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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vine

Is the book always better?

Updated: Aug 16, 2018

We’ve all heard the line. A book-to-film adaptation is going gangbusters on the big screen and some friend /acquaintance will say, “the book is much better”. It’s usually served with the same smug sense of superiority indie-music fans use to explain why their playlist is sooo much cooler than yours (despite the absence of melody, musical notes, and/or anything resembling a decipherable lyric).

Full disclosure: my playlist is as daggy as you could imagine, but it is entirely possible I’ve used the book line in conversation. Not in a smarmy, patronising way (of course), but only to point out the differences. Did Peter Jackson devalue The Lord of the Rings by bypassing the Hobbits’ early wanderings into the forest of Tom Bombadil? Or by dropping the equally redundant post-Sauron addendum of Sharkey’s incursion into the Shire. The world is divided between those who answer a resounding “Yes, he did,” and those who ask, “Who the hell is Sharkey?”

Of course, there are always going to be omissions adapting the written word onto screen, and rare is the adaptation that captures the heart and soul as thoroughly as the original manuscript. But take the medium out of the equation and authors, playwrights and screenwriters are all engaged in the same craft.


It can be done in a multitude of different ways. Our ancestors spun stories around campfires, huddled in caves, on cold desert sands and deep, dark forests. Civilisation beckoned, and bards began traversing the land, converting story into verse and song, regaling the tavern folk with epic tales of heroes and monsters. Our wandering minstrels organised into guilds, congregating in the larger towns and cities to establish brick-and-mortar (and timber) theatres. The printed word appeared across multiple continents, its impact shaking humanity’s collective imagination with the arrival of mass printing. The age of the storyteller had already dawned, but Gutenberg set the sun to scorching.

It’s 2018 and look how far we’ve come. Now look back. Consider the possibility that some stories are better suited for telling around a campfire. I recall certain ghost stories that should be told no other way. Barrel-roll into the present and we have video games smashing through the traditional storytelling template, launching a whole new and immersive experience. The “book is better” canon of the fiction purist is wide open to scrutiny.

Here’s one I prepared earlier.

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. I preferred the film over the book, and the reason is obvious – it is a visual story. Perhaps too visual for the printed word to handle. Here’s another reason, and a little controversial: Spielberg’s imagination surpasses that of the average reader.

Or perhaps, just mine. It could be an attention-span thing (more than one of my High School reports noted, “easily distracted”), or the cumulative fatigue that disrupts my reading time in incremental moments. Possible, however, that I’m not the only one who occasionally drifts off the page into reverie. It happens, and it is not always the fault of the author whose book I’m reading (well, mostly not).

This is not a review

If you’re not familiar with Ready Player One, a brief synopsis: the year is 2034 and Wade Watts ekes a living in an overcrowded slum of Oklahoma City known as the Stacks. His home life is as dysfunctional and colourless as the urban wasteland he rats around in. Wade has only one escape – strapping on the virtual-reality goggles to enter the online mega-verse known as the OASIS. Co-creator of the virtual world James Halliday has recently passed, and in a spot of posthumous mischief, left his players with a quest for the ultimate prize: absolute control of the multi-billion dollar OASIS. Parzival (Wade’s avatar) is on the case, teaming up with a ragtag online crew in an attempt to locate Halliday’s easter eggs. The gunters (egg hunters) must complete the challenges, each of which delivers a magic key (kinda like a Zelda dungeon) with a clue leading to the next.

Of course there’s a big, bad corporate dragon to slay, heaps of over-the-top action sequences, explosions and loud bangs to make the kiddies ooh and aah. That stuff’s a-dime-a-dozen these days, and unlikely to capture my attention (sorry folks, but Marvel’s Avengers films bore me stupid). There has to be a better hook, and Cline’s was deeply embedded in the original print edition. So what allows it to break free of the CGI template?

