Is the book always better than the movie? In a way, it’s not a fair question because the two media are so different. With a book, the author has as much time as he or she needs to tell the story. They can write exactly what they want to convey, from whatever point of view works in the story. The length of time available to tell the story is predicated solely on the author’s ability to hold the interest of the reader and keep them engaged in the story.The amount of detail, the point of view, the dialogue and character mannerisms are all completely under the author’s control.
A movie, on the other hand, has far more limitations. First, there is time. For a movie to be made and distributed, it has to fit within certain time constraints. There’s some variability, but not that much. For example, one o my favorite books, 8.4 by Peter Hernon is paced very cinematically. I can see the entire story, as written, spilling across a movie screen. Still, it takes me several hours, far longer than any cinematic run time, to complete the book. Admittedly, a scene with lots of description that may take ten minutes to read can be played out on the screen in seconds, but I don’t think that negates my larger point. Beyond time, there’s the question of the technical aspects of taking a story from page to screen. What does it look like for a dragon to break out of a bank? It’s one thing to write the scene. It’s quite another to put it on screen. Likewise, where an author is limited only by imagination and the ability to put the product of said imagination into words, the director is limited by the ability of the actors. The Harry Potter movies are a perfect example. The early movies, with child actors who are 11 and 12 years old, while engaging stories, have some acting that is less than stellar. As the kids got older, they were able to understand their characters better and refine their craft.
Now, this may seem like I’m covering for movies, but I’m not. Movies also have more potential. The Potter films are a perfect example. The issue of point of view comes to mind in this case. In the books, with the exception of a very few chapters, 4 in the entire series, I think, the story is told exclusively from Harry’s point of view. As such, there is a lot that is not seen simply because Harry doesn’t see it. Now, Rowling uses all sorts of techniques to show us that which Harry doesn’t witness himself, but in the end, if Harry doesn’t see or hear about it, we as readers don’t get to experience it. Movies, can make up for this with action in the background, reaction shots, and all sorts of other techniques. There’s a great example in the 5th Potter movie, Order of the Phoenix. Harry is about to make his move with Cho, his love interest, as a meeting of Dumbledore’s Army is breaking up. In the background, we see Ginny Weasley watching apprehensively as Hermione leads her away. That one little shot, in my opinion, provided a bridge between the younger Ginny who was too shy to talk to Harry in the early books, and the one who becomes his girlfriend and ultimately wife by the end of the series. It showed the viewing audience something that vanished in the middle books of the series before reemerging at the end.
So here’s the thing. Is one medium better than the other? I’m not going to say that the book is always better than the movie or vice versa. That question is dependent on how the book is adapted to a new medium. A movie can’t have every scene and every subplot. Mechanisms that work well on the page don’t work on the screen. Think about how boring the Potter movies would have been if they had shown Harry using his invisibility cloak as much as he used it in the books. Would the visit to Godric’s Hollow have had the same impact on the screen if Harry and Hermione had been polyjuiced into a couple of local muggles? Of course not, and this is the challenge of the writer adapting a novel to a screen play. The best of them will be able to distill the story down to its key elements and then tell that story in a way that works on screen. If it’s done right, you get two very special pieces of art.