The Movie vs. Book Smackdown!


March 30, 2013 by Julia

You often hear, “The book was better.” But sometimes, the movie is!

I like to debate such things in my head while driving, or falling asleep, or playing with trucks on the floor, or actually debating with film aficionados. Care to witness the Movie vs. Book Smackdown that has gone down in my brain?

Keep in mind these are my opinions. Also keep in mind that I am usually right in matters related to the arts, entertainment, and good taste. I did read Entertainment Weekly every single week for fifteen years, until I started this blog and realized that I actually don’t have limitless spare time. Just kidding; I realized that when my first child was born. But the blog has kicked magazines to the curb. They had their own smackdown!

Back on topic. To be fair, I won’t include any books or movies that I haven’t both read and seen. For instance, I’ve seen Gone With the Wind, but never read the book. (That’s right. NEVER! I know I should, though.) One more movie worth noting, that I’m certain must be better than the book: The Bridges of Madison County. I’ve heard the book by Robert James Waller is the sappiest ever. I love the movie, though, and it is definitely not sappy, even if it makes me cry like nobody’s business. More than any other movie has, possibly. Just thought it worth mentioning.

Okay, smackdown commence.



Books by J.R.R. Tolkien, Movies released 2001-2003

Yeah, yeah…sacrilege. I freely admit that I’m not a huge fan of epic fantasies. I like magic, surrealism and the supernatural, but when the mythology drags out with endless forefathers and battles, I get a little impatient. I want the juicy, small moments, the subtle interactions. Give me the humanity! Do it with feeling!

Which is why, for my money, Peter Jackson’s film trilogy works better than the books themselves. He focused on the heart of the story, so that even non-fantasy geeks might get emotional. When Sam picks up an exhausted Frodo (“I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!”) to help him dispose of that nasty little ring in the fires of Mount Doom, I simultaneously got chills, and cried. I definitely didn’t cry reading the book.

Peter Jackson and his team took on a seemingly impossible project and defined excellence, here. I finally got the stories when I saw them presented this way onscreen. This is what epic fantasy should be.


Books by J.K. Rowling, Movies released 2001-2011


I was really disappointed by the first Harry Potter movie. It felt clunky, and stiff child actor Daniel Radcliffe may have looked the part, but he didn’t even come close to capturing the rascally charm of our hero. The editing and Radcliffe (along with all of the adolescent actors) progressively got much better, but the films never achieved the same levels of pure delight or emotional heft that the books did for me.

I know that most people who haven’t read the books thought the movies were a lot of fun, and I agree. It just felt like the movies were a paint-by-numbers kind of thing (like, of course they had to cast Alan Rickman as Snape and Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall – not that I’m complaining, exactly…they were perfect), but the books held an effortless, truly magical charm, even if J.K. Rowling could have edited out approximately 400 pages toward the end of the series. I still miss that familiar start of the school year at Hogwarts…in the books.


Book by Harper Lee, Movie released 1962


The book is one of my favorites. Talk about voice (Scout! One of the best children’s perspectives in literature, ever), talk about character (Atticus Finch! One of the best dads/lawyers/men in literature, ever), talk about place (you can feel the dust on your feet) talk about issues worth giving your attention to (racism in the deep south at the beginning of the civil rights movement) framed by a mystery and courtroom drama.

Instant classic.

So when you go to watch the movie you think there’s no way it can match the book. And then that opening montage, with the eerily sweet music and a child’s hands playing with the stuff of childhood, and you’re like, whoa, this is going to be an unexpectedly subtle, smart take on the book.

Then Gregory Finch shows up as Atticus. Sold. The perfect adaptation in that it honors the book – while standing on its own as a work of art.


Book by Ian McEwan, Movie released 2007


I’ve already written about how much I love Ian McEwan’s novel – the brilliant quality of his writing and insight into human nature, the passion and moments of shock, the frustration and ultimate devastation.

And I know the movie is good. But I don’t think it’s any better than good. The main problem, I think, is that McEwan’s writing gets inside his character’s heads so eloquently, and that is something that doesn’t always translate onto the screen. Film is such a different medium than literature. (Aren’t you glad I’m here to explain these things?)

Also, I didn’t particularly like Keira Knightley as Cecilia – something about her being too skinny and…not earthy? And of course she’s the most beautiful woman ever, but I have yet to see her achieve true, FACE-MELTING chemistry with anyone on-screen.

There’s a scene with Cecilia and Robbie in the book…ahem. It’s hot. In the movie, it’s just your average illicit sex (in a private library).


Book by Judith Guest, Movie released 1980


I saw the movie in college, and then read the book a couple of years later. I loved them equally; they’re both fascinating and sensitive. I’m a sucker for dysfunction and therapy-induced emotional breakthroughs on-screen. Both are highly recommended.


Book by Suzanne Collins, Movie released 2012


So, the book has that can’t-put-it-down quality we all search for. There is something unexpectedly shocking about the premise and the violence that ensues. Also, Katniss is bad-ass, and Peeta keeps us guessing. But when we see that same premise on-screen, it doesn’t feel so visceral, probably because we’re desensitized to violence on-screen. That’s my theory, anyway. The movie was good, but it wasn’t ohcrapwhat’sgonnahappen??? good. In the novel, though, those arrows struck home.

