Is reading before watching always the best policy?


I’ve always been a big believer in reading books before seeing the movie or TV adaptations. But lately, I’ve been wondering if that’s necessarily the best approach.

For sure, I don’t enjoy a book nearly as much if I’ve already seen the movie/TV version. But the same can be said for the opposite, and I’m debating whether there are times when reading (or rereading) first doesn’t make sense.

In my case, the issue comes down to enjoyment. How much do I want to really savor the viewing experience for its own sake?

What I find is that when I’ve read the book first, especially if I’ve read it immediately before watching the movie/TV version, is that I spend the entire time watching with a little running commentary going on in the back of my head. I’m so distracted by noticing and cataloguing all the differences from the book that it’s hard to just sit and back and enjoy it for what it is. And at the same time, reading first is like intentionally giving myself spoilers, so the viewing experiences tends to lack the punch it might pack if I’d watched it as something completely fresh and new.

Two examples from last year:

One — I fell in love with Poldark on PBS. (The show, not specifically the character, although… damn. Check out my Poldark love here.) Poldark was completely new to me, and after watching the first episode, I was burning with impatience to know more. So, I dashed right out (or actually, dashed right to Amazon) and got myself the first two books in the series, which correspond to the TV show’s first season. I gobbled up the books and then watched the remaining episodes… and while I loved the books, I missed the sense of suspense that was now missing as I watched. Even worse, the big, dramatic, emotionally intense moments from the show’s finale were flat for me. I could tell that they were very well done, but the emotional impact was missing, because I’d already experienced the feels while reading the book.

Okay, second example: OUTLANDER. I think I’ve given a hint or two (or a thousand) about how much I love everything Outlander. So, season one last year — I obviously love the TV show madly and deeply. As the season progressed, I decided to read along. That is, I started the book from the beginning and read as far as I guessed each week’s episode would cover. Definitely not my first time through the book — it was more like my 4th or 5th. Still, I decided I wanted to have it all fresh in my mind so I could pick up all the little nuances that are straight from the book.

And as an approach, it wasn’t bad. I had a strong appreciation for how much dialogue was word-for-word from the source material, which is especially gratifying when it’s some of the most swoonworthy Jamie-isms. On the flip side, though, rereading right before watching made me hyper-aware of every little deviation, every little omission. And that wasn’t always a good thing.

I ended up watching each episode several times each week. The first time through, I couldn’t shut down the mental gymnastics involved in comparing the book and the show. My little internal calculator was busy tracking every change or every point of staying completely true to the book. I still enjoyed the show, but with distractions. By the second viewing, I could let go of all that. Now that I knew the content, I could sit back and just enjoy it for itself. And by a third time through, it was just a chance to soak up the atmosphere, notice themes and cinematography, and the overall artistry of each episode.

So, here’s where the dilemma comes into play. Season two is fast approaching (TWO WEEKS FROM TODAY), and I haven’t quite decided what to do about it.

I’ve read the source material, Dragonfly in Amber, more than once — but it’s been a couple of years since I last read it. I’m trying to decide whether to read along with the episodes, or just watch the show on its own, perhaps going back to the book for reference afterward. Either approach has its pros and cons, and I’m still up in the air about which path I’ll end up following.

So, share your thoughts and experiences please! Do you watch (or re-watch) before viewing, and how do you think it affects your experience? Are there times when you wish you hadn’t read the book first (or recently)? I’d love to hear some opinions!

16 thoughts on “Is reading before watching always the best policy?

  1. For the first season, watching the show inspired a reread, but I started reading after the first half of the season ended. I’ve since reread 2, 3, and am now on 4. For a book I’ve already read and enjoyed, I find I appreciate the adaptation better if I don’t reread right before watching. I’m better able to appreciate the adaptation as true to the “big picture” of the original and less likely to nitpick the show or movie apart if it’s not quite so fresh in my mind. I’m really looking forward to season 2 I must say. I always had trouble following all the political nuances and I think the acting out if these situations will work really well for me.

    • Obviously, I’m still going back and forth! I agree with your point about being able to appreciate the big picture and not be so nitpicky, which is why I’m leaning toward watching without rereading. I think part of the problem is that I know my Outlander group will be analyzing each episode to death, and I may have to give in and pick up the book in order to arm myself!

