“The Book Was Better”

A recent USA Today article explores the astonishingly large number of films which are based on books (there are reportedly 20 such films debuting this fall). It’s easy to make these films because the story is already there, and often the prestige of the book is there as well. In my 20+ years of watching movies and reading books, I’ve seen many movies based on books, and nine times out of ten, the book is always better.

A few movies do well, and give at least a hint of the grandeur of the book. A couple of examples I can think of are The Lord of The Rings trilogy and To Kill a Mockingbird, with the late Gregory Peck’s unparalleled performance as Atticus Finch. Both films were excellent, but even these still did not capture the depth of the book.

Why do films rarely, if ever, outdo the books upon which they were based? Part of the problem is the nature of the medium itself. The old saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” The saying is well-known, but is it really true?

In All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians & Popular Culture, author Ken Myers delineates the differences between words and images:

…Images communicate immediately and intuitively. Images are scanned in a subjective pattern. They are a splendid form to use to communicate concrete quantitative information or narratives.

Words, on the other hand, communicate through abstraction and analysis. Words communicate in linear, logical form; something communicated in words can thus be judged to be true or false. But an image cannot be true or false.

So, images (and thus film) cannot give us the depth that the written word can. While, with some effort a good writer can conjure up images from his or her words, it is very difficult for an image to produce what can be done with the written word.