adaptation to be connected, it seemed only logical to begin with the source material. 

I also wanted to imagine the characters and settings for myself (“as the author intended,” some people say — though others point out, rightly I think, that each reader brings different views to their experience of the story, so their interpretation is probably not an exact match for the author’s intentions). Though I’ve since realized that I have aphantasia and can’t literally picture any of it, so this one becomes kind of moot?

And I wanted to have all the background information going in. Unfortunately, I’ve seen quite a few movies that skip too much exposition or too many connecting scenes, so that people who haven’t read the book can’t follow what’s happening, or — returning to the idea of authorial choice — the themes or message(s) seem to have shifted from the original. On a less intense level, sometimes it’s just more fun to be able to recognize specific lines or character outfits or descriptions.

In Favor of “See the Adaptation First”

This is where I find myself leaning these days, actually! While I still understand and respect that many people will continue to read the book first, there are a few reasons why this often works better for me.

I’m more likely to enjoy both the adaptation and the book if I see the adaptation first. This might just be a quirk of mine, but when I read the book first I can’t help nitpicking everything they changed; on the other hand, if I’m comparing the book to the adaptation then the differences are just interesting, not infuriating, to notice. And because of my aphantasia I don’t have an issue of conflicting mental images. 

The adaptation can serve as a “primer” then the book fills in the gaps. As far as the plot goes, I don’t really mind if it’s been spoiled by the movie or show — and it’s always possible that they rewrote the ending. It’s easier to fit all the pieces together (characters, setting, plot, motifs, etc.) once I have the big picture from seeing the adaptation, so that I can enjoy the details and POV observations/ introspection and cut scenes when I pick up the book; I learned the power of this approach firsthand in high school when we watched play performances or movie clips before diving into Shakespearean English and cranium-screw-y plots.

Often the adaptation is a more fruitful conversation topic. While of course I have lots of friends who read, I also have friends who don’t, as well as acquaintances and other people I need to make small talk with. And generally speaking, I’ve found that people are more likely to remember an action sequence than a written play-by-play of the same fight scene — and the same holds true for other adaptation vs. book details. This is less important to me than the other two reasons, but still worth mentioning. 

As always, I’m not here to condemn or promote any particular mindset, just to explore the options and share my own thoughts. My ultimate position on the matter comes down to you do you, boo and let me do me.

  • Do you have a preference for reading the book before or after the adaptation? Have you maybe reconsidered the alternative after reading this post?
  • Do you change your approach when it comes to book & adapted versions of a series?
  • What do you do when the book is the adapted version of the original?

8 thoughts on “Should you always read the book first?

  1. I’ve recently really fallen in love with watching the adaptation first because, as you said, then you’re not really aggravated when things are changed. However, my favorite way to do it is adaptation first, book second, and then adaptation again. Most of the time, I end up reading the book first years before an adaptation is even a thing, so it’s mostly a moot point for me, but I love being able to see the adaptation first and get all the characters in my head before I fall in love with the book. I’m almost always guaranteed to love the book more, and it’s nice not to be angry at the adaptation because it didn’t live up to expectations that were already set.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ohhhh that’s a really smart way to do it, I might have to try it out! and I’m totally with you, I’ve often found that it helps when reading the book to already have some sense of the characters – there’s so much else going on, after all!

      Liked by 1 person

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