I saw David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the first time earlier this year and was quite underwhelmed by it. I read the book a while ago, and I’m a fan of Fincher’s work – especially Se7en, Zodiac and Mindhunter – so I’d been looking forward to finally seeing his adaptation. But it really stuck with me.
This is not a case of the book being better than the movie. Stieg Larsson’s book is not a classic. It’s a slightly cute airport bestseller. But knowing where everything is going takes much of the suspense out of a mystery, even when it’s classed with Fincher’s impeccable direction. This is the same reason I’ve avoided reading Fire & Blood, despite loving House of the Dragon. I’d rather see the story unfold dramatically on screen and then turn to the book for more background, than read a synopsis version of the story and go into the series knowing where it’s going.
My experience with TGWTDT only served to reinforce my (perhaps somewhat counterintuitive) belief that you should basically always watch the movie before reading the book. I first started thinking this way in high school. I went to see Twilight my freshman year, and ended up reading the books because a girl I liked was a fan of them.
Twilight, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is not an all-time great. But reading it after I had seen the movie was a fun experience. I remember sprawled out on the sofa in my parents’ basement with the lights dimly on, working my way through Stephanie Meyer’s first novel. I read it in the fall, which suited the somber mood of the book’s Forks, WA setting nicely.
When you watch a movie after reading the book, it’s easy to notice what’s missing. Screenplays are usually quite short compared to novels. The general rule of thumb is that one page of script usually equals about one minute of screen time. So a two-hour film is usually the result of a 120-page script. But it is extremely short in book form, closer to a short story than a novel.
As a result, when books are adapted for the screen, details are inevitably left out. Which means that when fans of a book go to see the movie adaptation, they’re often let down because things they liked have been cut. How often have you heard Lord of the Rings fans complain about the absence of Tom Bombadil in Peter Jackson’s films? But movies and books are radically different narrative mediums, which means that the small, character-building but ultimately unnecessary beats that work well in a novel have to be removed to make it work as a movie. On the flip side, when you see the movie and then read the book, you get more, not less. More story, more character details, more of the protagonist’s inner thoughts.
Plus, there’s the added bonus of letting your imagination run wild with the cheat code to know what all the characters and settings look like. When I read The Hunger Games after watching the movie, I could perfectly picture Katniss, Peeta and the forested arena where they spend most of the book trying to survive.
Most importantly, reading a book is a much bigger time commitment than watching a movie. In that way, a film can be a helpful primer, which tells you whether the book is something you want to invest time in before you set aside time to read it. However, writers don’t want you to know this. Writers hate this one weird hack!
NEXT: House Of The Dragon’s Table Balls is my favorite bit of world building