Why I Sometimes See the Movie Before I Read the Book

My friend, Michaela, at The Ardent Biblio recently talked about reading War and Peace for the first time. If you aren’t aware, War and Peace is considered one of the best books of all time written by the most prolific writers, Leo Tolstoy.

However, it was originally written in Russian, is over 1400 pages long, and it takes place during the Franco-Russian War. Unless you’re actually studying the text, there aren’t many people who decide to pick this book and read it. And if you do decide to read it, there’s a lot of families, a lot of names, and a lot of important moments you have to remember.

But a copy of the book has been sitting on my shelf for years. I even dedicated some time to read Anna Karenina (Tolstoy’s other epic classic) a few years back only to stop reading it one day and never picked it back up.

When it comes to books like this, I’m immediately intimidated. I felt the same way about Game of Thrones when the show first came out. I was weary with reading the novel because of all the characters, the places, and the events you had to remember. I think this is one of the many reasons why I put off reading War and Peace.

Today just happened to be the day I decided I will read it. I know that some of this influence does come from Michaela, but the other part comes from the fact that I’m currently watching the TV adaptation of the book. Here’s a trailer below:

So you must be angry at me for watching the BBC version of this show rather than reading the actual novel. Don’t worry, I will definitely read the novel in time. I just would rather watch the show first before diving into the book.

But why?

I think we’ve come to a day and age where reading classics (or some more difficult fantasy novels) has become easier. Aside from the myriad of translations you can choose from (definitely check out The Ardent Biblio post about it above), many of the beloved classics from yesteryear are now available on TV. Movies and retellings and mini-series have been made in abundance for so many classic books. I remember the day I watched all of the BBC Pride and Prejudice and after watching the epic mini-series, I decided to read the book. I read Little Women after watching the 1995-film version with Winona Ryder for the millionth time.

Similarly to many other books I come across, I always have a tough time with visualizing characters and people. With a ton of names and events, it’s hard to keep track of them all. I always find myself flipping from the front of the book and the family tree and the index back to the page I was reading. God forbid the author doesn’t even give you that! Even when the novel is simpler, I always find myself using some actor or actress I feel is appropriate for the main character instead of dreaming up someone in my head. I should have gone into casting or something for these movies.

What watching the show does is allow me to visualize what may have been more difficult without. I’m able to see who exactly is Pierre and Andrei and Natasha and all the others. I can see them in my head and when I read the book I can use that to help shape the story. When I go to the book later on, I’ll be able to read with those characters in mind and be able to visualize the nuances of their emotions and reactions.

I’m also able to visualize the story. You may think that this will spoil a novel for me, but it doesn’t. When a book is as popularized to make a movie, I feel like the spoilers are gone. You already know what’s going to happen or you can read about them online. But the visualization of the story allows me to follow along and understand the bigger events that happen.

Of course you’re not going to get the whole book in the show. If anything, the shows and movies provide a bone structure for you to go back and read the book and fill in the muscle and the tissue. A movie without the book isn’t the same as the movie with the book. You get to a battle scene with its gore and guns and fighting and for some reason these scenes have always been really tough for me to envision in my head. Instead, I get this battle scene played out for me and I can go back later and fill in the gaps I missed about that scene.

The last added bonus of watching the movie before reading the book is that you’re never disappointed. I’ve read books before watching the movie and felt the upset of it not being true to the film. I’ve seen movies that were even better than the book and that annoys me to no end as well. Watching the movie before the book sets me up for good reading with well-crafted scenes and if the adaptation is really good, it can really blow the book out of the water (but that’s a post for another time).

Y’all probably hate me now because I do this weird method of watching the adaptation before reading the book, but for some reason it’s worked for me. I’ve been able to really enjoy some of my favorite classics because I was able to watch them played out like this. It’s also great when the people who made the movie put in the extra work to make it incredible. With an adaptation like War and Peace, there’s a lot of ground to cover in more than just three hours. I mean, look at what happened with the Lord of the Rings movies.

10 thoughts on “Why I Sometimes See the Movie Before I Read the Book

  1. I totally get it! I don’t prefer to do it like that because I like to read the book first, no idea why really, now that I think about it. But it got me thinking about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the movie had a completely different point of view from the book, so in many ways it didn’t matter which one you saw first. I think this works for old epics but not for other (simpler?) books. I watched the first season of Game of Thrones before attempting to read the books and I ended up DNFing the books because I didn’t like the writing style at all and I was already invested in the show. Basically, I’m not sure I can actively choose to watch the movie before reading a book, but for epic classics it might be okay for me. This month I’ll be reading two books before watching their respective movies and I’ll be posting about it in my Book vs Movie series, perhaps I’ll experiment by watching a movie/show before reading the book sometime 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah this is definitely not an everyday thing. I haven’t watched certain TV shows yet because I told myself I would read the books first (like The Mortal Instruments or The Magicians). I do tend to pick and choose, but it works for classics like War and Peace. I always watch Jane Austen movies too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I 100% agree. I watched the movie Anna Kerinina before I read the book, and I was glad I did because I didn’t end up reading the book at all. I feel asleep the first time I tried watching the movie and the second time I was still so confused I knew the novel would only make things worst.

    Then, on the other hand, I am glad I watch the movie “The Hunger Games” before I read the book because I was able to enjoy the movie as it was. After I did read the book, I was pissed the movie didn’t include more scenes of Katniss with Rue. This way, I was able to enjoy both seperatly.

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    1. Are you referring to the one with Keira Knightley? Because I watched that one twice and fell asleep the first time too! I’ve read a good chunk of Anna Karenina already and I loved what I read. I justneed to pick it back up.

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  3. With classics, I totally agree; I think it’s so much easier for me to visualize what’s going on because, in time period language, I have a tough time concentrating on the prose while also trying to create a story in my head. I’ve seen War and Peace, the film adaptation, but have never read the book (and don’t plan to!); I hope you enjoy it!

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    1. YUP! That’s exactly what I think about the whole thing. I don’t worry about spoilers (especially in a classic novel where everyone already knows the ending). I’m going to try my best to fit it in this year.


  4. I did something similar recently. I’d started reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and I was struggling. The way the book is written, it is often unclear who is speaking, there are a lot of Henry’s and Richard’s and Thomas’ and Jane’s and Anne’s and I’m not all that familiar with that particular historical period. Then I remembered that PBS had done a Masterpiece series on it, and so I watched the episodes up to the point where I was, and started reading again. The tv show helped me realize that a) I was retaining and understanding more than I thought, b) clarified what I didn’t understand and c) gave me something solid to visualize while I was reading the rest of it. Completely changed the reading experience for me, and in a really wonderful way. Some of my book buddies will pause and listen to the audiobook for the same reason, to mentally sort things out, before diving back into the written book. All are worthwhile (and brilliant) tactics. 😀


    1. That’s amazing! I think for more visual people it’s possible that we need to see the characters in some form like an illustration or a movie. Even before I see a movie and I know who the actors are, I’ll be using them in my head!


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