A recent post on the Goodreads Blog explored the question of whether stories in books are better than their adapted movies, noting that half of this year’s Academy Award Best Picture nominees were based on books. The good folks at Goodreads tried to get an objective view by comparing a set of books’ average ratings on Goodreads against their corresponding movie’s average audience ratings (as opposed to critic’s rating) on Rotten Tomatoes, a popular movie review site. It’s very interesting as a snapshot of self-described utility gleaned from popular consumption.
As one might expect from a book-based site, the survey found that, of the 300 works chosen, people liked books (slightly) better. As a point of methodology, it’s worth noting that Rotten Tomatoes allows half-star ratings of movies, whereas Goodreads only allows full-star ratings of books: Since the convention is to round up from half, it’s possible books were rated higher than they otherwise might have been if half-star ratings were allowed, which could account for the slight overall preference for books over movies. There may be other problems as well, such as potential selection bias in choosing the initial list of books, deciding which movie adaptations to compare against if multiple movies were made, etc. In short, this goes far from settling the issue.
All that said, however, Goodreads provides interesting analysis about particular stories that appear to have a wide enjoyment disparity between media. They provide two lists, the first showing movies that were enjoyed significantly more than their books, and another which flips the two. Here are the infographics:
With any such list, it’s impossible not to compare with one’s own experience. For my part, I was slightly surprised by how few of the books I’ve read from both lists. Out of twenty books total, I’ve read seven, two from the first list (Forrest Gump and “Benjamin Button”) and five from the second (Cat in the Hat,How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Hitchhiker’s Guide, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Time Machine). Of those books I’ve read, I’d seen all the movies except for Charlie. From both lists, I’ve also seen There Will Be Blood, Die Hard, Goodfellas and Polar Express.
What surprised me more, however, is how accurately these lists reflect my own opinions, based on what I’ve both read and seen. In fact, the only exception I would make is “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” originally collected in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tales of the Jazz Age Without quibbling about its status as a book (it’s less than 10,000 words, thus a longish short story or a shortish novelette/novella — okay, I quibbled…), this is one of my favorite all-time stories, whereas I thought the film was mediocre at best. Clearly I am in the minority here, since the film garnered 13 Academy Award nominations and won three.
But I digress. There is more information I would like to see from this data, or from any similar data. In particular, I’m curious to know what books and movies were most closely enjoyed or despised. That is, what excellent books were turned into equally excellent movies, and what horrendous books became equally horrendous movies? Answers to these questions would, I think, help determine a sort of Nash Equilibrium for entertainment, that is, a method for identifying the optimal amount of pleasure to be gleaned by experiencing an excellent story in multiple media.
Posit: You spend a lot of time with someone. It could be a significant other, a roommate or a good friend. Both of you like to read and watch movies, and each of you could do either; however, you both enjoy either activity more when you do it at the same time — for example, because you can discuss the book or movie together afterward, or perhaps because simply having a companion magnifies enjoyment for you. This is a type of coordination game and can be described as such:
|You Read||You Watch|
In this scenario, both you and your companion are perfectly content if you do what you want on your own, but see how much happier you are when you do the same thing together!
However, this is the real world, in which most people prefer reading or movie watching over the other activity. Say you like reading more and your partner prefers watching movies more. Doing the same activity together still makes you both happier than doing either alone, but given the choice, you will each do the one you prefer. In this case:
|You Read||You Watch|
Again, you would both be perfectly content doing the separate activities you enjoy more, but doing separate activities you enjoy less leave both of you feeling mediocre. However, doing either activity together makes both of you happy, with one of you being much happier. Presumably, regardless of the nature of the relationship, having a happy companion makes you marginally happier than doing something alone — and hopefully that’s true of your partner as well.
To take it a step further, even without the Goodreads analysis we knew that there were some movies which were better than their books, and vice versa. Building on the previous assumption, factoring in the relative quality of the book and movie causes the payoff matrix to start looking funky (technical term).
|You Read||You Watch|
If you both read together, you not only get your normal enjoyment value out of reading a book, but also the multiplier of reading a particularly excellent book. If you both watch the movie, however, you become mad, and at best your partner feels mediocre. The value of having done something together only makes up for the poor quality of the movie a little. Inverse payoffs occur if the book is bad and the movie is good.
On the other hand, if you know that both the movie and the book are quite good, then you get great payoffs all around:
|You Read||You Watch|
If both the book and movie suck…go do something else.
This is all to say that, while I’m glad Goodreads started this analysis, there’s more to be done. Life’s too short to waste time on crappy media. How can we put this to practical use?
For starters, I think people are already heuristically good at figuring out what books and movies to watch. Obviously, that’s part of the point behind social sites like Goodreads and Rotten Tomatoes to begin with. Again, part of what I find compelling about Goodreads’ lists is how the results are so similar to my own tastes — at least, for those books/movies that I’ve read/watched. There’s something almost ascendant about this sort of populist, market-based approach to determining the quality of a particular form of entertainment.
Yet, while it’s a fairly easy concept to grasp, it seems hard for companies to put into practice what Goodreads demonstrated above. Retailers like Amazon.com make “recommendations” all the time, supposedly based on personal purchase histories, ratings, etc., as well as those of other people. But let’s face it, these systems are not only fallible, but sometimes epically so. Is it a lack of good data? Is it too much reliance on personal preferences? The opinions of friends? The opinions of only those people who purchased “similar” items? (And is “similar” even a useful adjective in such a case?)
I’m sure many other people have asked these questions, and there are likely many answers. My little games above are, like any coordination game, in isolation. We have many forms of entertainment and other activities to pass our time, some which give us more pleasure than others. But it’s fun to think about. Just think of how many pages I could have read instead of writing all this….