As I get into my newest novel (Hyperion by Dan Simmons) I notice that several Netflix movies lay idle on the counter. I used to watch a lot of TV, and a lot of movies, but lately I’ve found I’m usually disappointed. It’s partly that science fiction is by nature quite hard to make a good movie out of, but that’s not all of it. I’ve read several Niven books that could easily be made into movies without the use of complicated special effects for example. Whenever I read a book and then watch the movie, I usually decide the movie is horrible (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for example).
First off, characters are never developed in movies the way they are in books. How can they be? In books you’re presented with a first person view of the world from the character. Even if the writing is in third person, you get to see their thoughts, emotions, and physical feelings. You really get to know the character, and when something happens to them, you feel like you’re right there with them. In a movie, you’re simply a third party observer. Sometimes you’ll find a movie which attempts to narrate the actor’s thoughts, but it rarely works out well. How many books go back and show the past experiences of the character when relevant? Now, how many movies do the same thing?
Second, bad acting and special effects often ruin a good movie, especially old ones. Go back and watch some old black and white science fiction or horror movies and you’ll be laughing at how bad they are, but many of the best science fiction novels were written 50 years ago. Even old Star Trek episodes with sometimes interesting plots are ruined for me by Captain Kirk’s dramatic pauses and fake knives that are clearly plastic. Was it that hard to use unsharpened metal knives? I mean, really… When you read a book, the acting is just like you imagine it should be, and the set is a real world instead of a foam and plastic recreation.
Third, with science fiction and horror your own imagination will come up with things far better than that which can be displayed on the big screen. How often has a bad horror movie gone bad by revealing an utterly disappointing monster? It’s often better when they just hide the monster and leave it up to the imagination. No matter how scary the monster looks on TV, in a book your imagine can construct one even more terrifying. The monster of your nightmares may not be the same one as someone else’s nightmares, so even if they happen to make a satisfyingly scary monster for some people, others won’t think it’s all that scary.
Finally, the movies are usually far too short. They cut out large parts of the books, most of the interesting bits of the plot and character development mentioned in my first point.
Books to have their disadvantages of course, they require much more time and commitment. A 400 page novel can take 10x the time of a movie to read, but I still say it’s usually worth it in the end.