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Critiquing a Film – Should the Book Matter?

Posted on the 27 December 2011 by Mattstewart @Mattandcinema

Critiquing a Film – Should the Book Matter?

I live around all kinds of people who want to do nothing but argue me down on how books are better than movies, and in turn when I watch a movie based off an acclaimed and beloved novel, they like to correct every single tiny detail of the book the film left out. While I do quite like to read, I am a movie fan first, so it is needless to say I always favor the movies in general. Many people have come up to me and said certain things such as “How can you say a movie is good when it is not at all like the book? A good critic would criticize that!” And I forever give the same response explaining that there are different aspects to film and books that make them great, a movie (usually) just cannot entirely follow the lead of a good novel.

However, the reason of me posting this is I recently read an absolutely brilliant book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and it really got me thinking about my review of the film. Was it accurate? If I break it down and think about it for a bit, no, it wasn’t. And I realized if I had read the novel before seeing Hugo, (a film that I loved with everything in me) I could have had a much better knowledge and understanding of the background of the book and why it was written, and eventually made a movie. In fact, as I am writing these words I stopped a minute to delete my review of Hugo (a new one coming soon). I actually loved the movie even more once I finished the masterful piece of art, written by Brian Selznick. Which finally leads me to the question that I will attempt to answer for you today. When critiquing a film, should the book it is based upon play any reason in the love or hate a critic (or fan) gives a movie?

Initially the answer is simple, each person has their own taste (and love for books) so everyone will respond differently to how inaccurate or accurate a movie is to the novel. But then again, don’t we all owe it to the writers of the world to care about if a movie follows the footsteps of their vision? I know some people who think so, yes. I personally think the answer is no, no, no, no, no! My favorite book of all time is probably To Kill a Mockingbird, and while the movie leaves out much from the book it is also one of my favorite films of all time. Now this is just one example, but To Kill a Mockingbird (film) has an incredible performance by Gregory Peck and the two child actors, a great and touching story (like the book), fantastic characters, a beautiful musical score and perfect direction. Whether it is like the novel or not does not change any of that, and my opinion stands firm on that matter. As of now I have felt this way about every movie/book combination that I have read and watched. Still, I respect and understand the people who disagree with me on this point.

Here is where it gets juicy. After reading The Invention of Hugo Cabret I believe that in many cases if a person wants to properly critique a movie it is smarter to have already read the book, and the same goes for professional critics. Like I mentioned in paragraph #2, there is a certain amount of understanding and knowledge that comes with reading a book before the movie comes out. Sometimes they complement one another, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes a person nearly cannot understand the purpose of the movie if they have not read the book. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a great example of this. Unfortunately I hear this all the time, but so often someone says “it is one of the greatest movies ever made, I don’t understand any of it, but it’s freakin’ awesome!’. I hate that. First, if the person read the book before. or even after watching the movie they would understand it far more. Secondly, Kubrick clearly meant for a lot fo the film’s mysteries to be decided by the viewer, but to say none of it is understood, yet it’s the greatest movie ever, well that just doesn’t make sense and is a critiquing flaw in my opinion, but that’s another story and another post.

The moral of my post is obvious, if you haven’t read the book then you clearly cannot have an opinion on the movie. Enough said! No, i’m only kidding, there is more to cover on the topic. One could ramble on such matters for hours, days, years and lifetimes; in fact, some have. The problem is my statement “man cases if a person wants to properly critique a movie they should have already read the book” is true for me, but actually quite flawed when you look at it closer. It could be said that the majority of movies come from something of a book, short story, graphic novel, etc. and if that’s true, then in my opinion I, and other professionals and fans alike, would have to read every single one of them in order to form an opinion on a film, which is undeniably over-the-top on my part.

So my conclusion to this rather long post is whether or not someone has read the book, or if the movie is anywhere close to the book, should ultimately not matter when deciding if a movie is good. However, there are some cases (Hugo for one) where if you’re going to criticize the characters, story, etc. then you must read the book first, because it is the only way to fully grasp the meaning behind all of it. After all, the original story came from Brian Selznick, not Martin Scorsese or John Logan. In the end though, this unanswerable, forever long debate all goes back to one person’s opinion, not being proper. I personally believe it is better to read the book first, but that’s just me, I’m not going to always read them and you don’t have to either.

So, give me your opinions! Disagree or agree? comment and let me know!

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