Back in time

Ready Player One is a virtual tribute to everything eighties. In fact, it’s an over-the-top, eye-popping nostalgia orgasm for anyone who grew up squeezing their first zit in the iconic decade. Nostalgia oozes through every scene. Blink and you’ll miss it; at least you’ll miss some of it. Nostalgia is even a part of the plot itself. OASIS co-creator James Halliday’s inspired the entire key quest. Protagonist Wade/Parzival’s success in completing it would not be possible without his encyclopaedic knowledge of eighties pop culture. With trademark perfection, Spielberg layers the era accessories with lashings of sci-fi whiz-bangery.

Watch the trailer and you’ll get some idea of what’s in store. The opening action sequence is a brutal car race through a gritty, urban death course. There’s an insane amount of visual detail – more than a single pair of eyes could possible catch in a single run-through. At breakneck speed, Parzival navigates his Back to the Future DeLorean through the pack, avoiding the multiple crashes, explosions, giant wrecking balls, collapsing super structures and one giant Donkey Kong-inspired ape leaping from building to building to intercept his run to the finish line.

How does it end?

Not important – the race is all about introducing Parzival’s love interest, a colourful, sassy cyberbabe known as Art3mis. Which brings us to the second reason the movie version is a better fit for the story: avatars. Here’s how Cline described Art3mis in the book:

In the OASIS, you got used to seeing freakishly beautiful faces on everyone. But Art3mis’s features didn’t look as though they’d been selected from a beauty drop-down menu on some avatar creation template. Her face had the distinctive look of a real person’s, as if her true features had been scanned in and mapped onto her avatar. Big hazel eyes, rounded cheekbones, a pointy chin, and a perpetual smirk. I found her unbearably attractive.

A little further on:

Art3mis’s body was also somewhat unusual. In the OASIS, you usually saw one of two body shapes on female avatars: the absurdly thin yet wildly popular supermodel frame, or the top-heavy, wasp waisted porn starlet physique (which looked even less natural in the OASIS than it did in the real world). But Art3mis’s frame was short and Rubenesque. All curves.

Here’s how Spielberg and his team brought her to visual life:

Not a lot of Rubenesque curvature going on there, but in an age of photo-realistic CGI, there really is no competition. Imagine having to reverse-engineer that scene – film into written word. No disrespect to Cline, but in this example the visual medium is clearly superior.


There is a flipside to this game token. The strength of the written word is in conveying emotion, internal narrative and thoughts. Films may take the visual flag, but books win on character every time. Hard truth: you’ll learn more about each and every one by reading Cline’s original novel than you will watching Spielberg’s movie. As stunning as Art3mis is to look at, we don’t know what’s going on inside her head. Impossible to miss that she's captured Parzival’s attention, and not just that he views her as dangerous competitor in the race. You can get that by watching the movie. Observe how much deeper into Wade/Parzival’s mind the book goes:

What did I really know about her? She’d never revealed her true identity, of course. Or her age or location in the real world. There was no telling what she really looked like. She could be fifteen or fifty. A lot of gunters even questioned whether she was really female, but I wasn’t one of them. Probably because I couldn’t bear the idea that the girl with whom I was virtually smitten might actually be some middle-aged dude named Chuck, with back hair and male-pattern baldness.

Pros and Cons

Let's assume a character-based story is best suited to the written word, a visual feast best left to the likes of Industrial Light & Magic. Test the theory: would you purchase Avatar in novel form if offered the Blu-Ray pack with all the delicious extras for similar price? Think of all the very short, very basic children’s stories that expanded in length, depth and brilliance in their visual translations: CS Lewis’s Narnia series, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, Paddington Bear, every fairy tale that ever got the Disney treatment – from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Frozen. Some of these I used to read to my daughters at bedtime – over and done with in 10-15 minutes.

