MIND MELD: Movie Novelizations That Are Actually Good
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Novelizations often get a bad rap, but some of them extend the playground of the imagination of the movie in interesting ways while keeping the virtues of the film.
Here’s what they said…
Hmm. Movie novelizations?
I know you don’t mean books to movies – because that is just so damned easy. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies, and, heck, there was even 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (Verne) which was a knockout movie, even if it was Disney. Really good SF books often don’t make good movies and there are so many examples that prove the rule it is almost a Crime. And, maybe it is… think of what they did to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. A clottin’ felony if I ever saw one. Some people raved about Dune, the movie. But, I still hold with my first opinion – it stank more than a Tahn-world Reek.
Actual novelizations? Alan Dean Foster did a great job with Return Of The Jedi and Dark Star – among others. Same for Orson Scott Card’s work on The Abyss. (I think his book made a helluva lot more sense than the movie) William Kotwinkle’s novelization of ET, in my mind, really added to the inherent humor that was in the film, and Steve Perry always delivers in any novelization – in any area – that he turns his hand to. (Full disclosure, Steve and his son, Del, pitched in after my late partner’s (Chris Bunch) death, and did a great job finishing the last Star Risk Ltd. novel – The Gangster Conspiracy.)
I was in third or fourth grade when Star Wars came out. Before I ever saw the movie, I read Alan Dean Foster’s novelization (George Lucas would later usurp Foster as author.) I loved the book then; it made me conversant with friends in my small town who actually saw the movie.
Recently, after watching the whole Star Wars saga for the thousandth time on cable, I happened upon Foster/Lucas’s novel at the library and decided to check it out. While Foster’s prose is sometimes clunky (although in Foster’s later stuff, like Flinx in Flux, which I’m reading now is much smoother) his grasp of Lucas’s creation is as in depth as the understanding of the Humanx Commonwealth.
What I especially liked about reading the novel this time was reading the scenes that were eventually dropped from the film’s original release, scenes like Luke taking off to Tosche Station in Anchorhead to rattle to his friends about the space battle he’s witnessed. This scene reveals Luke’s longing for adventure more than his whiny encounters with Owen at the dinner table.
Similarly, though Lucas restored the scene in the film’s rerelease, Han’s encounter with Jabba after waxing Greedo, makes Han’s mission to take Ben and Luke to Alderaan more pressing. The threat seems real.
Of course, whether films are adapted into novels or novels into films, the two media are different enough that neither will ever quite translate from one form to the other. Still, it’s nice sometimes to “read” your favorite movies and get acquainted with characters you care about again. Foster’s adaptation of Stars Wars enlivens and deepens the movie in this way.
When kicked to describe himself, Remic claims to have a love of extreme sports, kickass bikes and happy nurses. Once a member of an elite Combat K squad, he has retired from military service and claims to be a cross between an alcoholic Indiana Jones and a bubbly Lara Croft, only without the breasts (-although he’d probably like some). Remic lives in Lincolnshire UK and enjoys listening to Ronan Keating whilst thinking lewdly about zombies.
He’s just starting his own ebook publishing company, Anarchy Books, and you can check out his site at: www.andyremic.com.
I admit from the outset, I’m not a big reader of film novelizations – for a variety of reasons. I tend to work from the opposite traverse – for example, with the fairly average Will Smith movie I Am Legend, which led me to Richard Matheson’s absolutely superb novel of the same name – which blew me away, and jettisoned the movie out of the water with a huge torpedo up its bottom. However, over the years I have indulged in a few novelization blips which I did really thoroughly enjoy, and which “blew my little cotton socks off” by extending the playground of my twisted and somewhat deviant imagination.
The first notable novelization which I enjoyed, and helped pave my way to writing in the SF genre, was Star Wars by Alan Dean Foster – a wonderful SF novelist in his own right. To my child’s mind, this novel built admirably on the universe (co)created by Lucas – alongside Kurosawa, of course ;-). It was rich, well written, exciting, and helped push me into the realms of reading as opposed to simply watching the movie, baby.
The next experience came quite a few years later, and follows the weird triangulation that was Total Recall. Of course, the movie was built upon the short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Phil Dick (one of my all-time favourite authors). I think Verhoeven took certain liberties with Dick’s story, and although it came out as a completely different experience than that of the original text, the film is still hugely enjoyable. Piers Anthony carried out novelization duties, admirably I thought, but apparently worked from an earlier movie script and so his novel differed from the final film – to be expected, I suppose, the way movies are shot and chopped. But not necessarily to negative effect – I really enjoyed the novel (Anthony is a skilled writer indeed) and actually relished the deviations from the film at the time. Thus, an extension of imagination playground.
Another mention, and again this is not a strict novelization experience per se, was that of the, shall we say, collaboration between Kubrick and Clarke on 2001: A Space Odyssey. I enjoyed the film immensely (most people I’ve spoken to seemed to, excluding such Clarke-haters as Ian Sales, of course), which led me to the tapestry of the novel – kind of co-written, kind of co-developed – but an integral merging of film and novel into something which, I believe, transcends the novelization as work of fiction. I think this co-development added something special to the process and hats must be doffed to the Kubrick/Clarke camp.
More recently – I confess, I have been lax on the novelization front. I enjoy films. I enjoy novels. And although I don’t believe the two are not interchangeable in terms of entertainment experience, I don’t actively seek out novels of films I enjoy. I wonder why this is? Have I a malfunction? Or is it just, these days, most SF films seem to be based on Phil Dick stories I’ve already read; so, seeking out a novelization would appear to be a redundant process.
I find it interesting, talking about this, that I’m currently in a position where I’m making a movie (a low-budget horror thing called GEHENNA) but feel no need to do the novelization myself. When I’m ready, I’m going to ask one of my good friends and horror novelists to do the honours. Perhaps I’m too close to the material to do it justice? Maybe I need a Tardis? Whatever. I think it will be a cool experience to allow a mate to write a novelization of a film I scripted.
