It’s no secret among the people in my life that I am a hardcore book lover, and I am no stranger to the movie theater either. When those two worlds collide, however, my friends and family should know by now to run for the hills, because film adaptations of books that I’ve enjoyed usually cause me to go a little crazy. Crazy as in, not only will I go see the movie with the full expectation that I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll sit with a small notepad and pen on my lap so that I can jot down the aspects of the movie that differ from the original content in the book.
Yes, that crazy. Oh, and I’m usually wearing one of my favorite t-shirts when I go see such films– the one adorned with this image on the front:
This past Friday, I spent some time finishing up Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire (for the third time) so that it would be fresh in my head before heading to the movie that evening. Somehow, three friends and my husband all agreed to not only go to the movie with me, but to even sit in the same row. It didn’t take too long into the film before I uncapped my pen, and the pal to my left leaned in and asked, “Why do you do that to yourself?” My answer was immediate and genuine, “So I don’t do it to you.” I have to let it out in the moment, so better that they notice me jotting on a paper than me tsking in their ears.
After a big theatrical release like Catching Fire, the buzz begins in the book vs. movie vein. Personally, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever say that a movie is better than a book. Not out of the question, as I can think of at least one book that I actually didn’t enjoy but was quite taken by its movie counterpart. In that case, the movie told a bit of a different story, so it was a bit like judging apples and oranges. But if I really loved a book, it’s a safe bet to say that I’m never going to prefer the big screen adaptation.
I’ve been told to just sit back and enjoy, to keep in mind that a movie is a different medium than a book and that every little detail on the pages can never be fit into a reasonable movie time frame. Just accept the changes and the omissions, they say. While I understand the reality of these statements, I still can’t sit back and relax, and I know that part of it is a sadness that big movies will always reach larger audiences than books. My book-loving heart wants people to experience the original source more than taking in some incomplete adaptation as their only exposure to the story.
As I lay in bed in the wee hours of the morning after the late night movie, I couldn’t stop thinking about why I feel the way I feel. I had to admit to myself that I really enjoyed the movie that night, despite my notebook scribblings, and that the character portrayals couldn’t have been better by this talented cast. Sure, I can nitpick some details that were different than the book, and I have a continued frustration with both Hunger Games films’ downplaying of a character who is so integral to the trilogy’s story arc, but overall, the film was excellent. So what was still gnawing at me?
Then it hit me. It’s not a “better than” question, because it’s the experience itself that is wholly different, and it’s that essential aspect that makes my preference lie with books almost 100% of the time. As I sat in the darkened theater, the action on the screen played out in front of me so fast-paced that I found myself holding my breath at times. Almost two and a half hours flew by like nothing. Not only was the story’s time frame sped up in the film adaptation, but the entire experience went by so quickly that there was no time to think or reflect. Comments that held great meaning and gave me pause when I read them on the page were gone in a second on the screen, and I couldn’t stop myself from thinking, “Do people understand the significance of that?” A bookmark can be placed or a page corner dog-eared so that a scene in the story can sink in, but in a movie, the action continues and your mind goes on to the next scene immediately.
The other aspect of the book vs. movie experience that I realized held great weight with me could be summed up this way- seeing vs. feeling. I guess it shouldn’t be a complete “vs.” idea, since I am moved to tears with emotion by films all the time. I’m not saying that movies don’t make me feel at all, but the visual component often takes over, especially in an action-filled film like Catching Fire. A bit of a spoiler alert here, but I think there’s one scene that is in both the book and movie that works well to explain my meaning for this. One feature of the Quarter Quell game this time around places jabberjays in the arena equipped with the wails of the tributes’ loved ones. Designed to psychologically torture the trapped tributes relentlessly for an entire hour, they represent the unending power of the Capitol and the fear that it wishes to constantly instill in its residents. In the book, this torture goes on for five long pages, but of course it is a short scene in the film, as it needs to be. While the horror of it is clearly up there on the screen, it didn’t grip me deep in my gut in the same way as when I had to read it word by word.
My brain doesn’t create terribly vivid images when I read and that always causes me to gasp at big screen depictions, because I didn’t focus on the visual component when I read the book. For me, the reading experience is more about the emotional investment, the intricate processing of words into feelings, and the time spent thinking about the story between chapters. A movie can wow me with its effects and the quality of the actors’ performances, but it always leaves me wanting more time to be in the moment with the characters and think about what is happening to them.
Perhaps my epiphany will allow me to put the notebook away next year when the first part of Mockingjay is released, because I can go in knowing that I will not walk out a couple hours later having had an emotional experience at the same level as the book. With that unconscious expectation lifted, maybe I will finally be able to appreciate the film as a completely separate medium and just sit back and relax.
I’ll still pack the notebook and pen, just in case.