23 Jan 2012

Book or film?

Jemimah and I went to see Arrietty, the new Ghibli animated adaptation of Mary Norton's The Borrowers, last week. We both thought it was delightful, leaping straight into our list of favourites, and we thoroughly recommend you see it.

Before you do, though, you need to know that the film is an adaptation of the books, not a faithful retelling. Mostly it tells the story of the first book, where the tiny Clock family, Arrietty, Pod and Homily, are forced to move their home from beneath the floor boards of an English manor after Arrietty is discovered by 'human beans'. In the film, The Boy is a Japanese lad named Sho, who comes to stay with his great-aunt, Sadako, whist he awaits potentially fatal heart surgery. Sadako's maid Haru, becomes suspicious about the existence of the little people after hearing a story that Sadako tells Sho one evening and decides to capture them, resulting in Arrietty and her family having left the only home they have ever known.

The Clocks are helped by Spiller, a boy who is only introduced in the second of Mary Norton's books, thus amalgamating the two books into one.

We had already read The Borrowers books prior to seeing the film, and the differences in plot did not worry us at all.

Which brings me to the film first versus book first issue. What is your opinion? Film or book first? Do you feel strongly one way or the other?

Certainly, having read the books, we were dying to see the film. On the other hand, I think if you see the film first, you'll be excited to read the books to get more of the adventures of these delightful diminutive people called Borrowers. It works both ways, I think.

Some people really, really, lose sleep over this one. Not me, though, to be honest.

In the week between Christmas and New Year, Mr Peaceful Day and went to see War Horse. We had been given Gold Class tickets by my brother and sister-in-law, and I was very excited. If you could have seen me through the wall that afternoon, you would have seen me hunkered down by the air-con, speed-reading Michael Morpungo's wonderful book before I saw the film. (I know that many of you would have wanted me too, and I didn't want to disappoint you. Honest.) By the time I sat in the Gold Class cinema, cocktails by my side, I felt like I had read a spoiler. There was no tension in the film, because I knew the plot, and I knew what happened in the end. So disappointing. For this reason alone, Mr PD enjoyed this movie much more than I did.

And so sometimes is is nice to be surprised by the plot of a film.

On the other hand, sometimes it is nice to let your imagination do the work first. Charlotte Mason believed strongly in helping children to develop a clear mental picture and in developing the powers of imagination. She speaks of allowing the child to create illustrations in his mind based on what he hears.

She, I feel sure, would firmly advocate seeing a film first. In reading a book first, without the accompanied imagery, your imagination creates something uniquely its own, different from that of other readers - and often of the author himself. When you see the story on the screen, you may see your imagination brought to life in a wonderful way, but conversely you may be angry because the screen writer 'got it wrong'. There is nothing nicer that when he 'gets it right' though.

Arrietty's borrowers don't look like Jemimah and I imagine them, but that's because they're anime characters, and...ehem...well...that's what they look like. Anime characters. Pretty ones, though. The English manor house is rather Japanese also. Does that ruin the film? Not for us, it didn't.

Sometimes it is better to have the detail that you get in a book before you see the film. Sometimes it is not. Memoirs of a Geisha is a case for the former. I think it would have been really difficult to follow that plot without having read the book first. On the other hand, it is a rare film that is able to do justice to a much loved friend of literature. Often your favourite character ends up on the cutting room floor. What we end up with is the Director's choice, and if it doesn't match with your mental image then you quite possibly won't enjoy the film. If you expect Arrietty to be The Borrowers then you will be disappointed. It is a Japanese adaptation of the books. That is all.

Seeing a movie can be a wonderful experience, and as technology improves, then film is likely to get better and better. It would be a shame if by requiring a reading before every film that you will never be surprised by a plot.

In our Charlotte Mason-esque peaceful home we attempt to read the book before seeing the film, but if we don't it's not an indictable offence, and so far the AO police have not come to drag us away. We saw the first two Narnia films before we saw the films, but we saw the movie version of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader before we read the book. It didn't destroy the book at all, although I think we would have understood the film better with C S Lewis's detail first. For us, the development of imagination, the creation of clear mental pictures using living books is paramount, but the odd movie version of a story can be pretty good as well. In an ideal world, maybe...

What do you think? Is this an area that you are strict about, or are you pretty easy going like me? What's the rule in your home?

Either way, do go and see Arrietty. It's magical. Even if you need to read the books before you go.


  1. This is an interesting topic. Since following a Charlotte Mason education my love of books has increased immensely and we now own more books than DVDS. I have endeavored to deposit the love of reading into my children, which is where I begun reading the book before seeing the movie as I wanted my children to know there is a writer behind the film. I desired to see my children become excited about reading the books and know that reading is brings your mind and imagination alive. Having accomplished this desire in our home I'm certainly not strict on seeing the movie before or after reading the book, but I'm beginning to prefer the latter. My husband & I watched 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader' just a few nights ago, but I'll tell you I am much more excited about reading C.S Lewis' writings and cannot wait to read the book aloud to my children. I believe Charlotte Mason wouldn't be adamant about reading the book first but I think she would encourage it to utilise the incredible imagination that exists in children. I'm still learning though! xxx

  2. Hi Jeanne! Like you, I don't have strong feelings one way or the other. I saw the movie _The English Patient_ before I read the book, and I am so glad I did or I would have been more than a tad lost when I read the book. If I read a book first and then see the movie, I am typically able to separate the two and thus enjoy both as separate experiences. I do, however, like it if the movie at least attempts to approximate the basic plot of the book. I am intensely irritated when the moviemakers completely disregard the fact that the screenplay was a book first, a story that grew out of the writer's imagination. If they want to change it so much that it barely resembles the original story, they they should write their own screenplay and name it something different.

    Thanks for the recommendation for _Arietty_. tiny Girl read _The Borrowers_ last year, and Miss Priss finished in last week; both really enjoyed it. The movie should be fun!

  3. I used to be strict, book before movie however.. I could never get LOTR and it is only by watching the movie a few times I'm starting to get the plot so I'm more relaxed about it all now. (psst still haven't read LOTR but my kids have, does that count?)

  4. Morning Jeanne. Generally we try to read the book first. I like to get my childrens imagination to do the work first (otherwise they get a bit lazy, and rely on the filmakers imagination - which isn't always great). But it is not something I lose sleep over.

    I don't usually get hung up on the changes made by filmmakers either. There has to be some differences, and often it gives us another perspective of thinking through the story and adds another dimension to our discussions.

    The real value of films for our family is that it enables us to share many classic stories with the non-reading members of our family (namely my beloved husband and his father), thus bridging the gap and bringing us together to experience the same stories.

  5. I am happy we read "The Borrowers" before watching the movie.

    We watched it in Japanese, and I would like to see it in English but alas the DVD here has only Japanese. I am REALLY glad they used British accents since Mary Norton was British.

  6. I know books and movies are two different animals but there have been disappointments nonetheless. I was a bit hesitant to see "The Adventures of Tin Tin" because the comics are so well loved here but we were all thrilled with the movie.

    As for "The Borrowers" - it is another favorite read but we seem equally giddy for any movie containing little people or any movie by Miyazaki.


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