Are Movies Bigger Tearjerkers Than Books?

When it comes to books and movies, I would dub myself a moderate-to-heavy crier. There are highly sensitive people who cry at the drop of a hat, and there are steely never-criers who could count on one hand the things that moistened their eyes. I’d say I’m somewhere in the middle, leaning toward the quick-to-cry end of the scale.

So the other day on Facebook group when someone asked the question “which books made you cry? ” it got me thinking. While the list of movies that have made me cry is too long to keep track of, the list of books is much shorter.  Many have made me profoundly sad, but few have brought me to the point of tears.

I’ve been subjected to more movies in my lifetime than books, which could have something to do with it, but personally I think it’s more than that.

Movies Have An Advantage

Movies have more tricks up their sleeve that make them potential tearjerkers.

They hit you with the sad music right when it hurts most – violin strings and mournful choirs and piano ballads. All you have to do is listen to the music they used for Gandalf’s “death” scene in The Lord of the Rings (the link should start 12:30 into the video) to see what I mean – just listening to it makes me sad.

Additionally, movies can show people being sad and show people crying. If there’s any surefire trigger for me to cry, it’s seeing someone else in tears, particularly if I know and can empathise with the reason for it.

Actors can also inspire a lot of emotion through their performances, enriching words with feeling and subtext or plucking our heartstrings with meaningful looks.

And then there’s the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words”. While it’s not always true, a powerful visual image or sequence of shots can make it so.

All of these things combine to create a formidable tool kit that, when finely tuned and effectively applied, can allow a film to toy with and draw out audience emotions.

Audiobooks Have an Advantage

I believe even audiobooks have an advantage in the tearjerker department. A good narrator can layer words with further emotion and meaning. Additionally, if a voice actor clearly sounds like they are tearing up when the character is crying (voice becomes tight, warbles etc.) and it is convincing, it has the same effect for me as seeing someone cry. The audiobook of The Help (which is absolutely brilliant) got me with this.

Great Books Still Provoke Tears

All of this said, there are quite a few books that have managed to make me cry. They achieved it in spite of their lack of a mournful soundtrack and heart-rending images and crying actors.

Most often what moves me is the death of a beloved and important character, especially when that death is a noble self-sacrifice. At other times it is simply the sadness of the situation. And very rarely, it is because of a moment so profound or bittersweet that the swell of emotion makes my eyes sting.

Often the books that have made me cry have made me do so more intensely than any movie. Where sad moments in a film often seem to generate a momentary cathartic weep, the sad moments in books seem to linger with me as I think them through.

Regardless of whether it’s a book or a film, there’s no doubt the quality of the writing and characterisation play a role in how emotional it makes me… which brings me to considering something particularly interesting in all of this:

Movie Adaptions

Book-to-film adaptations provide a fairly direct comparison of two experiences of the same story. You can ask yourself: did I cry when I saw this scene in the film? Did I cry when I read this? Of course, it’s likely to be influenced by which version you watched or read first, but it’s still interesting to consider.

The Harry Potter series is a prime example, with multiple deaths and sad moments to explore. For me the books and films had five tear-inducing moments, though not a single one of these moments made me cry in both.

These moments were: Cedric Diggory’s Death (and Harry’s Failure to save him), Dumbledore’s death, Dobby’s Death, Snape’s Death and the moment where Harry believes he’s going to have to die to rid the world of Lord Voldemort.

In the books, Dumbledore’s death had me sobbing, but the movie scene depicting this moment didn’t jerk a single tear or inspire much emotion at all. I blame that on the filmmaking and perhaps the acting, as this was also my least favourite film. Additionally, Harry’s near self-sacrifice in The Deathly Hallows (where he is saying goodbye and preparing to die) had my eyes stinging when I read the book, but by the time I watched the movie I already knew what was going to happen so it took some of the tragedy out of the moment.

