Character forming – Book then Movie or Movie then Book. Discuss:

There have been many posts about the merits of which order to do things in for novels that have been made into movies (or TV series). These tend to concentrate on the differences in plots made to give films the required conclusions, and the excising of large chunks of plot and/or characters in the novel to fit the film into two hours.

It was a comment by Sams Still Reading on my post about the film of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen that has sparked me off on a slightly different thread to the book then movie or movie then book debate.

Question: If you see the film first and then read the book, is it possible to put aside the casting you’ve seen in the movie/TV, and imagine the characters in the novel as the author wrote them?

I’d wager that the answer is nearly always NO.

Indeed, Sam said: “I want to read the book, based mainly of my love for all things Ewan. Based on your review, I think I’ll watch him first and then read it.”  

I think if Sam does read the book, she wants to be able to imagine Ewan in it. (Do let me know if I’m wrong Sam, but frankly, who wouldn’t after seeing the film first!)

Initially I wasn’t convinced about McGregor’s casting. I had imagined Fred – Dr Jones, as a bit older, tweedier, and with glasses.  Ewan won me over though with his boyish fringe and twinkly eyes.

I can think of an occasion when this inability to re-cast characters helps though…

I was the only blogger I can think of who loved Death comes to Pemberley by PD James.  With a little hindsight, I can honestly say I wasn’t comparing it with Austen’s Pride & Prejudice at all.

I have read P&P, but what sticks in my mind, as I have seen it so many times, is the wonderful BBC production with Colin Firth as Darcy, (and I still swoon every time I see that lake scene). Consequently, I read the book as P&P series two and it worked really well on that level.   I struggled with the casting in the 2005 film though, with Keira Knightley and Matthew McFayden despite how good McFayden was in TV spy series Spooks, he wasn’t aristocratic enough as Darcy, and Knightley is a marmite actress!

The film of Tinker, Tailor Soldier Spy, which I adored, was everything I had hoped for surpassing, for me, the older TV adaptation and really getting the feel of the times. All of the casting was brilliant, Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley’s no 2, Peter Gwillam was fab, but Gary Oldman was just perfect. If I ever re-read the book I will be very happy envisioning Oldman as Smiley. His nemesis, Karla, though who was only talked about in the film will remain Patrick Stewart from the TV series. But what about the brilliant BBC R4 dramatisations with Simon Russell Beale as Smiley I hear you ask? Radio/audio in a way gives the best of both worlds – allowing you to imagine the picture, but with voices you sometimes know – but that’s another post!

It’s also fascinating when writers respond to how their characters are portrayed on the TV. Colin Dexter has said that the younger TV Lewis in the series Morse is an improvement on his original (who is older in his 60s, and Welsh).

I hope to read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie soon. It will be interesting to see if I can divorce my visions of Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens from the text – or were they the perfectly cast pair?   On the other hand, I’m looking forward to seeing the film of Never Let Me Go, a book I loved, but can I cope with Keira in this film?

Apart from having confirmed to myself the assertion I made at the start of this ramble that seeing the film inevitably colours your reading of a book in terms of the characters, it hasn’t changed my stance on book or movie first.  I’m remain a bit non-committal.  In general, I would always prefer to read the book first but, when push comes to shove, I don’t really mind either way!

Over to you now. Let me know what you think …

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To explore any of the titles mentioned on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday
Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James
Pride And Prejudice – Special Edition [DVD] – the BBC TV series.
Pride & Prejudice – 2005 [DVD] – film starring Keira Knightley and Matthew McFayden
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – by John Le Carré
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy [DVD] – the 2011 film starring Gary Oldman
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People Double Pack [DVD] [1979] – the original TV series with Alec Guiness.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC Audio) – Radio dramatisation with Simon Russell Beale.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie [DVD] [1969] starring Maggie Smith
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Penguin Modern Classics) by Muriel Spark
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go (2010) [DVD] starring Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan

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14 thoughts on “Character forming – Book then Movie or Movie then Book. Discuss:

  1. I feel the same way you do, non-committal about book or film first. I don’t make a point of reading books before seeing film versions unless I was already planning to read the book. Sometimes the film then piques my interest in the book.

    If I see the movie first and then read the book, it does usually affect the way I picture the book characters. But sometimes if I read the book, then see the movie, and then reread the book, the same thing happens. I’ve even had it happen when I hear about the movie, read the book, and then see the movie. For example, when I read Sense and Sensibility, I had heard Hugh Grant was going to be in the film version (which was in production at the time) but had it in my mind that he was Willoughby! It doesn’t really bother me, unless the casting is bad and I can’t get it out of my head.

