Where to Start? Choosing Between the Original Story and the Screen Adaptation

This is the trailer for Arrival.

It’s based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. It’s directed by Denis Villeneuve whose last two movies, Prisoners and Sicario, have varied between ambitious and astonishing. It stars Amy Adams, consistently one of the most impressive and least well-utilized actresses of her generation. It’s a science fiction story that’s based entirely around language, the perils of not communicating clearly, and the personal costs of first contact.

It looks great. Advanced word is that it IS great. And it places me on the horns of a dilemma.

Do I read the story first or not?

Your first interaction with a story is the one that imprints on you, after all. There are advantages, and downsides, to both approaches.

Let’s take a look at coming to a story through the original text first. The advantage here is obvious: you hit the story in its original, purest, and most direct form. In the case of short stories or novels this is a big plus simply because it’s a chance to read a finite text in its original form. This is how the author intended it, so it makes sense that this is your first port of call.

That being said, the same doesn’t hold for long form stories. When faced with the choice between watching the two-and-a-half-hour movie version of Captain America: Civil War and reading the 98 issues of various comics, now years old, that contributed to the story line, it’s easy to see which is the most efficient approach, all other considerations aside. In cases like this, movie adaptations present as two different, equally interesting things; a second run at a story and the “CliffsNotes” version of the original. Civil War in particular did an excellent job of telling the same basic story without a lot of the elements that have dated very badly from the original. Likewise the movie version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which managed to hit all the right notes and carefully avoid the novel’s less successful elements.


But approaching a story—even a work of short fiction—through the original text first is no guarantee of success. If you do that, then you’ll find yourself going in to the movie version with a mental checklist of what you Have To See in the film. In most cases, you’re going to come away disappointed and, often, annoyed. As my teenaged 2000 AD-reading self—stumbling dazed and increasingly annoyed out of the Stallone Dredd movie and wondering what the HELL he’d just watched—can attest.

The thing he didn’t realize, and I now do, is that it was always going to be a disappointment. Not just because the film isn’t very good but because I went into it primed for disappointment. I wanted Dredd to keep his helmet on, I wanted Hershey to be more than window dressing. I wanted a sense of the chaotic, sprawling Mega City 1 that was in my head—not the often generic and entirely artificial environment we saw. I went in with preconceptions and I left with a headache.

So what about going straight to the adaptation?

Well, straight away you have the advantage of surprise. Going into a movie unspoiled is increasingly difficult these days but, if you don’t know the source material, it’s at least possible. Plus, just as reading the original first can set your expectations impossibly high, coming in with a clean slate means that those expectations are often at a sensible level.

Then there’s the issue of imprinting. The first version of a story you encounter is always the one you judge others by. Doctor Who is one of the best examples of this. Your Doctor is usually the one you first imprint on and it’s always difficult for others to live up to that. Likewise, if you watch the movie version of something, like it, and go back to read the book, there’s always a chance you’re going to find it lacking in some way. The best example of this is Lord of the Rings—I never made it through the original books for a whole variety of reasons and as a result, for me, Boromir will always be from Sheffield.


Be at peace, Son of Gondor…

I’m okay with that, not just because it’s always nice to see Yorkshire turn up in heroic fantasy, but because the LOTR movies did a very difficult job extremely well. For me they’ll always be the lens I view that story through and because I liked them, when I do read the books, their existence will be an asset rather than a problem.

So what do you do?

For me, the answer is “all of the above, depending.”

There’s so much wonderful work being done across every media that we have no hope of ever seeing, playing, listening to, reading, or watching all of it. So instead we have to work out what we like, be brave about what we’re not sure of, and try new things as much as possible. Read what you love, or what looks cool, or what has a good cover. Watch the adaptation first, if you think it will be an interesting experience—there are no hard and fast rules, beyond keeping an open mind.

As for Arrival, I’ve decided that I’m going to see the movie first. I love what I’ve read of Ted Chiang’s work. His story “Exhalation” remains an all-time favourite and I’m delighted to see his work starting to find its way into other media. So, for this one, I’m going to go in cold and, from everything I’ve heard, be very pleasantly surprised.

But I have just ordered Stories of Your Life and Others from my local bookshop. And once I see the movie, I’m going in.

Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape PodPseudopodPodcastleCast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.


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