Why books are honestly better than movies

The film adaptation of Delia Owens’ Where The Crawdads Sing has been getting a lot of bad press since its release for two reasons. First, there is the question of Delia Owens’, well, questionability in the murder of a poacher. Second, there is the Hollywood sanitizing of the film, as Shirley Li writes in this article from The Atlantic.

This isn’t the first time that a film adaptation has done injustice to a book. The sci-fi epic Dune had its onscreen debut in 1984 with subpar box office performance (although the 2021 remake is miles better). Even the 2013 film adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game was also a sore disappointment.

There are plenty of reasons why book-to-film adaptations flop: bad casting, poor direction, unrecognizable plots. I think a lot of the failure comes from the inability to convey everything that a book can. Books are immersive and personal. They deliver an impact in a way that films cannot.

Books immerse you in the character’s thoughts and feelings.

In most cases, movies position audiences as spectators. Owens wrote Where The Crawdads Sing in the third person, granting us access to Kya’s deepest thoughts, feelings, and desires. Those things aren’t always communicated when watching an actor on screen, regardless of talent. You can read and feel warring emotions in a character’s heart or mind—but there are limitations to seeing those on her face on screen.

Visual aesthetics take center stage in films. And while visuals are powerful, they can be misused. When glamour takes precedence, what are we truly left with? Who are we left with? In Where The Crawdads Sing, is it the same Kya living alone in the marshes, dirt poor and abandoned, trying to survive each day, ostracized from society—or is it a lone teenage girl free-roaming a world that “looks pleasing enough for Instagram”, desirable and mysterious to outsiders, as Li wrote?

Those Kyas sound like two different characters, from two different books.

There is less emphasis on aesthetics.

Reading a book is a unique experience for every reader. Granted, the degree to which we relate with characters will vary. But the way that we see, hear, and feel the characters is also influenced by our own amalgam of experiences and interactions over time. Perhaps you meet a character that reminds you exactly of your mom, your dog, or your best friend. That is infinitely more special than watching the same film with dozens of strangers in a dark theater. I think that is also why some readers can get so attached to book characters. They unlock a part of us nobody knows about, or they represent someone we know or love.

Perhaps this is where most films fail franchise fans, too. Sometimes casting can become a political and polarizing issue: consider the racial representation outcry for the Percy Jackson series. It shouldn’t even really matter. But everybody has different ideas of what characters look like when they read a book. When an actor doesn’t fit that image, discord results. With reading, everyone has the luxury to personalize and imagine along with the author.

I don’t deny the impact visual aesthetics has on our senses. But I think that allowing an author to paint you a vivid picture, or evoke specific emotions through mere words is magical. It broadens your own imagination, too.

You can take your time.

Have you ever watched a movie and felt like some things just went over your head? Maybe some plot devices didn’t make sense. Maybe there were some story holes that left you confused. Maybe you fell asleep and missed out on a pivotal scene your friends can’t stop talking about. Either way, you feel this compulsion to re-watch the film. You either have to buy tickets, revisit the theater, or get a copy somewhere. And that will take another 2 hours to re-watch and (hopefully) appreciate and understand the film better than the first time.

Unlike films, books let you go at your own pace. You can go as quickly or as slowly as you wish with a story, undeterred by the discretions of the director and a film crew. If you need to re-read a couple of lines to understand something, you have that freedom. In that sense, your reading experience becomes even more personal. Just as you take the time to get to know someone, you take the time to get to know your characters and story.

I think that is also why some readers can get so attached to book characters. They unlock a part of us nobody knows about, or they represent someone we know or love.

Let me close by saying that I don’t think all adaptations are bad. There have been plenty of successful ones, too, like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. But I do think that we gain a lot more from reading books; they can also supplement our movie-watching experiences.

Share your thoughts on adaptations of books you’ve read or loved below! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to browse my other Shelf Reflections.


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2 thoughts on “Why books are honestly better than movies

  1. +1 agree so much. It would be interesting to see a list of movie adaptations where the movie actually surpasses the book. Off the top of my head Drive My Car (which won an Oscar recently) adapted from Murakami’s short story is an amazing example of this 🙂

    1. I haven’t heard of that, but I’ll look into it! So far I can only think of movies that match the books: Never Let Me Go, Pride and Prejudice, and Blade Runner (1982).