Books vs. Movies: Which is Better? (And Why Do We Care?)

Abi Wurdeman
July 5, 2024

Last night, my husband asked me what I’d thought of the on-screen adaptation of a romance novel I’d read.

“It was fine,” I said. “I mean, the relationship was underdeveloped. They also excluded all the internal conflict that made the external conflict interesting. Actually, they kind of watered down the external conflict, too. And the ending was pretty unsatisfying.”

So… not fine. But as someone who’s written for both screen and page, I often go a little too easy on film adaptations. Each storytelling medium comes with its own strengths and challenges, and you can’t expect the same experience from two very different formats.

That’s also why I’ve developed a sort of allergy to the claim that “the book is always better.” To me, that claim carries big “Just so you know, I read” energy. It’s cool to take joy in being an avid reader, but let’s face facts here.

The book is often better. But sometimes the movie is better. Other times, the movie is Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, in which case the book and its adaptation are just two different versions of unmitigated genius.

Or! Or the movie is a cult classic teen comedy and the book is a nonfiction parenting guide, in which case, how do you even begin comparing the two?

The more books and movies you examine side-by-side, the more absurd it seems to try to declare which format is inherently better. So we’re not going to do that in this article.

Instead, we’re going to explore the very different gifts books and movies have to offer us as both audience members and writers. 

What can each medium teach you? Which one should you study to improve specific aspects of your writing? And if it makes no sense to declare that all books or movies are superior, what’s the value in debating a specific book versus its movie adaptation?

Let’s start with that last question.

What’s the Point of Even Talking Books vs. Movies?

A person standing in front of desks and bookshelves piled with books clutches a book to their chest.

My allergy to pretentious declarations aside, it’s actually a pretty smart move for you, as a writer, to critically compare how the same story was executed in both film and book form.

If the movie was a disappointment, see if you can pinpoint why. Were the characters a little flat compared to the book? Did the resolution feel rushed? Did you have a harder time connecting to the narrative emotionally? Why?

If the movie was actually an improvement over the book, that opens up a whole other world of questions. What did the film add or change, and why was that better than the novel? Would it be possible to apply those adjustments to prose?

Keep these observations in mind as you build your own storytelling skills

And don’t forget to analyze books and movies that are equally excellent! Something has to change when you translate a book for the screen. How did the filmmakers adapt without compromising the strength of the story?

On that note…

Why Are Movie Adaptations of Books So Different?

A large movie camera held a blurred out camera operator.

One big reason adaptations disappoint readers is that movies come with major time constraints.

The average screenplay is around 90-120 pages. 

Double spaced. 

Mostly dialogue. 

Screenwriters have no choice but to leave a few details out. That often means skimping on subplots, simplifying backstories, and relying on subtext, visual storytelling, and actors’ performances to convey characters’ thoughts and feelings.

This can result in a story that falls short of reader expectations. But it’s also possible for an on-screen narrative to be just as complex and compelling as the book. Sure, movies have limitations, but they also have advantages, like the fact that this entire medium is the epitome of “show, don’t tell.”

Films might also differ from their source material because the filmmakers aren’t trying to recreate the exact same story. They might want to adapt the narrative for modern audiences, to align current trends, or to emphasize a specific interpretation. 

Lifelong Little Women fans like me were floored when Gerwig’s adaptation included an original monologue that single-handedly reframed the seemingly shallow March sister as a bright and sympathetic character without even contradicting the book.

Then there’s the fact that the books and movies are inherently different in terms of format. Each has its own pros and cons, and those distinctions allow us to experience our favorite stories in delightfully varied ways.

In fact, let’s discuss that.

Narrative Depth and Detail

A beautiful library with two-story bookshelves and ornate detailing in the wooden ceiling.

Most people would say books get the W when it comes to narrative depth. 

In many ways, that’s true. A novel has more room for rich subplots, complex character motivations, and gradual character development. Plus, the average novel has about twice as many scenes as a typical screenplay.  

