(previously published on Medium)
“Please Daddy, can’t we just read a little more?!”
I am a reader, movie lover, and also a Dad. Like most parents, my wife and I wrestle with issues of what media is appropriate for our child to watch based on the content, his age, and maturity level. As our son got older, I wanted to share with him the richness of a story by experiencing the book, instead of just gulping down the movie version so we decided to enact, whenever possible, a “read the book first” policy.
Don’t worry, this is not another article about the benefits of reading to your children. There’s enough of those already and I put the subject in the “well, duh!” category.
I’m not talking about preschool days when you would read your little one beautifully illustrated short books like “Very Hungry Caterpillar,” or Dr. Seuss, or “But Not The Hippopotamus.” This is about the time when they outgrow picture books and are graduating from watching “Paw Patrol,” and “Thomas The Tank Engine.”
As parents, we found ourselves approaching the age of family movies and books with few (or no) pictures. It’s a special moment in time where you still have control over what your child is exposed to. For us this was an opportunity to influence not just what our child watches, but to give him a richer experience, build good media habits, and share some bonding time.
Caveat: Please note I’m writing simply to share our experience — every parent should, of course, take into consideration what books and movies are appropriate for their child, and at what age.
WHY READ THE BOOK FIRST?
To be honest, once I’ve seen a movie it’s hard to bother reading the book version. Movies are the ultimate spoiler. If I do pick up the book after I’ve already seen the film, I already know all the twists and turns, how it ends, and I have the actor’s faces and voices in my head the whole time. This makes it difficult to enjoy the author’s work in full. For example, having seen the films I’ve never read “The Godfather.” It’s hard to get motivated to pick it up. And for a child who’s just getting onboard with reading it is even more difficult to get through hundreds of pages of a book if they’ve already seen the film.
When a movie is based on a book it changes. It has to. It’s impossible to be 100% faithful to the original source material. When a book describes a character or location your child creates an image in their mind, they have feelings about the story. Everyone imagines things slightly differently, and their mental version lives in their imagination and becomes their personal version of the story. But, when a book is adapted for film whole scenes and characters can get cut for time, or the limits of budget, or pacing. In a book the author can tell us what a character thinks and feels — but in most cases a film must rely on an actor and director to convey their inner world — usually with far less detail. Often, when you watch the film first, you lose that level of connection to the inner world of the characters, and the look and sounds of the film become the only version.
With our son, from early on we have done our best to delay exposure to a movie until we’ve had the chance to read the book to him first. Here are just some of our wonderful discoveries:
READING A BOOK TAKES TIME
Whether they read the book, or you read it to them, a child’s imagination will live in the world of the book chapter by chapter, for days, and possibly weeks, on end. A movie is over in two hours flat. Done. And while an exciting chapter ending may be a difficult thing to encounter just before going to sleep… “Please Daddy, can’t we just read a little more?!” By extending the suspense of what will happen next provides a whole day of imagination fuel!
WHEN I SAY READ THE BOOK FIRST…
I mean however you experience the book first. This could be a one parent reading to a child, or both switching nights, or the child reading to the parent, or a grandparent reading it… or everyone listening to a book on tape in the car. (We had a period where we were doing more daily driving than we wanted and recorded books made it more fun). Experience the book however works best for you. And do it together.
Recommendation: My wife wants me to be sure to recommend an excellent audiobook experience: she thoroughly enjoyed the mischievous voice of Tim Curry reading Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events”
YOU GET EXTRA STUFF!
Do you like deleted scenes on a DVD? Books are full of characters, scenes and whole levels of storytelling that get cut, changed, rewritten when the movie is made. And sometimes the movie then adds elements that weren’t in the book! Double bonus!
A favorite in our house was reading Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to our son before watching the classic Gene Wilder movie “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (not the newer Johnny Depp remake, let’s pretend that didn’t happen).
Yes, the film is wonderful, but there is so much to enjoy in in Dahl’s writing — the poverty of Charlie’s family, his ridiculous grandparents in bed together, and then the joy unfolding as Charlie is whisked into Wonka’s incredible factory. The book immerses you in Charlie’s world for three whole chapters before the Golden Ticket contest is even announced! There’s so much fun to be had living in that world for days and days as the bedtime story unfolds chapter by chapter. It’s a gift to be able to imagine the mysterious Oompa Loompas and the wonders of what it’s like inside the chocolate factory on your own just from Dahl’s writing.
“But Grandpa, what sort of people are they that work in there?”
“My dear boy,” said Grandpa Joe, “that is one of the great mysteries of the chocolate-making world. We know only one thing about them. They are very small. The shadows that sometimes appear behind the windows, especially late at night when the lights are on, are those of tiny people, people no taller than my knee…”
Then, when you watch the film, there is a whole new world to discover — Gene Wilder’s mischievous portrayal of Wonka, the colorful sets, the Oompa-Loompas! The songs! These things you don’t get in the book — it’s from the filmmaker’s imagination — and it’s wonderful. The differences can stirs conversation — about what you liked, what they changed, what you liked better in the film or better in the book. There is a richness in seeing different ways a story can be envisioned and there can be more engagement when you notice you have opinions.
READ IT WITH THEM & WATCH IT WITH THEM
Make it family time. Read the book with them then watch the movie with them. Even only one of us was the one who read the book to him we made it a point to schedule a special family movie night where we could all cuddle on the couch and watch the film together. In our hectic lives it may not always be possible to do this — but when you can, try to experience both the book and the movie TOGETHER. You will all benefit from the time spent as a family during and after, building wonderful memories.
VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF STORYTIME
Mix it up. Don’t be afraid to read “old” books. My son loved when we read “A Swiss Family Robinson” before screening the classic Disney movie. And we read other Roahl Dahl books “The BFG,” “Matilda,” “James and the Giant Peach.” We read the Chronicles of Narnia books, “Charlotte’s Web,” “A Wrinkle In Time,” “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” and books that were turned into TV series, like Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” (an excellent adaptation on Netflix.)
And of course we’ve read many other books that never became movies at all.
THEN CAME HARRY POTTER
There is no avoiding the wizard in the room. As happens in almost every household, we reached the age of Harry Potter. Seven increasingly long (and increasingly mature) books with eight movies ready to watch. Plus, being in Los Angeles, we had the added pressure of Universal opening “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” and advertising it all over the city. He was chomping at the bit. But we insisted — read the book first.
About this time, I spoke with a young woman at work who grew up as the books were coming out. There was a benefit of growing up in that moment of time — she was the same age as Harry, Ron & Hermione through most of it — and as the stories matured, so did she. But there was the agony of having to wait years between each book’s release. Painful as it is, suspense makes for a richer experience — I was sure my son could handle the shorter waits ahead of him.
It took us a year to get through all seven of J.K. Rowling’s wonderful books and so we had to strike a deal — we would watch each film after we finished each book. There was simply no ability to wait to the end. So we did have the actor’s faces in our minds and I couldn’t help but do some of their voices as we went through (My son was particularly fond of my Hagrid and Dobbie impersonations).
“Hey! What happened to Nearly-Headless Nick’s Birthday party?”
He loved the books and he loved the movies too. But when we watched the films he was very aware of what they skipped — scenes, characters etc. It made for great conversations that made the stories all that much richer. And yes, at the end of the year we went to Universal’s and he got to visit Hogsmead, drink Butterbeer and get the full Wizarding World experience in person.
Honestly somewhere during our Harry Potter year he could have picked up the books and read them himself — but we were enjoying reading them out loud as a family and we wanted to keep it that way to the end.
He is getting older now and has become quite a reader himself. However we still encourage him to read the book before he watches the film or tv show version. He read several of Cressida Crowel’s “How to Train Your Dragon” books before he watched the Dreamworks Animation series, and he’s currently devouring Rick Riordon’s “Percy Jackson” series (though he’s disappointed they only made two films…)
I hope to continue our “read the book first” policy as he reaches the ages for YA books that are films like Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games,” and John Green’s “The Fault In Our Stars.” As well as excellent books that will become films in the coming years, like Andrew Smith’s “Grasshopper Jungle.”
WE STILL READ TOGETHER
Even though he has his own reading going on, he still enjoys his parents reading a story to him from time to time. Now we choose books that might be a little beyond his reading level or patience… recently we have read:
“The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien
Of course you know it’s a great adventure tale about with fantastic creatures and lands — and even though there are scary creatures and battles, they are told in the voice of a friendly narrator.
“Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum, a small slimy creature. I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was. He was Gollum — as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face.”
This is a prime example of the movie and book differing. The book is a tale of a group of small adventurers who overcome some very big bad guys. But Peter Jackson expanded the book into three films, layering in scenes and elements foreshadowing Tolkien’s coming epic trilogy. Honestly, not having seen or read the “Lord of the Rings” the three long films didn’t hold my son’s interest as well as the book.
Parental Reading Tip: if you are doing character voices, when you meet Gollum in Chapter V “Riddles In The Dark” have cup of tea and plenty of lozenges on hand!
“The Princess Bride” by William Goldman
The Princess Bride is, in fact, a great book to read aloud to a child — and my boy was sick at home with a bad cold — the perfect time to crack open William Goldman’s classic.
If you’ve only seen the film I won’t spoil the book for you — but there is a difference between how the story is told in the book and how it is told in the movie. The same characters, adventure, and memorable lines are all there — but instead of the grandfather reading to the boy, there is a different structure. I was fortunate to have read it before the movie was made, and wanted to share that same unfolding with my son.
“There have been five great kisses since 1642 B.C., when Saul and Delilah Korn’s inadvertent discovery swept across Western civilization. (Before then couples hooked thumbs.) And the precise rating of kisses is a terribly difficult thing, often leading to great controversy, because although everyone agrees with the formula of affection times purity times intensity times duration, no one has ever been completely satisfied with how much weight each element should receive. But on any system, there are five that everyone agrees deserve full marks.
Well, this one left them all behind.”
I offer two tips to you for reading “The Princess Bride” 1) Be sure to start by reading them the introduction. Goldman’s comments before starting the story frame the whole read (although there’s a bit about a bikini-clad starlet hitting on the married author poolside you might want to skip). The author’s comments continue to interrupt periodically throughout the book and make for an interesting discussion about writing and storytelling. And 2) I made a choice not to impersonate the movie voices. The performances of everyone in the film are so unique and surprising I wanted them to be their own special delight when it came time to watch the movie — and they were.
THE RULE IS FOR GROWN UPS TOO
I would recommend making doing this a point for yourself too — for ‘grown up’ books and films. It has been a good example for our kid to see us reading, and if the rule that applies to you applies to them it’s more fair. Obviously we can’t do this every time, but often the book is better than the movie and you aren’t likely to go back and read a book after you’ve seen a weak movie version.
READING HABITS, VIEWING HABITS, AND FAMILY TIME
Hopefully, all this ads up to a young one who grows up in a household that values reading, a rich imagination, has a critical mind that doesn’t just accept media the way it is presented, and who has fond memories of times spend with their family growing up.
Check back with me in a few years and we’ll see how it turns out.