Fear Not The Adaptation by Emily Meixner
This summer my son finished reading all thirteen books in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events series. He’d wandered uninterested past the first few books on our bookshelves for several years, even though he knew my husband had read and enjoyed them. Then, this spring, as we desperately waited for sunshine and warmer weather, we started watching the TV series with Neil Patrick Harris on Netflix. My son was fascinated. He loved mimicking Harris’s many voices (“Captain Sham!”) and he watched each episode several times. He also picked up the first book. And then the second. And the third.
This wasn’t the first time he’d read a book because he’d watched a television show or a movie first. He was determined to read The Hobbit in second grade because he’d seen the movie (Questionable parenting? Perhaps). I was dubious. Even though he was a strong reader, he was only 7 years old. Tolkien? I was afraid he would get frustrated and feel like a reading failure. But, because he was so adamant that he could read the book, we bought him an illustrated version and for months he slowly and lovingly read each word.
“Do you understanding what’s happening?” I would ask him and he would roll his eyes and look at me like I was crazy. “Of course I do.” He averaged about three pages a day, and when he was finished, he was incredibly proud of himself. The Hobbit remains one of his favorite stories.
He then tried to read The Lord of the Rings series, but it was too difficult, so he set it aside to read something else: The Jedi Doth Return from Shakespeare’s Star Wars Trilogy. He saw it on a shelf at the bookstore, flipped through it, and started reading. Again, I asked him, “Do you understand what’s happening?” I worried the Shakespearean translation might be too much for him. (Leia: All thanks, R2, now let us flee from here – find thou C-3PO and let’s away!/ R2D2: Beep, squeak!) Again, the eye roll, this time with a sigh. “I know the story, Mom.” And he did because he’d seen those movies, too, multiple times. He thought the book was hilarious.
This isn’t to say that every book he’s ever read he watched first, but there have been many of them. In addition to The Jedi Doth Return, he read all of Ryder Windham and George Lucas’s Star Wars: Junior Novels. Last year, he did come back to and finish the entire The Lord of the Rings trilogy after many, many viewings. Together, across several years, we read aloud – and then he read and re-read to himself – JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. He saw many of those movies first. When my husband thought he might be interested in the animated series Trollhunters on Netflix, they watched and loved it together, and then my son asked to borrow an adult friend’s copy of Guillermo Del Toro and Daniel Kraus’s novel Trollhunters, so he could compare the two. Last spring and this summer, it was Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. Currently, he is reading Ransom Riggs’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children series. The first book he picked up several years ago, but when I tried to read it to him last fall, we didn’t get past the first chapter because it was “too scary.” A year later, after watching the movie, he knew he could handle it, read the first book in a couple of weeks, and is almost finished with the second (Hollow City). The third book (Library of Souls), he just checked out of the library. It’s sitting on our steps waiting to be read. So far he likes Hollow City best.
Here’s the thing. Watching television and movie adaptations of books hasn’t killed my son’s interest in reading. Nor has it made him a lazy reader. Instead, watching adaptations of books has complemented his reading – it has made him more confident and curious – and I know, having taught and worked with lots of students, including my future teachers, he’s not alone.
In my teacher education classes, I often hear my students talk about “saving” the movie until their students have finished the book. “We don’t want to spoil it,” they will say. “We don’t want the students to stop reading.” I’m just not convinced either of those things are a given.
Viewing all or parts of an adaptation of a text before reading it can have multiple benefits.
- Seeing before reading can help readers enter worlds they might have trouble visualizing on their own and it can provide context and vocabulary for texts that are just beyond their independent reading level.
- Seeing before reading can help readers discern their own readiness for or interest in a particular topic – in my son’s case: Is this too scary?
- Seeing before reading can cause readers to develop real, sustained relationships with characters; after watching an adaptation, readers often turn to the books because they want to spend more time with characters and want to know them better.
- Additionally, reading before viewing can offer readers opportunities to explore and consider differences between the books and the movies and the impact these differences have on the stories themselves. “This is totally different from the movie!” my son will randomly yell out from behind his book (as he continues to read).
Teachers and parents often worry that when kids watch adaptations they will “miss something,” or they won’t “work as hard,” or they might not “practice strategies for engaging a text.” Or – the great fear – readers won’t read the book at all. That happens. It’s okay.
Kids will read what they want to read, so let’s not worry so much about TV and movies and whether readers read a book before or after they watch an adaptation. Instead, let’s capitalize on what adaptations have to offer and begin to recognize how they can inspire our students to read and keep on reading.
Emily Meixner is an Associate Professor of English at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, NJ, where she teaches courses on secondary ELA pedagogy and young adult literature. She just added Big Little Lies to her to-read list after watching the HBO mini-series and is currently reading Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller. You can follow her and hear more about what’s she’s reading, watching, and teaching on Twitter @EsMteach.