I know you. You are like me. We read and watch with equal enthusiasm and voracity. Your bookshelves are so loaded with novels and DVDs that they creak and are beginning to pose a hazard. When an adaptation of some novel (popular, obscure, or graphic) is announced, you've either already read it or you rush to obtain it in order to be prepared. Be it Watchmen, The Road, Julie & Julia, Twilight, or True Blood, you're prepared. You have opinions on casting and plot. When you buy a ticket or sit in front of your television, you're either on the edge of your seat for your favorite scenes or sitting smugly because you know what's going to happen.
Within an hour, you've crashed. At best, you're buoyant because it happened exactly as you pictured. Perhaps it was that rare example when it was even better than your mind's eye had pictured it. At worst, you're furious because that moment -- that moment you really, really, really wanted to see is gone or mangled beyond recognition. These are the extreme emotions prompted by The Comedian's murder or the first glimpse of Sabina's hat, and once they pass, you settle into a mental checklist of moments. Depending on who you are or what the material is, you're either a bundle of nerves or dully counting them off. Perhaps you're swept up in it, and enjoy it for what it is. I confess, I don't know you that well. I'm generalizing from my own experiences, and the agony and ecstasy I've witnessed from fellow readers and watchers.
It feels silly to get worked up. What could I do? It's not as though I could "unread" Watchmen or The Road (and wouldn't -- I still remember where I was when I first cracked the covers), but my viewing enjoyment was severely curtailed by knowing and hoping for what came next. Here's where they should see the line of cannibals driving their human cattle. Now Dr. Manhattan will flee to Mars. Wait, where's the part where ...? For what it's worth, I ended up enjoying both adaptations, but it wasn't until the second viewing I could relax and appreciate them as films.
But the question mark often looms. When I walked out of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, I couldn't help but wonder if I would have enjoyed the film even more if I hadn't raced to read the books beforehand. If I had no knowledge of the fight at Honest Ed's, would I be a happier viewer? Were my friends right, and I would have enjoyed X-Men Origins: Wolverine if I wasn't a walking Wikipedia entry? Do I like True Blood precisely because I haven't read the entire Sookie Stackhouse series? Should I read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or should I just see the movie?
Today, it seems there's more pressure to know thy source material, lest you be deemed incredibly uncool and illiterate. How have you not read that book? It won a Pulitzer! How can you be so far out of the loop? Haven't you heard everyone talking about it? Your opinion on Eat Pray Love was due, like, yesterday. With the rise of the comic book film comes an even crazier obligation. Lifelong geeks often turn on those who didn't read the early issues of Iron Man and thus failed to appreciate the suitcase armor. Come on, you'd know what SHIELD was if you read the comic book. You had time. And what do you mean, you didn't read Scott Pilgrim? It's been out forever. All the cool kids already read it before the movie was announced.
It's a thorny issue. It's an oddly personal one that depends entirely on how you reacted to a particular book. It's a remarkably modern one, too. When our ancestors huddled around a fire and listened to someone recite the story of Achilles, they already knew the ending and found pleasure in the poet's variation. The performance -- the new words, the new angles -- that was the thing. They didn't walk away wondering why it wasn't exactly the same. The enjoyment was in the little differences. But today, the tweaks to an existing story can be major points of contention and controversy. Fans take their fury to the Internet, and write up bullet points of page-to-screen differences.
What is a voracious viewer to do? For my part, I'm leaning away from pre-reading the source material as much as possible. I know what ancient audiences did, but they lived with a bigger blank slate than I -- loaded down with Twitter, Facebook, and RSS feeds -- can ever hope to. I love the experience of sitting down and watching something original without any expectation. I'm able to do this with many movies. I can even do it with remakes. So why am I often determined to dig up the source and spoil it for myself? Why do I want expectations beyond a good movie? If I like the story, I'll do my exhaustive reading and researching after the film. Instead of basking in smug knowledge, I'll enjoy revisiting the story all over again. I did this with The Prestige, and discovered a novel that was so markedly different than Christopher Nolan's film that it was a page turner all on its own. It was also a fantastic study in how a filmmaker shapes a project to reflect his own themes and obsessions.
Obviously, you can't unread a book -- woe to the Stieg Larsson and Dennis Lehane fans, and those of us who have read Pride and Prejudice a million times over -- but when presented with the option, might it be better not to? Why not spare yourself a little mental taxation and lose yourself in a fresh story? I'm not saying shut off your brain (if we all thought critically about the media we consume, the world would be a richer place), just suggesting you engage it differently. You can concentrate on the film and the performances, and not the baggage you bring into it. These days, it seems like we're bringing in more weight than ever thanks to a 24/7 entertainment news cycle. Why add to it?
Yes, I'm making a lot of sweeping generalizations. You might be one of those who are lucky enough to always be so absorbed by the big screen that you forget the page. You may have never had an issue reconciling the differences between Milan Kundera's novel and Philip Kaufman's script. You've always been proud of accepting the director's vision whether it's a production of Hamlet or Superman Returns. If that's the case, more power to you! But many of us can't shake off the preconceived expectations. Even if we've relaxed the ones we hold for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, someone somewhere is telling us to read some book or other due to its impending (or current) adaptation. You've got time to read The Game of Thrones! The series doesn't start until 2011! Wait, you haven't read The Walking Dead? Why not? Don't you want to be prepared?
But it's OK not to be prepared. Movies and television are supposed to be enjoyable, remember? There's no need to study. They're not pop quizzes. Why not see the movie or sit through season one first? That trade paperback with the actor's face plastered on the cover isn't going anywhere. It's not like there are a shortage of books you've never read. Venture toward the Edith Wharton and Leo Tolstoy. Run away from the books carrying a gaudy "Soon to be a Major Motion Picture!" label. Chances are, you'll be happier for having a few cinematic and literary surprises in your life.