On the surface this would seem to be a straightforward question. Which is better the movie or the book? But what exactly do we mean by better? More entertaining? Easier to follow? More exciting? By what yardstick do we measure better? Which are better- apples or oranges? Yet, it would seem that in the minds of many there is some basis for comparison. Book lovers will almost universally defend their precious tomes, citing the impossibility of capturing the totality of the writer’s vision and message in 120 minutes of cinema. Film buffs will eloquently discourse on the merits of a medium that makes the impossible seem to happen before our eyes in a way that no mere reader of stories can imagine. But to my mind they are speaking of different things entirely.
At the heart of it, I suppose, is the telling of a story. Reading a book can be an intensely personal experience, the reader engages with a book in an intimate way, and often revisits favorite novels in an effort to return to that place between its covers that gave so much pleasure the first time. Movies do this too but in a different way. As passive viewers we enter into the world of a movie not through our own eyes but through the vision of another. We don’t construct a world inside our own heads as we absorb the image on the screen, we watch someone’s interpretation of that world. Often that interpretation disappoints fans of the book but does that really mean that the book was better?
One of my favorite movies of all time was Apocalypse Now. In its day it was an amazing film and so I thought that the book must be fantastic. I had read Joseph Conrad’s works and thought that Heart of Darkness, which I had not read, must be worth a look. But, much to my chagrin, the book didn’t resemble the film that I had admired very much at all. It was a good book but there were hardly any points of comparison between the two. On the other hand, A Clockwork Orange was an intense book, prophetic in its message and told with a style that set a benchmark for my taste in modern fiction. Yet when Kubrick made his movie he surpassed it. Neither version of the story was better than the other but Kubrick’s genius added something that made them both seem better than they had before. I re-read Anthony Burgess’s novel but now little Alex was Malcolm McDowell, the scenes played themselves in my head as I read the book but now they took on the comic book simplicity of Kubrick’s film and I felt that I had a new clarity of understanding about them both.
Perhaps that is the point. Literature and cinema both deal in the same stock in trade and whilst there will always be bad movies (and bad books too) they are forms of expression that complement each other, often symbiotically, but that remain as different as apples and oranges.