We have a rule in this house, which was a great way to get kids reading in a media-saturated world: you can’t see the movie until you’ve read the book. We broke this rule for the last three Rowling books because they were bloated and unreadable, and we also broke it for (GASP) Lord of the Rings because I didn’t know how to hint to them that they could just skip the three-page descriptions of the weather and geological formations and come back to them later when they were older. But I digress. Is this just snobbery? Just intellectual super-posturing? I’d still argue no, mostly, but a few good examples are below.
Perhaps there is another factor at play here. When we say the book is better, we’re announcing that we read, we’re cultured, we feed our brains something loftier than big, colourful moving images. This is rooted in the stubborn snobbism that film is the weak sibling of the arts. “Over the years, I’ve grown used to seeing the cinema dismissed as an artform,” wrote Martin Scorsese in 2017. “It’s tainted by commercial considerations … there are too many people involved in its creation … it ‘leaves nothing to the imagination’.”
Nobody has ever said the book is better than the play. We’d be terrified of someone countering that we’ve just misunderstood Sir Trevor Nunn’s mise-en-scène. The best a film adaptation can hope for is that it’s deemed better than the rollercoaster, like Pirates of the Caribbean.
Actually, when you line them up, the film often leaves the book for dust. Would you rather slog through Peter Benchley’s Jaws (in which, boringly, the shark slowly succumbs to its wounds)? Or choose Mario Puzo’s The Godfather over Brando’s hamster-pouching charisma? Has any child ever laughed harder at Beatrix Potter’s finger-wagging tales than when James Corden’s Peter Rabbit pumped Mr McGregor with 10,000 volts?