  2. For me, I do it depending on what’s most popular. Like Game of Thrones, I’ve watched before reading it, because it’s the tv show that’s so popular, so arguably done better. I say in this case watch it, then re read it after, since you have already read it 🙂 I love the idea of what you did with Outlander though!

    • Thanks! I’ll probably at least get started with season 2, then see if I feel the need to pick up the book again. With Game of Thrones, I read the 1st book right before the 1st season aired, and then read all the rest! I haven’t been at all tempted to dive back into the books for a reread, mostly because they’re just so dense and I don’t feel the need to revisit them, especially because the show often feels so different anyway.

  3. In general, I prefer to see the movie/show first and then read the book because the movie/show usually makes me want to read the book. It doesn’t work out so well in reverse. Like you, if I read or reread too close to watching the movie, then I’ll be hyper aware of changes and become upset with them (most times). If I read first, it’s best I give a break between when I’m done and when I see the show.

    • Makes sense. I think going in either direction — book to screen or screen to book — it helps to have some time in between so that the differences aren’t as annoying or distracting.

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  5. “Do you watch (or re-watch) before viewing, and how do you think it affects your experience? Are there times when you wish you hadn’t read the book first (or recently)?”

    No. I like to keep my reading experiences separate (as much as I can) from my viewing experiences. I know I’ll enjoy watching it more that way. When it comes to something I’ve already read, like the Outlander series, I know I’ll still be likely to notice the bits that differ from the book once in a while. But if I read it again, then watch, I’m doomed to nitpick it to death.

    When it comes to something I watched first, I make it a point not to read the books before I’ve seen all the movies or watched the complete series. Examples of that would be the Harry Potter movies and Game of Thrones. I still haven’t read the Harry Potter series… I love the movies so much, I worry that reading the books will diminish the magic (no pun intended) of the movies.

    • It’s the “nitpick it to death” phenomenon that I’m hoping to avoid with Outlander season 2! I’d like to enjoy it for its own merits, so I’m leaning toward leaving the book on the shelf for now. It’s funny to me to hear your approach to Harry Potter. I’m so the opposite! I read all the books first, and enjoyed the movies, but felt they never quite reached the same level of magic as the books. 🙂

  6. I usually read before watching however, when the opposite happens I must admit I’m usually not inclined to read the book – recent examples include Brooklyn and the BBC production of War & Peace – I think it’s because I get a mental picture that influences my reading.

    • I could see that happening. When I watch Outlander, it’s like watching a different story in some ways, because book Jamie and Claire are already so firmly embedded in my mind from all of my reading of the series. But I know that a lot of people came to the books after watching the TV series, and they seem to only be able to envision the actors from the show as they read the book. Sometimes, it just happens no matter what. Even though I read Harry Potter first, after seeing the movies, Alan Rickman’s Snape has absolutely replaced whatever image of Snape I had when I first read the books.

  7. I don’t think it generally matters if you read the book first or not. Film and writing are different media and I take that into account. I don’t mind changes from page to screen as long as the spirit of the book remains intact. (Though I do find movies like The Hobbit films problematic–where the movies barely resemble the book and aren’t great as movies, either.) Sometimes, I admit, I even find the screen adaptations more enjoyable. The Christy TV series is better, I think, than the book, and I’ve enjoyed GoT in the past, though I don’t believe I’ll ever wade through teh books.

    • I’ve read all of the GoT books — but they’re so different in style and sometimes content from the TV show that they really feel like separate entities to me most of the time. I agree, the Hobbit films were problematic, and even looking at them as separate works of art from the book, they felt overblown and just lacked the magic and whimsy of the book.

  8. Lisa, it seems to me from reading your thoughts in the blog that this you’re leaning towards just putting the book aside and immersing in the show. You already know the story so well, why not experiment this year with just the show! Could be a better experience.

    • I think you’re right! I’ll at least give it a shot that way for now — I still have the book if I need it. I think I need to make more of an effort to avoid internet chatter about changes from the book, which annoy me anyway (people get very negative).

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