On the other hand, watching movies is a great way to learn how to convey depth through concrete details. Film is a masterclass in subtext and symbolism

A single line of dialogue can carry the weight of a character’s entire backstory. A simple gesture can signal a dramatic pivot in the direction of the plot. 

Studying this audiovisual form of storytelling—or better yet, practicing it by writing a screenplay of your own—can help you nail the “show, don’t tell” rule as a novelist.

Time Commitment and Convenience

Close-up of an analog watch face.

These days, you can access both books and movies at almost any time and in any place on a wide range of devices. And because public libraries are amazing, you may be able to do a lot of reading and watching for free with your library card.

So as far as convenience goes, the only notable difference between books and movies is that you can watch most movies in about two hours or less. That’s a lot less time than it takes the average person to read a novel.

From a writing standpoint, this means movies allow you to study several examples of a specific storytelling technique in a short period of time.

Let’s say you’re an aspiring author with a full-time job, and you really want to get familiar with The Hero’s Journey.

You’ll definitely want to read books that follow that structure so you can see how it plays out in prose. But I’d recommend indulging in a Hero’s Journey movie marathon, too. Not only does this allow you to cover more ground in your spare time, it’s easier to immediately identify the story beats in this condensed form of storytelling.

Audience Experience

A happy couple sits together on he couch, laughing at a TV screen.

Both books and movies are immersive in their own ways.

Books engage your imagination and bring you inside the mind of a stranger. Films engage your senses (two of them, anyway) and can even make cerebral or old-timey stories more accessible. It takes a lot less mental energy to follow Shakespeare or Jane Austen when someone’s acting it out for us.

But the best thing about both art forms is their ability to engage us on a personal level.

I grew up with Anne of Green Gables—reading the series with my mother, dressing up as Anne for Halloween, and embracing her as a lifelong role model. My mom even rented the movie as a comfort watch for me the first time I had my heart broken. 

At the age of 31, I watched Inside Out in a crowded theater, sobbing beside a child who full-on wept in his mother’s arms. He and I were two strangers united across decades by the shared overwhelm of being a human with human emotions.

And when I spent three months in a Dallas hotel room, caring for a terminally ill parent, every day ended with a call to my now-husband so we could read mystery novels to each other over the phone. We’d lay out the clues and swap theories, and I got to remember how it felt to actually delight in the terrifying unknown.

Whatever form it comes in, a well-executed story connects us to ourselves and those around us, whether that means a theater full of strangers, a book club full of friends, or the people we love most in the world.

Books pull this off by enveloping you in words and igniting your imagination. Movies do it by communicating through languages that speak directly to our complicated human souls—not just verbal language, but also images, music, and tone of voice.

Whichever one you write—and whichever one you prefer—the other has plenty to teach you about what it takes to create stories that engage emotions.

Using Books and Movies (and More!) to Become a Better Writer

A person sits in front of an open laptop at an outdoor bistro table, writing in a notebook.

Reading books will help you study the complex interplay of the subplot and central conflict, as well as the current timeline and relevant backstory.

Books can provide examples of how to be more artful in your prose, paint a vivid scene when you’ve only got words to work with, and develop compelling character relationships gradually.

Movies are excellent for learning to use concrete details and the characters’ actions to tell the story rather than spelling everything out for the reader. Their more condensed nature makes it easier to study overarching story elements like plot structure and character arcs.

But really, anytime you absolutely love (or utterly hate) a story, you can learn from it. Ask yourself why you had the reaction you did and how you can apply that insight to your own work.

Want another great resource for improving your craft? You’re standing in it. DabbleU is packed with hundreds of articles like this one, all focused on the art and business of being a writer.

In fact, you can have guidance and inspiration delivered right to your inbox once a week. All you have to do is sign up for our spam-free newsletter here.

In the meantime, I think you’ve earned a break. Take a beat, find a cozy chair, and curl up with a great story of any form.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.