One more point – the movie totally botched the ending. In the book, it’s powerful and so cool when Katniss and Peeta outwit the games by threatening to poison themselves at the same time. But in the movie, those poisonous berries don’t carry the same weight. That whole part is over before you even realize what’s happening.


Book by Daniel Woodrell, Movie released 2010


Not to get all snooty about it, but I read this book loooong before anyone had even thought about making a cool indie movie based on it starring the ingénue Jennifer Lawrence. Okay, I do feel snooty about it. Because I was so enthralled by the book, and no one else had heard of it! Sorry. I’ll stop talking about it now. Dennis has heard this a million times already.

Another case of a movie that was good, but the excellence of the book’s prose didn’t transfer to the screen.


Book by Neil Gaiman, Movie released 2009


The book is creepy as hell. So is the movie. You could eat up the delicious book in one afternoon. The movie chooses the perfect medium to tell the story (stop-motion animation), and backs it up with both chilling silence and a lovely, quirky score. HUGS TO BOTH.


Book by Larry McMurtry, Movie released 1983


The book was kinda “ehhhh” for me. I almost gave up reading it a bunch of times. I didn’t care about the characters. The plot was one of those that kept touching down at different major life moments without fully investing in anyone. But the movie has that gangbusters cast. And it has that scene where Debra Winger is dying of cancer has to tell her two young sons that she is going to die. Ahhhhhhhhhh. NOO. And that scene where Shirley Maclaine starts yelling at the hospital staff about her dying daughter. Let’s just say I felt a little bit more than I did while reading the book…

(Side note: I’m seeing a pattern here. Whatever makes me cry more is deemed better.)


Book by Kazuo Ishiguro, Movie released 1993


You’re probably wondering why would I choose to read this book ten years after the movie came out, especially when it’s been relentlessly mocked for its high-pedigree brand of repression and slowness. But I’d just read Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go,” and had fallen in love with his quietly powerful style. And this book did not disappoint. Like Ian McEwan, Ishiguro’s insight into human nature and his own characters is astounding. The novel, giving the best example of an unreliable narrator I’ve ever read, packs quite a punch. The movie…not so much. I should probably re-watch it as an adult to be sure, but for now, book wins.


Book by Janet Fitch, Movie released 2002


Probably another one of my favorite books. The prose is lyrical, the plot fully engaged me, and it contains one of the best villains ever in Astrid’s bitchy, selfish, manipulative mother. The movie is great, too – and Michelle Pfieffer as that mom is ice cold. (She is such a great actor.) The last shots of the movie, showing how Astrid has artistically dealt with her foster home experiences while her mother was in prison, are lovely and satisfying.


Book by Daphne De Maurier, Movie released 1940


For an old time-y book, this mystery freaked me out. I truly could not guess if there were supposed to be supernatural forces at work, or if it could all be explained rationally. I love it when you can’t tell if the author is going to keep it in the realm of the known or not.

The movie was directed by Hitchcock, and I think it was good, but I honestly can’t remember much about it, so that means the book wins.


Book by Audrey Niffenegger, Movie released 2009


I only bring this up as an example of a wonderful book that was turned into a Lifetime-quality movie that gives so-called “women’s fiction” a bad name. (Which reminds me, I need to write a post about how sexist the “women’s fiction” label is.)


Book by Stieg Larsson, Movie released 2011 (American version)


Can we just all agree that the Dragon Tattoo book series is not that great? You know it’s not, deep down. To be fair, I only read the first book. The beginning was borrrrrring background information and nearly impossible to follow, and then the end was basically shock-value torture porn to keep people reading. I admit I couldn’t put it down for the last few chapters, but I didn’t feel good about it. I do like Lisbeth. But then she falls in lust/love with the apparently irresistible-to-women Mikael, which is kind of weird when she’s just been horrifically sexually violated, not to mention that she’s supposed to represent superhero femme power.

Despite all that, the movie was cool. Super cool. Probably because it was directed by David Fincher.

Um, it’s after midnight here. Also, my dear friend told me that my blog is a bit wordy. Crap. Good night.




4 thoughts on “The Movie vs. Book Smackdown!

  1. […] The Movie vs. Book Smackdown!. […]

  2. Lara says:

    You’re really good at this! I agree with most of your opinions (naturally), but there are a few on here that I haven’t read/seen. Must add them to my “will never have time to read all these books in my lifetime even if all I did was read 24/7/365” list. 🙂

    • Julia says:

      Thanks, Lara! And like I said, I still haven’t read Gone With the Wind, or Catch 22 or Life of Pi – I’ve got my list, too. If only we could survive on three hours of sleep a night!

  3. Vike Thurston says:

    Spare yourself, Ju. My impression is that Gone with the Wind isn’t worth my time to read. Ishiguro is great. If you’re into unreliable narrators, check out Iris Murdoch’s “The Black Prince”.

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