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Read the book or watch the film?

Many will argue that the book is always better than the film. But there’s no denying that on-screen adaptations provide some of the best movie night material around. It’s an age-old debate: read the book or watch the film? And specifically, in what order? While you probably have your preferences, we did some of our own customer insights analysis. 

Taking two of the highest-grossing film adaptations –  Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings – we compared Goodreads book reviews against their respective IMBD film reviews. Using Relative Insight’s technology, we discovered the linguistic differences in how people talk about each medium, and more specifically, each title.

I analysed the data in a few ways:

  • Combined book reviews vs combined film reviews
  • Compared LOTR book reviews vs film reviews
  • Then compared Harry Potter book reviews vs film reviews

What did people have to say about books?

As it turns out, people just love books! When it comes to comparing book reviews and film reviews, people are 2.2x more likely to declare their love for the written counterpart. But the debate isn’t over just yet…

Reading is a personal experience; our minds are given the freedom to completely drift into another world. We have the choice to stop mid-page, go backward or forwards. In Goodreads reviews, the independent sentiment of reading was echoed in the use of personal pronouns, which appeared 1.5x more than in IMBD reviews.

Reading is an active hobby, where imagination is essential. Goodreads reviews were 1.9x more likely to include words such as ‘think’ and ‘thought’ than in reviews about films. This is a small linguistic difference, but suggests that reading requires more thinking than watching, and that people are more opinionated when it came to books.

But it’s not all bad for films

In fact, a lot of film reviewers praised the true craft of filmmaking. Films allow us to be truly immersed in the story, stimulating our visual and auditory senses. It is therefore no surprise that film reviewers made reference to ‘music’ and ‘special effects’ that breathe life into words on a page.

While film reviews that talk about ‘performance’ isn’t exactly groundbreaking, it’s interesting to look at in context. For instance, one reviewer claims that Elijah Wood’s performance in LOTR is ‘critical’ to the film’s development, and similarly, Emma Watson’s portrayal of Hermione Grainger in Harry Potter ‘hits the spot’. These film reviewers clearly have a predetermined expectation for what these characters should be, assumedly from reading the book first.

In a similar vein, IMBD reviewers were 5.1x more likely to discuss the topic of ‘changes’ and ‘exclusion’. While in some cases, alterations are necessary for a film adaptation, changes can also negatively impact the reception of a film. For instance, inaccurate representation can pull us out of the moment. Maybe this is an argument for watching the film first?

The Lord of the Rings

The Books

The Lord of the Rings is an epic fantasy novel, written in three parts by J. R. R. Tolkien between the years 1954 to 1955. But aside from praise for Tolkien’s masterpiece, reviews of the book tell us just what we are missing out on if we only watch the movies.

Reviewers of the book were 9.2x more likely to shed light on literary elements of the book, drawing attention to various myths, songs, poems and linguistic nuances which enrich the text. Someone who simply watched the film would lack all of this knowledge and remain unaware of the symbolism and meaning beneath the surface.

New Zealand provides the perfect backdrop for Mount Doom in Mordor, and the idilic Hobbiton in the Shire in LOTR film adaptations. However, readers were still 3.6x more likely to speak about the natural landscape that Tolkien describes in words. Interestingly, the impact of language on the reader’s imagination has a stronger effect than the on screen equivalent.

The Films

While the book is clearly a masterpiece, IMBD reviewers were 4.9x more likely to name the film franchise ‘the greatest epic ever made’ using words such as ‘breathtaking’ in their reviews. The final film in the LOTR franchise, Return of the King, also won 11 Oscars out of 11 nominations… Does that mean we’ve found a better movie that’s better than its book?

The onscreen adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was an emotional rollercoaster for viewers. Fans were ‘moved’ by performances in the film, and discussed their emotions more frequently in comparison to book reviews.

Harry Potter

As spoken through the character of Albus Dumbledore: “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.” J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels created a world of magic that cast a spell on most readers, which went on to be the best-selling book series in history.

The Books

The OG Harry Potter fans, now in their 20s and 30s, have a huge connection to the book series. Many grew up with Harry, Ron and Hermione, reading the first of Rowling’s novels in their childhood and maturing synchronously as later books were released. This feeling of nostalgia is unmistakable in Goodreads reviews, with people referring to their ‘first time’ reading or ‘remembering’ how each section made them feel.

When it comes to the books, readers also have a stronger opinion on characters and which books they liked or didn’t like. Goodreads reviews were 4.7x more likely to use words such as ‘hate’ and ‘dislike’, and 2.2x more likely to refer to their ‘favorites’.

The Films

While The Lord of the Rings films left viewers feeling moved, Harry Potter fans pointed out that the movies rushed key emotional points. One reviewer wrote ‘a movie which was supposed to mark the end of an era could have been much better’.

Similarly, some die-hard Harry Potter fans were disappointed in the film adaptations and were 15.2x more likely to express their discontent in comparison to the books. Although there were positive reviews of the films, overall it seems that the Harry Potter books have no equal.


It’s personal! While you’ll probably get more out of the book – from various literary extras, lengthy depictions, deeper character development and having to think for yourself – films are great too! It all depends on your mood. But if you do read the book first, be prepared for some minor disappointments…

Relative Insight makes sense of your qualitative data. From social media to web copy to survey results, we can analyze any language set! Check out our customer insights examples for businesses to learn how.

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