I watched David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the first time earlier this year, and was pretty 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 had been looking forward to finally watching his adaptation. But, it really fell flat for me.
This isn't a case of the book being better than the movie. Stieg Larsson's book isn't a classic. It's a kinda trashy airport bestseller. But, knowing where everything is headed takes a lot of the excitement out of a mystery, even when it's classed up with Fincher's impeccable direction.This is the same reason that I've avoided reading Fire & Blood, despite loving House of the Dragon. I would rather see the story play out dramatically on screen and then turn to the book for additional background, than read a synopsis version of the story and go into the show knowing where it's headed.
My experience with TGWTDT only served to reinforce my (maybe somewhat counterintuitive) belief that you should basically always watch the movie before you read the book. I first started thinking this way in high school. I went to see Twilight my freshman year, and then ended up reading the books because a girl I liked was a fan of them.
Twilight, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, isn't an all-time great. But, reading it after I had seen the movie was a fun experience. I remember sprawling out on the couch in my parents' basement with dim lights on, working my way through Stephanie Meyer's first novel. I read it in the fall, which fit nicely with the gloomy vibe of the book's Forks, WA setting.
When you watch a movie after having read the book, it's easy to notice what's missing. Scripts are typically quite short when compared to novels. The general rule of thumb is that one page of script usually equals about a minute of screen time. So, a two hour movie is usually the result of a 120 page script. But, that's extremely short in book form, closer to a novella 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 stuff that they liked has been cut. How often have you heard The Lord of the Rings fans complain about the absence of Tom Bombadil in Peter Jackson's movies? But, movies and books are radically different storytelling mediums, which means that the small, character-building but ultimately unnecessary beats that work well in a novel have to be excised to make it work as a film. On the flipside, when you watch the movie and then read the book, you get more, not less. More story, more character details, more of the protagonist's interior thoughts.
Plus, there's the added bonus of giving your imagination the cheat code of knowing what all the characters and settings look like. When I read The Hunger Games after seeing the movie, I could perfectly picture Katniss, Peeta, and the wooded arena where they spend most of the book attempting 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, letting you know if the book is something you want to invest your time in before you set aside the time to read it. Authors don’t want you to know this, though. Writers hate this one weird hack!
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