Kyle Decker's Blog

Books vs Movies (or The Eternal Struggle Between Apples and Oranges)

By Kyle Decker
February 24th, 2024

There’s a particular soapbox I keep finding myself on. It’s not a particularly important soapbox, mind you. It has nothing to do with social issues, morality, or the state of the world today. But every time someone says, “The book is always better than the movie.” I have to roll my eyes. I’ve gone as far as to call this statement “The Battle Cry of the Pseudo-Intellectual.” Hyperbolic? Maybe. I know brilliant people who have made this statement. But still, it often feels disingenuous to me. As though it’s something people say because they think it makes them sound smart. Even if they’re smart already, they feel the need to put on airs about their intelligence. But there’s a multitude of reasons why this statement rings phony to me.

First of all, I have linguistic issues with it. The word always carries a lot of weight. By definition, it means “on all occasions.” It’s an absolute. And I don’t play around with absolutes. Absolutes are dangerous. They’re hyperbolic by their very nature. The world is vast, with more knowledge than can be known or perceived. All of which is in constant flux anyway. Nothing is absolute, and while I recognize the irony of that statement, it rings true. Granted “always” doesn’t always mean always. And I take no issue with hyperbole (I used one earlier, remember?), but it needs to be recognized as such, and I’m not convinced people making that claim always are. So, are the book versions always better than the movie? Not quite.

The thing is, it’s not even a true statement. I can think of several examples of movies that I preferred to the books they were based on, but I’ll stick with two. The film Children of Men, in my opinion, far surpasses its source material. Trying to keep it spoiler-free, the movie has a darker and more ambiguous ending that feels truer to the tone that was set throughout. The book, on the other hand, has an ending that one might call more “Hollywood.” A Deux-ex machina, even. The anti-consumerist satire of Fight Club is more effective in the film version. Even Chuck Palahniuk, the author of the book, has said he likes the movie better. For example, the scene when the camera pans across the narrator’s apartment and it starts to look like an Ikea catalog. It’s a clever little moment that is only possible in film. 

Which brings me to my next point. Comparing books and films is, largely, an apples-to oranges-comparison. It’s like comparing paintings to sculptures. Or a portrait of Lincoln to a statue of Lincoln. There are things you can do in books that you cannot do in film and vice versa. Books can be longer, go into more detail, and juggle more characters. Films can do in a single establishing shot what a book might take a whole page to describe. Books are largely a singular effort (although, I would never count out the value of workshop groups, editors, and copy editors), while movies are collaborative. They are the combined efforts of directors, cinematographers, musicians, actors, and writers. Both are amazing forms of art in their own right and are worthy of praise on their own merits. They each have their strengths and limitations that they must work within. Take The Lord of the Rings films, which are often hailed as one of the better film adaptations of a book series. The book series’s strength was its world-building. But the films can’t go into the complete history of every bridge the characters cross. Although, now it’s becoming more and more common for books to be adapted into streaming or TV series. So, the length thing is becoming less of a restraint on film. The point is, it’s downright silly to state that things that are so drastically different are “better” or “worse” than the other. You wouldn’t say, “Paintings are always better than sculptures.” Would you?

I guess what chaps my hide most about the whole “the book is always better than the movie” thing is that it’s attempting to make an objective statement about a subjective matter. Which is, quite frankly, elitist. It’s elevating one opinion over another. It plays into the stereotype that movies are the dumbed-down version of something. But as I stated before, film is an art form. It’s complex and has the potential to be just as intellectually stimulating. Of course, there’s a lot of lowbrow crap out there. But the same could be said of books. In both cases, it often sells pretty well. It’s just asinine to me to make an absolute-objectivist statement about something that is so obviously subjective. Of course, it’s okay to have a preference. My issue is not with preferring books to movies, my issue is turning a personal opinion into an absolute objective statement. It speaks to an undeserved sense of superiority.

Now, it’s true a lot of people tend to prefer the book to the movie. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. But the reason for this is, once again, subjective. It has nothing to do with one being “better” than the other. When you read a book, you have more agency in the interpretation. You can picture the characters yourself. When imagining settings you draw on your own experiences. You get to stretch your own imagination muscles. Books are simply more personal. Now, when it comes to film or television adaptations of said book, you’re seeing someone else’s interpretation (or sometimes reinterpretation) of the same material. Even the best film adaptations “belong” to someone else in a sense. You do sacrifice a bit of your agency in how you experience it. And if there’s any sort of contradiction between your interpretation of a book and the filmmakers’, I can see that as being a bit disappointing. But anyone who gets all bent out of shape because “So-and-so was blonde in the book but they’re a brunette in the movie!’ seriously needs to get a life.

All that being said, I think we need to move on, in general, from making objective statements about subjective topics.  We need to judge wildly different art forms based on the merits of the art form itself, not the merits of another form of art. While it’s fine to have a preference, we need to recognize them as such. So instead of, “The book is always better than the movie.” I propose saying something like, “I tend to prefer the book to the movie.” It’s subjective, respectful, and sounds a lot less like elitist pseudo-intellectualism.