Tramps & dreamscapes

Any author writing today has visualised their story (or at least, parts thereof) on the big screen, and yours truly is no exception. On current numbers, it seems a faraway dream, but that doesn’t stop the imagination from storyboarding. I mentioned character-based story vs visual feast, and from the get-go, mine was always going to be in the former category. The world of Broken Meadow was, by way of plot, a grey and lifeless place. The early chapters were built around character development, and were never supposed to wow visually. Objectively speaking, the exact opposite would be necessary to convey the border fogs choking Broken Meadow. It is not until Book I, Chapter 10 that our heroes cross the grey threshold into a world of new visual possibilities:

After several unsuccessful attempts, the stranger struck a match. The wick on his globe lamp burst into flame, and the darkness of the tunnel retreated beyond the reach of its golden glow. Long shadows leapt immediately away from the boys, looming large and distorted against the curved brick walls.

The colour of the candle flame is reflected in the eyes of their unlikely rescuer Bellows:

Instinct urged Hopskotch to take another sideways step away, but there was something warm behind the man’s eyes that gave him pause.
But how strange they were – chestnut brown irises flecked with gold. Such colour Hopskotch had never seen before in Syltian eyes…least, not outside his dreams. It was nearly enough to make him forget the unholy smell.

It is only a teaser. Our heroes are detoured back into the grey overworld of Bridgetown in their quest to intercept Hopskotch’s runaway grandfather. There is more colour to come, and plenty of visuals feasts to gorge upon as the story progresses. From Book III, Chapter 13 – The Sky Below:

It felt like they were walking through the inside of an old church, its walls and ceiling riven with great cracks – the stained glass windows – into which bulged the luminous water held in check by some mystic force. The aqua light sent ripples of pale blue dancing across the cold stone floor underfoot, but Hopskotch learned quickly not to lose himself in their hypnotic rhythm.

The mushroom cave beneath Skyrim's Dwemer cities played a role inspiring The Sky Below.

A little further along and things get really interesting:

“These ones here,” said Tannen, pointing toward a different species of climbing coral. “These are Linseloglynn – maiden’s secret in the old tongue. See how their limbs dance.”
Hopskotch followed with his eyes. The maiden’s secret resembled some kind of hanging fern, with feather-like fronds sweeping downward. Their crimson-tinged appendages swayed outward at the tips, like waterweeds in a shifting current.

Recall the Tree of Voices scene in Avatar and you’ll have some the idea of how I visualised The Sky Below – a great darkness driven back by colour pulsing from lifeforms beyond the character’s imagination. The intent was to invoke the same sense of wonder Jake Tully felt during his night-time romp with Neytiri.

I could name other scenes from The Waking World trilogy that would top The Sky Below for visual impact – the dreamscapes, action sequences and magical battles – but if I could have a CGI team create just one chapter, this would be it. I have no doubt they could compose the visual spectacle light years beyond my humble efforts. That said, there is more to the scene than the visual.

Something holy

The journey through the Way Pool is a part of Hopskotch’s spiritual journey. It separates action from tragedy. There is a deep sense of foreboding, hinting at a greater darkness awaiting on the other side. The church reference was not random. If you’ve ever walked the cobblestone streets of an old European town after dusk, and happened upon the central cathedral, the visual impact of the back-lit stained-glass windows is up there with anything you'll see on the big screen. And the intent of the masterminds behind each converge – to invoke a feeling of something holy, to lift the soul from darkness into light. It is a recurring theme of The Waking World trilogy that becomes self-evident the closer one journeys to the Book III finale.

Light through stained glass. How would you even begin to write this image?

Books Vs Film

Pros? Cons? Ultimately, it depends on context. It must be acknowledged that a professional team of Storyboard Artists, Director, Cinematographer and post-production CGI wizards (with a generous Hollywood budget to play with) can create scenes beyond the power of the written word. But they can’t take you inside the character’s head like an author can. For all the great wonders unravelling before your bulging eyes, there is no inner monologue to give the scenery definition and perspective. Worlds of imagination are there for the writing. And beyond the horizon are no-doubt new methods yet to be conceived. Perhaps we should not fret the medium, or pit one against the other. The scorching sun is still rising in the age of the storyteller. Just relax and bask in it.

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