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October 9, 2015

Take the Poll: Is It Better to Read the Book Before Watching the TV Adaptation?

by Maureen Ryan, posted Oct 1st 2010 12:15PM
Let me ask you a question, readers. Before watching an upcoming TV series -- in this case, AMC's 'The Walking Dead' -- should I read the source material on which the show is based?

I've heard a lot of good things about Robert Kirkman's acclaimed comic series of the same name. But, speaking of adaptations, I read 'Pillars of the Earth' over the summer and almost had an aneurysm when I saw how shoddy the Starz adaptation of the book was.

So is it better to read the book to prepare myself for the series? Or is it better to be surprised by the twists and turns of the story and not potentially set myself up for disappointment?

Tell me what to do in the poll below, and you can also share your thoughts in comments.

Read the book before watching the TV series?
Yes248 (45.8%)
No177 (32.7%)
Not sure116 (21.4%)
Of course, we all know what it's like to see an adaptation of a much-loved work done well (I'll cite 'The Lord of the Rings' films as just one example). But often, films and TV shows based on plays, books and comic books end up being not quite as good, or as distinctive, as that original work. Sometimes works created in one medium just don't survive the translation to another, and then there are the twin dangers of fidelity: Sometimes an adaptation is too faithful and sometimes it's not faithful enough.

'Game of Thrones' faces this potential problem -- the upcoming HBO series has a rabid, built-in fan base made up of people who've read George R.R. Martin's series of 'A Song of Ice and Fire' novels. Yet can the TV show create the moral complexity, the sense of adventure and the indelible characters that Martin put on the page?

And can a TV show live up to the worlds and moments those who've read the books have created in their minds? When books are that beloved, we want them not just to be faithful to the text, we want them to be faithful to what we've imagined.

That's simply not possible, and, just speaking in general (not about 'GoT' in particular), if the new set of creators don't have a coherent vision of their own that they are faithful to, the whole enterprise is bound to fail. But 'LOTR' proves that even the most ardent fanboys and fangirls can be won over by a rigorous adaptation that stays true to the heart and soul of the source material while abiding by the structures and useful conventions of a different storytelling realm. Unless proven otherwise, I'm giving 'GoT' the benefit of the doubt and hoping it ends up pleasing fans with its own distinctive take on Martin's stories.

Generally speaking ,though, clunky adaptation seem to outnumber deft and nimble ones. Ask any fan of comic books -- for every 'Iron Man,' there seem to be a dozen leaden comic-book-to-film translations. I fear for Suzanne Collins' 'Hunger Games' trilogy, and fear that film adaptations will play up the romance side of these otherwise thought-provoking and enjoyable novels to garner the 'Twilight' audience. The mistakes that can be made in the adaptation realm seem endless, yet every year, Hollywood seems to make all of them at one point or another.

And there's also the issue of surprises. 'The Walking Dead' is a horror story about zombies, and there are bound to be twists and surprises that are fun to experience the first time. Maybe they won't be as exciting if I read the book and know when to expect them on the TV show.

Sometimes time constraints make this whole debate moot, but the book vs. TV show dilemma is something I think about whenever a TV adaptation arrives on my desk (sometimes accompanied by a thick tome). Of course, nothing can stop me from reading a good book or comic, whether or not someone is making a TV series of it. But I thought it might make for an interesting discussion discussion.

But before we get to that, here's a great example of adaptation: It's 'Walking Dead's' opening credits, made by a fan, Daniel Kanemoto. I imagine it's far too late for 'Walking Dead' adapter Frank Darabont to use Kanemoto's homemade sequence, but this is very well-made and a lot of fun to watch.

THE WALKING DEAD "Opening Titles" from Daniel Kanemoto on Vimeo.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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I'd always been stalwartly opposed to watching before reading. But sometime around Harry Potter this changed and I realized I liked watching the adaptation and then fleshing out the story with the book. This way I increased my pleasure rather than decreased it.

Books are better than their adaptations. This is the rule. Bones, Dexter, Dresden Files, Friday Night Lights and the occasional phenomenal adaptation are the exception to the rule.

October 05 2010 at 2:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Brendan D

Mo, I think the question itself is unfair. I'm perfectly happy to see a stellar adaptation of an amazing book, or a supremely brilliant adaptation of a mediocre book. What bothers me is the fact that mediocrity is the best we can hope for. Take the relatively acclaimed BBC adaptation of "Tipping the Velvet." Now, granted, it's not likely that ANY adaptation could live up to my expectations, as it's one of my favorite books of all time. But the Beeb version was particularly heinous, boiling down the picaresque narrative to softcore porn.

