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Ask Family Reading: Watching the film

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Reader Lawrence writes: “Am I some kind of monster for insisting my kids read the books before watching the movie? I’m talking specifically about Harry Potter, but I’d be interested in your opinion in general.”

Lawrence! No, definitely not. I’m with you here, but (like most things) I have no judgment for people who may fall on a different side of this line. If we are steeped in the Potterverse (and who among us isn’t! Just kidding! Don’t @ me!), then I think the books first are definitely a must. For one thing, you have more control as a reader than you do as a viewer. You can put down a book if it’s too scary, or skim over the kissing bits if you aren’t really interested yet. Not impossible to do with a film, but definitely a little bit trickier (and harder to “unsee” things). The Harry Potter series does a great job of growing with the reader, assuming of course you were the lucky generation to read one book per year as they were coming out, and you were somehow the EXACT SAME AGE as Harry and Co. when you started. The rest of us get to witness precocious nine-year-olds zooming through the entire series in a year and asking to binge-watch the movies — many of which are legit scary. With my older son, we adopted the “read the book first, then you get to watch the movie” rule. However, I should also point out that his little brother was roped into this by proximity, and has now seen all of the movies (he’s six — most of them are totally inappropriate!) and read none of the books! So I am both a terrible parent and a huge hypocrite.

Also, I know not all parents will agree here (feel free to come for me) but I’m very much of the attitude that kids are able to determine what’s too much for them, and will tell you if something is too scary, or otherwise making them uncomfortable. I recently had this experience when my own kid (the same one who watched all eight progressively terrifying Harry Potter movies) balked during the opening credits of the new Dark Crystal Netflix show. I was like, “It’s just the credits!” And he was like, “Yeah, but I don’t like where this is going.” And then I had to be the good parent and honor his wishes, even though I totally wanted to watch it myself.

As a reader, dreamer, and an indoor kid in general, I loved to set the scene for the books I was reading in my own head. And luckily (?), many of them never made it to the screen, so I could hold on to those impressions forever. But it is somewhat jarring to see your richly imagined landscape brought to life by someone else’s singular vision. (See the 1996 film version of Harriet the Spy. Rosie O’Donnell as Ole Golly? JUST NO.) On the flip side of all of this, we have movies like The Wizard of Oz, which are so much their own thing we sometimes forget they were ever a book. (While I’m here, allow me to recommend Return to Oz, which is a faithful and creepy adaptation of several books from the Oz series. And dare I say a superior movie to the original WoZ? Like I said, come for me.)

I think the exception to this rule is probably something like A Wrinkle in Time — a standalone movie without the same blockbuster budget and theme-park tie-in. My kids saw this movie and then wanted to read the book — which I also count as a parenting win. This was a book I loved as a kid, and we probably would have gotten there eventually, but viewing the film first and using that to pique their interest definitely worked in this case. We’ve also been watching the His Dark Materials show on BBC while reading the books at the same time. It’s a bit tricky as the TV series jumps around, but I noticed that when we get ahead of where the kids are in the book, they want to stop watching so we can “catch up” (reading) first. 

In summary: Books Rule and Movies Drool.

Got a question about reading/parenting/literally anything? We want to answer it! Leave your Qs in the Comments below. For more on Harry Potter, click on this rabbit hole, er, tag.

Sarah Howard Parker

Sarah Howard Parker is a writer and actress living in London. Her writing has appeared on Boston.com and The Awl. She blogs (infrequently) about karaoke at karaokeadvice.tumblr.com.

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