In the books, Snape’s death was very sad but it didn’t bring me to tears, nor did Cedric Diggory’s death. In the movies both did. I think this is also a case of the filmmaking and the acting, with both being stellar in this instance. Alan Rickman really brought Snape’s character to life on screen and made me care about him in a way I never truly did in the books. And that moment in The Goblet of Fire when Harry returns with the cup to a chorus of cheers and a band playing, which fade to tuneless horror as they realise he’s holding Cedric’s dead body, is an incredibly emotional one.

As for Dobby’s death, I know it was either the book or the film that made me cry, but I can’t remember which. I was surprised that this scene had an emotional impact on me at all because I found Dobby’s character annoying for most of the series… but he was still always sweet and helpful and I think his unending loyalty meant I still had a soft spot for him.

The Verdict?

All in all, I think it’s a tougher ask for a book to make me cry, but if it does then it’s usually a great book, and the tears (and accompanying emotional experience) are going to stick out in my memory in a way film-induced ones might not. Books can often make me cry in different moments than movies would, which is no doubt a reflection of the different medium and story experience. And naturally, the ability to induce tears is not a prerequisite for greatness, but it is often a mark of quality in a book or film.

_______

Next week I’ll continue with this theme and list the fantasy, science fiction, dystopian and YA books that actually made me cry. In the mean time, comments are welcome!

Do you cry more easily in books or movies? Is it easy or difficult for a story to make you cry?

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11 thoughts on “Are Movies Bigger Tearjerkers Than Books?

  1. I don’t cry often at movies/books/tv/ect, but when I rarely do, it’s more often at movies, just because, as you said, that combo of seeing and hearing is dangerous. That being said, I do understand why books can perhaps be more emotional because of the duration you spend reading. 2 hours to watch a movie compared to several hours reading and falling in love with characters/places/ect makes for more emotions when things get sad.

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    • I didn’t think about the duration, but that’s so true! Especially if you think about the countless reading hours involved in a lengthy book series. You’re likely to be a lot more emotionally involved with those characters and places than you are in a 2 hour movie. Perhaps a TV series could match that sort of emotion, but it’s a hard ask for a film.

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  2. I am SUCH a sucker for emotions. When reading books and watching films, I dive right in and attach myself to the characters. It is so very easy to make me cry. I’m sure people could make a meme out of it. But I love being so emotional about stories and characters. I love feeling so strongly.
    As for which medium makes me cry more, well, that’s easy. Movies make me cry far more than books. Probably because I watch more than I read (and the tools movies have effect me like kryptonite effects Superman). Even so, when a book makes me cry, I am like you in that the emotion lingers with me long after the scene has passed.

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    • I also love getting emotional in books and films (provided there are not too many judgemental friends around to witness it!) – one of my favourite things about stories is that I get taken on an emotional rollercoaster and I always appreciate books and films that evoke strong feelings.

      Interesting that the book-related emotions also linger with you for a long time afterward – I’m glad to know I am not the only one who has this experience! Must be to do with the long, immersive experience of reading… and maybe the more internalised, imaginative nature of it too.

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  3. I cry more watching then reading but I think it is because like you say, I see the person on the screen crying versus being able to skip ahead, pause, or otherwise pace my reading to avoid the watershed

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    • That’s true I never thought about the fact that you can control the reading experience in order to avoid tears. I guess at highly emotional moments I’m always just devouring the story as fast as I can without stopping so it feels like I have no control over it. I think maybe the only time I actively paused reading or took a break was during ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ because there were too many sad moments. That book had me crying so regularly that I got annoyed at myself and tried to reduce the tears (perhaps also because I knew it was a classic bawl-your-eyes-out book and I felt I was falling too easily into its trap!)

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  4. Hmm this is a really difficult- I guess it depends on the book or movie- I’ve never thought about this before- I really don’t know! Looking forward to reading about what fantasy/ya actually made you cry though- I always love a good tear jerker

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