    Keira is fine in Never Let Me Go, btw. I think it helped that she played an annoying character :)

    • I like your point about just knowing about the casting can colour your reading. How true. Glad to know that Keira is fine in NLMG!

  2. I think most people will agree with you about how hard it is to erase a particular actor from your memory if you watch the movie before reading the book. I would add that there is a sort of retroactive effect if you read a book and then see a movie in that a good actor can enter in to your memory of the book itself and become a particular character in your memory.

    For me, though I read David Copperfield twice before seeing the classic David Lean directed movie which everyone really should watch, W.C. Field will forever be my vision of Mr. Micawber. As far as I’m concern, Charles Dickens clearly wrote the character with W.C. Fields in mind. ;-)

  3. I used to want to read the book first and then watch the film due to the inevitable disappointments, but now I don’t find myself caring about order quite so much. Ideally for me, the book and the film are two separate things which bring different elements to the table. That said, I loved the book DRIVE by James Sallis, but was disappointed in the film. I suspect that I might not have felt like that if I’d seen the film first. I’ll never know…

    • How true, Guy. When I was young, I didn’t care about film v book order. I reached early middle-age and it suddenly mattered a lot – since I (just) passed the big 5-0, things like this don’t matter at all any more!

      I’ve not encountered ‘Drive’ – (book), but saw enough clips of the film (including on Top Gear) to know it wasn’t for me.

  4. I don’t have any hard and fast rules about whether to read a book first or see the film as I am rarely organised enough to manage to read the book in time although I am very glad that I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin before I saw the film as Nicolas Cage is definitely not how I imagined the Captain to look!

    Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird on the other hand IS Atticus Finch – I saw the film when I was quite young before reading the book for the first time as a teenager and envisioning him as Atticus really enhanced the power of the book which has to be one of my all time favourites!
    Mind you that could be the Gregory Peck effect – they say that the reason the remake of The Omen failed so badly was because the actors playing the parents of Damien couldn’t match up to him and Lee Remick and that meant that all the super duper special effects counted for nothing.

    • LIz – I’m still in the diminishing camp of not having read or seen Capt Corelli! Having heard how the film is a stinker, I would definitely read first on this occasion.

      Gregory Peck was my Mum’s favourite actor – she loved ‘The Big Country’. I remember The Omen though – it was the first X film I went to see (with my Dad, I was 16) – it was bloody brilliant, and Greggers was so staunch and chiselled. The demonic chanting music still affects me today!

  5. In general I prefer to read book first then movie. It’s less about my “picture” of the main characters than the story itself – I generally prefer to come to a story book first.
    I’d agree with LizF about Nicholas Cage as Corelli – he wasn’t what I’d imagnied either but I liked him in it and I loved the film – it’s one of my favourite books ever (I think the chapter Il Duce is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read!) so I was apprehensive initially after the reviews but I thought the film was great – but then isn’t anything with John Hurt in it (including Tinker,Tailor, which I loved!)

  6. Unfortunately the film always seems to spoil things. Either you watch the film first and are stuck with the director’s vision in your mind, or else you read the book and are then horrified when the film is nothing like you imagined it or great chunks of plot are left out. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeonly grump, these days I usually just read the book and leave the film unwatched.

  7. I prefer reading the book first as I find my visualisation is compromised once I watch the film. These days I find myself watching the films before reading the books and then I don’t bother with the books (I know, quelle horreur!) just because I don’t have enough time and I have too many books! I have a copy of Death Comes to Pemberley so I’m looking forward to reading it. I think I preferred the BBC version of P&P over the book (I know, sacrilegious!) so I don’t see myself having any problems with James’ version!

    • I would always prefer to read the book first, because I’m struggling to remember a time when I saw the film then actually read the book.
      I much prefer Dickens on TV than the page – which is equally sacrilegious, but it doesn’t require quite the concentration. :)

  8. I have to admit that Col is right – the film of Captain Corelli isn’t bad at all and it is one of Nicolas Cage’s better films though that doesn’t say much as he has made some dreadful ones!
    I love the book though – it is definitely worth a read Annabel and very enjoyable so long as you don’t get bogged down in the first 20 or so pages (it took me two attempts to really get into it!)

    Know what you mean about Dickens – I know that I should like him and I was determined to make headway with his work this year (particularly as I have a whole set of books inherited from my grandpa!)but I never seem to have enough time or concentration to get very far! Probably need a quiet room and no interruptions but don’t think that that is too likely at the moment!

    Oh well something for the future, perhaps!

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