You Don’t Have to Read the Book Before You Watch the Movie

Venturing into the unknown, in Annihilation. Photo: Paramount Pictures

Before I start, it is important to establish that I am a lifelong member of Team “Books Are a Pleasure.” Books: something to love and enjoy and use as compelling evidence when the aliens ask why they shouldn’t just kill us all and give the planet a rest. Reading: I love it. Me without a book in my bag at all times: That’s not me, that’s an impostor. People who point out that I am advocating a dangerously inane position here: Man, whatever.

We all know that books are fantastic, and we have all smiled thinly when our nerd friends share that John Waters quote about not sleeping with someone if they don’t have books in their house.

Having said that … If this were a TED Talk, now would be the part where I press the little clicker I have in my hand and the following words appear in white on a black screen:


A stunned, uncomprehending silence. A bark of outraged laughter from somewhere toward the back. Then, a low, thrilled hum. It builds in volume and intensity, and the audience surges to their feet as one. IT’S NOT NECESSARY. The audience starts wailing with excitement, crying. Teenage girls fainting in the front row like I am the Beatles. NOTHING WILL HAPPEN IF YOU JUST SALLY FORTH AND WATCH THE MOVIE WITHOUT ANY PRIOR KNOWLEDGE OF THE SOURCE MATERIAL. Everyone claps and claps. IT DOES NOT MEAN YOU ARE NATURALLY OAFISH IF YOU ONLY FOUND THE COURAGE TO READ WAR AND PEACE AFTER WATCHING THE BBC MINI-SERIES. Whistling and stomping of feet. The audience doesn’t require any further justification for my argument, but my TED Talk is only just starting.

Everyone sits down again, wiping the tears of joy from their eyes. I begin to the pace the stage. I make authoritative gestures. My voice is so loud I don’t even need the headset. Janet Malcolm is in the audience, and afterward she writes an article describing me as “untroubled by self-doubt.”

I make my case.

1. A lot of arguments for reading the book before watching the movie are built on flimsy premises, or else rely too heavily on shared cultural assumptions about the intrinsic value of literature.

Lists like this one, of which there are many, do not even bother coming up with a reason why you should read the book before the movie. The implied reason is something like: You should. This is the right way to go about it. When a reason is offered, it’s often something like “Reading forces you to use your imagination.”

However, when you probe that line of thinking, “using your imagination” tends to mean “imagining the texture of Hermione from Harry Potter’s hair and then being bitterly disappointed when it turns out less curly on the big screen.” Or “imagining what an elf in Lord of the Rings looks like, something which is actually very easy to accomplish with the aid of the many minutely detailed physical descriptions of elves which dog the pages of those books.” What is so great about having a picture in your head of an elf you made up yourself? Don’t you just get sad, then, when the screen elf looks different? Are you one of those nasty weirdos who absolutely frothed at the mouth when the cast for the Hunger Games movies was announced? Yikes.

Here is a pretty nice list, full of movies I am excited to see, and books I love a lot. Even here, the reasons given for reading the book first are a bit half-hearted. “The thrill of seeing the same story play out in two wildly different mediums.” The writer makes a good point here — it is a nice and thrilling thing to see. However, there is nothing to stop anyone from reading the book AFTER they have watched the movie and garnering that identical thrill. “It’s nice to know a story before you see a movie.” Is it? I go absolutely wild for any and all spoilers, to the extent that I actively seek them out, so I get where the writer is coming from, but isn’t it a common thing that people hate a spoiler? Isn’t the whole thing that people’s inner equilibriums are easily disrupted, so that an inadequately signposted spoiler will send them hollering and screaming into the streets? Resigning from their jobs effective immediately because they accidentally found out the end of Star Wars. Becoming a recluse because someone told them what happens at the end of Phantom Thread.

I make chopping motions with my hands. I continue to pace the stage.

2. Gateway drug.

There is no way on this earth that I would ever have read Annihilation if I hadn’t seen the movie first. I have long glazed over at the mention of the Southern Reach trilogy — even with the best of intentions, the people who tried to press the books on me made them sound boring and performatively weird. But then it turned out that the movie was great, great enough that it made me want to read the book. And I liked it okay! On balance, I am glad I read it.

3. Don’t even sit here and try to pretend that you needed to read The Shining before seeing the movie. Don’t come and say to my face that reading It before watching It is a worthwhile activity. Don’t break into my house and interrupt me while I am eating dinner in order to announce that I should have read Jaws the book first. Don’t betray every principle your country was built on by standing in the middle of the road with your arms outstretched and screaming lies about needing to read The Godfather before watching the movie while I stare on in horror from behind the wheel of my car.

I won’t let you.

4. It can sometimes be irritating.

On the milder end, banging on and on about needing to read the book first now seems like a sweetly outdated signaling of erudition, a relic from those heady days when people thought it was a hoot to refer to themselves as “Grammar Nazis.” On the more taxing end of things, that insistence is just a version of this nonsense. Sorry to rub the existence of this in everyone’s faces again, but it’s important to be aware that this kind of attitude is still at large. Yes, this is one of the more deranged examples: There aren’t too many paeans to reading that equate “marrying someone who doesn’t like reading” with “contracting a terminal illness and then succumbing to it with the knowledge that you have led a meaningless life.” Still, people continue to be tiresome dorks about this kind of thing. A need to identify oneself as Learned is often at the root of the books vs. movies argument, and it should not be allowed to flourish unchecked.

Some last words appear on the screen: NO NEED TO READ THE BOOK FIRST, IT’S FINE NOW. Everyone claps and claps. They cannot fully articulate the depths of their relief and gratitude just yet; all they can do right now is clap and clap until the palms of their hands are smarting, until their upper arms begin to sting. I smile unfocusedly all around the room. I bow.

You Don’t Have to Read the Book Before You Watch the Movie