In Defense of Seeing the Movie Before You Read the Book

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Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 crime novel, hits theaters today, and I encourage you to see it at your earliest opportunity — it’s sharp, funny, bizarre, and great, PTA’s most enjoyably loosey-goosey effort in years. But there will be some foot-dragging, as it seems there always is when a film version of a high-profile bestseller hits the screen, by those who feel it’s their obligation to first consume the work in its original and vastly superior words-on-a-page form. After years of struggling with this arbitrary impulse/obligation, let’s just come out and say it: you don’t have to do that.

We went through this whole ordeal just two months ago, with the release of David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and there was an odd, discombobulating quality to the book-vs.-movie debate. On one hand, the bestseller was derided as a trashy mystery not worthy of an Important Artist of Fincher’s stature. (This mostly came from dude movie fans.) Simultaneously, bookworms were insisting it was vitally important to read the book first — so much so that the folks over at Vulture provided a detailed guide to “reading enough to get the general gist of what the book’s about,” because even just half-assing the book is apparently better than seeing the movie cold.

I can’t tell you whether such steps are necessary, nor weigh in with an opinion on the novel’s comparative worth to Fincher’s film, because I didn’t read Gone Girl first. Nor did I peruse Inherent Vice before consuming Anderson’s take. Same goes for This Is Where I Leave You, Labor Day, Monuments Men, Wild, or any of the other books BuzzFeed warned me I had to read before they hit theaters this year. Rattling off a list like that with anything resembling nonchalance is something that doesn’t come easily. Serious People, after all, are supposed to give greater currency to the weight of the printed page than the triviality of the moving image.

“This is important to me, giving the book precedence,” writes the Los Angeles Times’ Carolyn Kellogg, encapsulating this school of thought. “The book is the original artifact; the movie is an interpretation. And a novel — a good novel, anyway — will have more depth and detail and ideas and resonances than all but the best movies can hope to contain.”

That’s a perfectly valid way of looking at it. Here’s another: A film — a good film, anyway — will become a more fully immersive experience than all the best novels can hope to be, combining as it does the best of books (narrative and structure), visual art (cinematography), music (score), fashion (costumes), and theater (acting and dialogue).

To be sure, this is not a popular opinion in intellectual circles (or less-than-intellectual ones), where even among those who give cinema due respect as art, it’s still a second-class citizen, inferior to the truer medium of the written word. So even a pop potboiler like Gone Girl or a “minor work” like Inherent Vice takes precedence over a new film by a major film artist like Fincher or Anderson; the book must be viewed clean, without the dirty paws of those Hollywood types muddying up the pages and hacking out the texture.

You may feel this way too. That’s totally fine! But just as there are those who want to read the book without the influence of a movie, there are those who want to walk in to a new PTA movie knowing fuck-all about it. So if film is your medium of choice, or you recognize that the process of adaptation is one that creates a new work rather than merely an iteration of an old one, or (at risk of putting too fine a point on it) you’re more likely to have two-and-a-half hours of free time available for the Inherent Vice movie than a couple of weeks for the book, embrace your inner heathen and just see the damn movie first. Sometimes it’s even better that way — as that Vulture article admits. Sometimes (gasp) it can even heighten the reading experience; with a well-chosen cast of actors and the accoutrement of the time and place already in mind, a post-movie reading can play like an “author’s cut,” allowing the reader to visualize a longer and more extensive version of the film they so enjoyed. (Even Carolyn “Original Artifact” Kellogg came around on this one.) Some jerks will tell you such preconceived visualizations restrict the reader’s ability to let their imagination “roam free,” to which I’m comfortable enough to admit Paul Thomas Anderson’s imagination is infinitely more interesting than mine, thank you very much.

So hold your head high, moviegoer. Feel no shame. We all have to tend own gardens on this one; there’s no right or wrong way of doing it. (Except when it comes to The Scarlet Letter. Only a schmuck would see that movie first. Or at all.)