My point is that, for fans of a particular novel, adaptations rarely can exceed expectations, and normally do well to even come close to matching the originals -- in the eyes of fans. But if two or three or ten people are moved to look to the originals, well, that in itself is an accomplishment. I only hope that's what happens with whatever's going to come of Gus Van Zant's version of "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

October 03 2010 at 11:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

You can go either way with 'The Walking Dead' -- it's an excellent comic book, but Kirkman is well on the record saying that considerable changes have been made from page to screen.

The thing about 'The Walking Dead' (or 'Game of Thrones' or any other film/TV adaptation of a book) is that they're very different beasts. You can do things on the page that you can't on screen, and vice versa. Got to judge them on their own terms. As I've said elsewhere, I'm a huge fan of 'LA Confidential' and James Ellroy. If Curtis Hansen had even tried bringing that book to the screen intact -- with it's complex tangle of sub-plots stretching over a decade -- it would have been a hundred hours long, X-rated and downright unwatchable. Instead, they pared away the sub-plots and subsidiary characters, concentrated the time scheme, and made a marvellous film Ellory himself has praised as honouring the spirit of his book.

October 03 2010 at 4:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I opted to read the books first and enjoyed them so much that I'm now about a third of the way through rereading them. They are just as good the second time through, which may soothe some of your fears about spoilers. As far as your concern about this being a horror story increasing your concerns about spoilers, I don't think that is really the case. Sure, the story takes place amidst the zombie apocalypse, but it is really about how the human characters react to the end of their world and the continuous presence of death. That is not to say that it isn't scary. It surely is, but there is much more depth to the story than that.

October 03 2010 at 12:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dan Chichian

It can go either way. I much prefer the books of the Dresden Files to the short-lived tv show, but I prefer the show Rizzoli and Isles to the books as well as the show Bones to the books. True Blood is a wash (I prefer Sookie in the books but love Pam and Eric in the show)

October 03 2010 at 9:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I tend to try to read a book before watching an adaptation, though I'm not always successful. But I think successfully adapting a book to a movie or tv show takes its own kind of storytelling skill and some of the most diasappointing book adaptations I've seen are the ones that have tried to exactly follow the written story.

But, anyway, I saw an interview with Robert Kirkman where he talked about how Frank Darabont and his writers' room have changed the storyline in interestin, unspecified ways that Kirkman is excited about. So I'm really hopint that The Walking Dead will be one of those great adaptations that takes the book and makes it even more awesome.

Plus, zombies. What's not to love?

October 02 2010 at 10:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm facing similar issues with the adapatation of Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go--and I've read the book! Though years ago. I want to read the book again as a refresher, but doing so right before seeing the movie might make me judge the movie based on the fidelity to the book, and not as its own artistic piece. I remember watching Zemeckis CG Beowulf when it came out and hating it for not being true to the source material (not going to spoil any further for those who haven't seen it, but you're in for a bit of shock if you read and loved the poem).

So I don't know. We just have to expect that movie and TV adaptations are going to be different from graphic novels and novels. But they have to be in the spirit of the original work (I'm grimacing at you Darabont for the Mist) or else be in the spirit while adding on a new artistic concern--like Julie Taymor's movie version of Titus Andronicus. So in essence I guess you can't change material just for changing material. Though bad but sincere and faithful intrepretations of a novel--Jackson's Lovely Bones, I've heard--are fine.

October 02 2010 at 8:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm always more satisfied when I read the books from book-to-TV adaptations rather than book-to-movie adaptations. And I totally disagree about Pillars of the Earth.
Dexter and True Blood are other good examples. Seeing how they expanded the Sookie Stackhouse novels is great. And of course it's only the first season of Dexter, but it's fun watching the two stories diverge.

October 02 2010 at 7:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I for one always read the book first. Depending on how it's told you always get an insight into what the character is feeling. This rarely happens with book to series/movie adaptations. A good example is True Blood. I loved the books, but the series tone was so much more different than the book. And, don't even get me started on the Sookie translation to screen. I was very disappointed. The tone of the book was more light hearted and fun to me as well. It's why I'm still biding my time to watch Pillars of the Earth; I've heard mixed reviews from love to hate. It's still one of my favorite books of all time.

October 02 2010 at 5:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

In general, I find that its better to read source material AFTER. It may add something to a story you enjoyed which seldom happens in the reverse order.

October 02 2010 at 10:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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