Recently some friends and I got into a discussion about The Men Who Stare at Goats, a truly hideous film based on an equally hideous book. The book is a depiction of some of the U.S Army’s exploration of the military benefits of holistic techniques, such as the idea that staring at goats could kill them. The film, of the same name, is a fictionalised portrayal of the goat staring project and the sheer absurdity of it.
Much like A Short History of Tractors in Ukraine or Purple Hibiscus, readers expect there to be more to the title of books than first meets the eye; however, with The Men Who Stare at Goats, there is simply a lot of staring at goats, interceded with weird anecdotes about other, equally strange projects that America’s military and secret services have untaken over the years.
When I informed my friends that I have in fact read the book prior to watching the film, they were aghast. Surely, if I knew how dull the subject matter and how dire the execution was already, I was incredibly stupid to waste my time watching the film?
This got me thinking about whether it was better to read the book or watch the film first. As my recent review will testify, I was hugely looking forward to Kenneth Branagh’s recent film adaptation of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, despite having read the book, therefore already knowing whodunit, which is effectively the point of a crime story.
Despite this, I felt that this does not dampen my enjoyment of the film. Knowing the plot did not change the experience, perhaps because they are different mediums. After all, apart from watching the David Suchet version, I had only ever encountered the story in book form, and even different film adaptations use different cinematic techniques to bring a story to life.
That being said, I do find it difficult to read a book after I have seen it adapted for either film or TV. I find that my imagination automatically strays towards the film’s version of the setting and characters, and I often struggle to accept even minor alterations in plot or characterisation.
As such, personally I believe that books should always be read first, to allow the reader to adjust to the style and characters before they are exposed to the filmmaker’s view of the story. Film and TV are both very visual, whereas with books one tends to visualise depending on how their imagination decodes the words on the pages. I would be interested to hear other people’s opinions on this, and whether you think you should read first, or if you feel that it doesn’t make much of a difference.