Popular books are often adapted into movies and TV shows, but rarely are movies and shows turned into books. Consumers typically move in the same direction– It is much more common for people to read the book before rather than after seeing its film or TV adaptation. But is this necessarily the best way to enjoy a story? What if, in fact, there are benefits to reading a book after watching the movie or show?
This question came to me this past week after watching the Season Four finale of Game of Thrones. (Don’t worry, no spoilers ahead.) It was a riveting season, filled with murders, deceptions, and mysterious magic. The end of the season left me wanting more, and aggrieved at having to wait ten months for the next season to start. I do not feel ready to say goodbye to the terrifying yet intoxicating world of Westeros just yet. At the same time, I began to realize, from snippets in various pieces of internet commentary, that I had only really seen part of the story, for the simple reason that I have not yet read any of the books upon which the show is based.
George R. R. Martin’s series, titled A Song of Ice and Fire, consists of five books (a total of at least seven are expected), the first three of which have been adapted into seasons 1-4 of the Game of Thrones series on HBO. The first thing that jumped out at me when I started researching this was the sheer size of these volumes. The paperback edition of the five-book box set clocks in at 4,272 pages. My heart sank as I wondered how anyone with a busy life could make it through the series. I often struggle to find time to read for more than a few minutes a day, and at that rate, it would take me years to finish these books. Luckily, G.R.R. Martin is writing slowly enough that even I might catch up with him before he finishes the last books…
Despite their long length, these books have thousands of dedicated fans, some of them with busy lives, and many of whom can breeze through each of these books in a matter of days or weeks. Could the books be not as difficult as they seem? I definitely know the feeling of becoming so lost in a gripping story that the pages just fly by. Based on the volume of praise that I’ve seen for this series from critics and readers alike, this seems like the case with Martin’s prose as well.
So let’s say I decided to read the books, and I had the time. The question then becomes: Since I already have seen the adaptations of the first three books on the small screen, is it worth it to go back and read them?
I think that answer could be yes, and here’s why:
Books can delve deeper than film into characters’ thoughts, feelings, and motivations. Rather than merely showing what happens, the words on a page work more seamlessly to guide you into a new world, bringing you inside someone’s head, and making you identify with a protagonist’s struggles. Well-chosen words can recreate a fantastical setting in vivid detail in the reader’s imagination and convey the exact blend of emotions the author hopes to elicit. A movie or TV show can certainly immerse the viewer as well, but a book allows you to linger longer and ponder further as you move through the story at your own pace.
Once you have already seen the story on film, going back to the book is not at all the same experience. Rather, it is an opportunity to engage more deeply with the material and gain greater insight into the characters. The plot may have been spoiled for you, but I think you can still appreciate it anew, from a different perspective. In the ASoIaF books, for example, each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, which intrigues me very much. On the show, each character is followed in their own storylines, but we never really know what’s going on in their heads.
Books also have more time to tell a story and pursue various side plots which are not exactly relevant to the main storyline. Many times, these plots have to be removed from the adaptation to cut down the running time, and although the editing might create a more focused product, it can be disappointing for fans who want to see more. The problem is that movies generally have to keep it to two hours, and books, especially epic fantasy novels, take much longer to be told in full.
Each season of Game of Thrones is 10 hours in length, and even then, book readers howl about plotlines and characters getting cut. This is one of the reasons I want to read the books, to see what other plots I’ve been missing, and to avoid worrying about spoilers from book readers. It makes sense to cut out the less important material for the show, especially because they are trying to reach a mass audience, but I also wonder why the season must be limited to ten hours. After all, HBO does not follow the normal conventions of TV, and if they wanted to air 20 hours per season, they could. Then again, even with all the time in the world to reproduce the entire canon of the books, it might not necessarily be a good thing to do so. After all, TV shows and books have different missions and rhythms, and show watchers who want to know more about Westeros can always dive into the books for all the parts of the story they’ve missed.
For people who have read a book before watching the movie or TV show, a common reaction is disappointment. “How could they leave that part out?”, “Why did they change this?”, “I didn’t picture her looking like THAT!”, etc. Bookreaders go into the theater with an image of the story already in their minds, and they are bound to be let down.
Now imagine doing the reverse. You’ve seen the movie or show, you know how the characters look, you’ve seen the loud explosions, the dragons, the tears running down cheeks. And you know the story, but probably not the full story. Now when you pick up the book, you can picture what’s happening more easily, learn new things about the story, and get a fuller understanding of the characters. Sounds like it could work, eh?
Has anyone tried reading the book second? I have, sort of, but my memory of the movie adaptation was not fresh in my mind. I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas several years after watching the movie, and I definitely got a lot more out of it. To my teenage mind, the movie seemed like a black comedy about eccentric people acting silly on drugs, but the book had a much deeper recurrent theme about disillusionment with the idealism of the 1960s. Had this failed to translate to the movie, or did I just fail to pick up on it? Either way, I did feel that my reading of the book was enhanced by having seen the movie first. This makes me wonder what other kinds of themes and messages I may be missing from other books that I skipped in lieu of watching the movie.
In conclusion, I think it could be worth it to read A Song of Ice and Fire for curious fans of the TV series who are itching for more. And I also think I may have just talked myself into a 4,272 page summer project.
Until next time… Keep reading, keep mapping!