Every year, Hollywood saves up its big, epic dramas to release at the end of the year—all the better to catch holiday film-goer’s attentions and line up their offerings for year-end awards. Many of these titles are often based on award-winning or popular books, which prompts the age-old question: Is it better to watch the movie or read the original book? To save you time, we’ve taken the liberty of analyzing this month’s prestige openings to suss out if the cinematic adaptation does the literary original justice.
Wild (December 3)
What’s It About? Reese Witherspoon stars as Cheryl Strayed, a 26-year-old woman who decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail after her marriage crumbles in the wake of her mother’s sudden death. Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) directs this adaptation of Strayed’s 2012 best-selling memoir.
Read the Book or See the Movie? For a more nuanced and complex look at Strayed’s emotional breakdown—and eventual revival— pick up a copy of the author’s book. Strayed’s interior monologue about her flaws and revelations is conveyed better on the page, where she has room to elucidate her thoughts, than in a film, which hinges on Witherspoon’s facial expressions.
Inherent Vice (December 12)
What’s It About? Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) writes and directs this first-ever film adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Originally published in 2009, the novel follows the adventures of Larry “Doc” Sportello (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a 70s-era private detective and pothead hired to find his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend.
Read the Book or See the Movie? Given how many famous faces Anderson has crammed into his largely faithful film—including Josh Brolin as a corrupt cop, Reese Witherspoon as an assistant DA having an affair with Doc, Martin Short as a sleazy dentist and the reclusive Pynchon in a cameo—we’ll be lining up for a ticket.
Exodus: God and Kings (December 12)
What’s It About? Director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Prometheus) tackles the classical biblical story of Moses (Christian Bale) leading the Israelites out of slavery.
Read the Book or See the Movie? Exodus—which has four credited screenwriters—takes some liberties with the source material, choosing to have God appear to Moses as a small child instead of a burning bush. Though Scott’s visuals (presented in 3D) are superb, the faithful should choose to stick with the original.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (December 17)
What’s It About? In the final installment of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield, the Company of Dwarves and their allies band together to battle the Goblins, Wargs and Bats at the Lonely Mountain.
Read the Book or See the Movie? While many have been annoyed by Jackson and distributor Warner Bros.’ decision to turn Tolkien’s original book into three films, the final film of the Kiwi director’s Middle Earth adventures deserves to be seen on the big screen.
Unbroken (December 25)
What’s It About? In this World War II epic, actress-turned-director Angelina Jolie brings to life the true story of Olympic athlete-turned-Japanese POW camp survivor Louis Zamperini. Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book of the same name, Unbroken is the rare big-budget drama directed by a woman.
Read the Book or See the Movie? Zamperini, who passed away earlier this year, led a truly incredible life with enough drama for several movies. It’s worth learning about his travails and triumphs in whatever format you can.