Why I Prefer Books to Movies

The first four Harry Potter books, with the first two stacked on the latter two. The first two are in paperback and show some creases on the covers and the spines

When I was a kid, I would run out of the room when a preview for the first Harry Potter movie came on TV, much to the confusion of my family. I’d loved the books since my parents bought me the first one for Christmas—the only way that I could find a copy, since our local library seemed to always have it checked out, no matter how often we looked—and I’d read it and all its then-available sequels so many times that one of my favorite party tricks at family gatherings was to recite my count for each. I should have been in the prime audience for the movie, right? Well, everybody except me seemed to think so.

The fact that I am unusual in this cannot be denied, and I feel obligated to preface this post by stating that I am not attempting to make a judgment that should be applied to any other person. Many of my peers while growing up would become upset when I attempted to explain the thoughts and feelings behind decisions such as this one, as if I were challenging them just by being different. And I believe, rightly or wrongly, that some people never grow out of this belief that a person who thinks a certain way must be of the opinion that there’s something wrong with those who don’t. Or the belief that you can change the way a person is by telling them they shouldn’t be that way.

As I said, I was different when it came to this, and when my Mom approached me to ask why I didn’t want to see the movie, I had a difficult time explaining. I never had to explain why I liked chocolate ice cream or why I didn’t like going into the basement with all the lights off. I wasn’t an amateur food critic or a budding developmental psychologist, but I didn’t have to be when my preferences were normal ones. On the subject of film adaptations, I could only say that when I read a book it made a picture in my mind, and if I saw a picture from the movie, the one inside my head would be replaced by that instead. And I liked the picture I’d made better.

On Books and Their Film Adaptations

A television on a pile of rocks near a stream. The stream can be seen on either side of the television, as well as through its missing screen
Photo by Photography Maghradze PH on Pexels.com

I did accept an invitation from a friend to see the movie with her in the end. This time, when Mom asked why, I told her that it was too late. Harry Potter was ubiquitous, its movie trailer and its posters unavoidable, and when I thought of Harry I’d already started to see Daniel Radcliffe.

If you’d asked before the movie was announced how I saw Harry, though, I don’t think I would have been able to give you a physical description of great detail. I wouldn’t have been able to draw a picture, and if I’d tried, I would have gotten frustrated and crossed it out. I would have said it looked all wrong, and I don’t think I would have had only my lackluster art skills to blame. I look at photos of myself and think that they look wrong.

The problem, I think, is that I “see” a person in a way beyond the physical. In books, I can skip over every detail about hair and eye color, distinctive features, and style of clothing and focus on the parts of character I care about. In essence, it can be like I don’t even have a picture.

In movies, though, it’s almost all picture. Picture and sound, removed from the character thoughts that were revealed inside the text, without emotional filtering and value judgments given by narration.

The difference, I think, can be quite well illustrated with the Twilight book series versus the movies. When I read the books in high school, all the conversations I recall being involved in or overhearing were with girls who adored Edward, even as they sometimes admitted that they knew they shouldn’t. After the movies, there was a shift around me showing much more favoritism towards Jacob. And typically the reasoning was something like “he’s hot”. I also saw an uptick in people who saw Bella as a boring character, and this seemed to be the case particularly with those who’d only seen the movie and never experienced the book through her first-person perspective.

For most people, though, I expect the experience of reading a book and watching a movie to be simply different. Sometimes they prefer the original over its adaptation, sometimes the other way around. Most people seem to agree that Eragon was turned into a significantly worse movie, while The Wizard of Oz seems to have totally eclipsed the book that it was based on. And when choosing to watch a movie that has never been a book or read a book that never became a movie, many would call it a toss-up or go with the movie. I haven’t met many in my life who honestly would say the book and not the movie. Most days, however, I would.

My Reasoning (Such as it is)

A man holding a lit-up coil of wire
Photo by David Cassolato on Pexels.com

I believe that one of the most difficult human experiences to describe is pain. We turn to similes and metaphors, comparing pain to being burned or stabbed or beaten up. When visiting a hospital, we’re asked to use a scale from one to ten, and I suspect I’m not the only one who wonders if my “ten” is different from everybody else’s. Sometimes when a person claims to be in pain, it can be difficult to difficult to comprehend, to truly understand how they are feeling. Each one of us knows pain, but only our experience of pain.

Likewise, each one of us can only know the workings of our own individual minds. I find it fascinating that it took so long for scientists to begin seriously researching conditions such as synesthesia, in which people experience more than one sense when presenting with a stimulus that for other people would trigger only one. Some people with it see music as colors or taste objects they look at (source). To those of us who don’t have it, it can sound strange and almost unbelievable, but those who do often report having previously thought that everyone experienced the world this way (source).

Is it possible to step beyond my own perception far enough to explain how it might differ from that of others? Well, the difficulty is that it requires you to guess how other people think!

What I can tell you is that when someone goes into great detail about why another person is a great actor, I wonder how they can possibly be picking up so much from watching the scene that they describe. If I have seen the same scene, I find that I did not, and I find that if I watch again after I hear them, I still do not appreciate it in that way.

I can tell you that it takes more time and effort for me to keep the characters straight when I am watching as opposed to reading, and I sometimes miss the point of major plot developments because I’ve gotten characters mixed up and realize my mistake too late. I’ve watched a movie with a friend who cried because a character had died offscreen, and when she explained to me what happened, I said “who?”.

For me, a movie lives and dies by plot and dialogue. If it’s a musical, I often find an easier appreciation. I feel the characters’ emotions in the songs they sing.

In books, I feel the deep meanings behind the words. I hear the rhythm of the sentences, the harmony of assonance and consonance, the jarring note of patterns disrupted. I admire word choice and pick up the subtle differences of connotation, maybe in a way that’s similar to those with the ability to read so deeply into an actor’s face. My emotional connection is stronger, and I often wish that there was more after the last page has been turned. It’s rare for me to choose to watch a movie for a second time, unless there is someone who wants to watch it with me. I often go back to my favorite books, and I find great enjoyment in doing so, while with the movie I am often bored due to remembering everything about it that had mattered to me.

I am a person built for the written word, I think. I’m glad there are so many books for me to choose from, and I hope there will be many people to enjoy the ones I write. I hope as well that everyone can be at peace with who they are and how they see the world. There’s space enough for all of us.

Reading Goals for 2022

(Graph generated by The StoryGraph)

I read twenty-four books in 2021, a lot of fantasy, a little bit of science fiction, one classic, and one non-fiction. On the fantasy front, I read some books by hugely popular authors and others that were very recently published. In a lot of cases, I was reading to try to get a feel for what fantasy readers want to see and for what the current market is like. I also ended up enjoying a lot of what I read, to the extent that I went out and read all the sequels as well.

This year, I would like to continue doing that, but I want to find a good balance between that sort of reading and the other sort that I enjoy even though it doesn’t contribute to that sort of research. I do want to keep reading classic literature, even though it tends to take longer to get through and isn’t directly applicable to the current market. I do think that I pick up writing techniques from reading books that are masterfully written, and I think it gives me insights into the literary world and the real one in which we live.

So I’m not going to set a goal for how many books I read or even how many pages, but I am going to try to spend at least some time reading in a meaningful way every week. Whether that means a few chapters in a classic that makes me stop and think or an entire modern novella that I just fly through, I’m going to try to feel good about myself for what I’m accomplishing. Numbers aren’t the whole story, but at this time next year, I want to look back and feel satisfied.

What are your current reading goals?