Now, final comment must be made on the absolutely wonderful novelization J. R. R. Tolkien made of Peter Jackson’s films. Tolkien managed to capture the essence of the movies perfectly, and his action sequences, sprawling characterisation and esoteric plotting seemed, if anything, to actually improve on that of the films! Amazing! Tolkien (and his son, Christopher, over-zealous entrepreneur of the Middle-Earth IP) should be given credit for creating a realistic world based on what is (admittedly) a brilliant series of movies. [Joke]. Ouch I can hear several rabid Hobbits already sharpening their elongated toe-nails as we speak
So then. Can anybody out there recommend me a good novelization so I can correct my deviancy?
My name’s Andy Remic. Thank you, and good night.
Movie novelizations have always struck me as slightly pointless. A book of a film? The story’s already been told. Why do it again in another medium? Besides, a book is not a film, everything in it can only be seen by the mind’s eye. Which also means that novelizations are a bit of a cheat – all that descriptive prose? The movie has already shown what everything looks like, so there’s no need for it. Admittedly, novelizations can add deeper background, and the interior thoughts of the characters, but if the story had needed them wouldn’t they have been in the film?
You could argue, of course, that the reverse it equally true: why bother to adapt novels for the screen? The story’s already been told. And they do say that written science fiction has the best special effects… There are even sf novels which have proven too difficult to adapt successfully. Such as Frank Herbert’s Dune. David Lynch tried, the Sci-Fi Channel tried, and there’s apparently a third attempt currently in pre-production. Lynch’s film made so many changes to the story, it was novelized itself by Joan D Vinge. That makes even less sense: the book of the film of the… book.
The same thing happened to Philip K Dick’s ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’. It became Paul Verhoeven’s film Total Recall, which was subsequently novelized by Piers Anthony.
And yet… While Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was sufficiently close to Dick’s Do Android Dreams of Electric Sheep? for the novel to be repackaged with the film’s title, the movie did lead to a trilogy of sequels by KW Jeter. These continue on from Blade Runner the film, not Do Android Dreams of Electric Sheep? the book; and are Edge of Human, Replicant Night, and Eye And Talon. They’re also pretty good. Replicant Night opens with Deckard as a consultant on the film being made of the events covered in the film Blade Runner, which adds a pleasingly Dickian level of recursion to the story.
It’s only in cases such as the above, where the story itself is extended in the novelization, that I think the practice holds merit. I don’t mean “expanded universe” type fiction, which chiefly shares only the background of the source film. I mean novelizations which take the story of the movie, and add more to it – and not just by throwing in some background, or the interior thoughts of the characters. It’s sometimes difficult to judge whether novelizations actually do this as many are based on early versions of the script. That titbit of background that’s in the book but not the film? It might well be lying on the cutting-room floor.
I don’t as a rule read novelizations, not even those of my favourite films. Most of which are based on books in the first place, anyway. These days, given the way Hollywood is plundering the written genre, you’re much more likely to see novels repackaged with movie adaptation tie-in cover-art and marketing. And, of course, media tie-in fiction has become an industry in itself.
I’ve yet to be convinced there’s a place for film novelizations on my book-shelves. And the few I own – The Dune Storybook by Joan D Vinge, Star Trek: The Motion Picture by Gene Roddenberry (the photobook is better and more useful), Alien by Alan Dean Foster (actually, I think I might have given it away) – haven’t persuaded me otherwise. I’ll stick to the movies, thank you very much.
Or the original source texts.
It’s been by experience that strong genre writers or writers who have subsequently turned into strong genre writers are the writers who have best managed the difficult balancing act between extending the film while capturing the magic, vim and vigor of the film.
Total Recall, by Piers Anthony.
This was the first movie novelization that I read that I actually enjoyed. There are plenty of logical flaws and lacunae in the movie that come to light in your mind after you have finished going on Arnold Schwarzenegger wild ride to Mars as envisioned by Paul Verhoeven. How can you get a realistically safe atmosphere from just the oxygen in the ice that the big machine is breaking apart by hydrolysis? (Hydrogen and Oxygen would not make for a safe atmosphere if that are the only/major components of the atmosphere!) What were the aliens whose machinery we see *really* like and what were their goals? Given the movie’s play with reality and memories, are the events of the movie really happening, or is this all in Quaid’s head?
Fortunately, Piers Anthony doesn’t try to write like Philip K Dick, who wrote the original story that inspired the movie and thus this novelization. Instead, he manages to answer these questions and more, keep up the kinetic action of the movie and helps make the world of Total Recall make a lot more sense. And it has touches of Anthony’s sometimes bawdy sense of humor.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Kevin J Anderson
Kevin J Anderson is a prolific writer who has a substantial oeuvre ranging from Star Wars YA books to his fantasy Age of Exploration-esque novels in the Terra Incognita series. My first encounter with him and his work was, as it so happens, was with his novelization of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Part of the charm of this book was how well Kevin captured the feel, writing style and virtues of pulp serials in the text of the book, very much in tune with the feel of the movie. His novelization, while expanding the world of Sky Captain was also very much in the voice of the old pulp serials, making it feel to an extent like the author had written this in 1950 rather than 2004. And, just as importantly, Anderson takes care to fill in some of the niggling questions and missing details from the film.
Clash of the Titans, Alan Dean Foster
It’s impossible to discuss novelizations without bringing up one of, if not the heavyweight of the subgenre, Alan Dean Foster. In addition to work in his own universes, he has, for decades, been extremely prolific in doing novelizations. I recall a Dragon Magazine Phil Foglio comic from over 20 years ago that lightly poked fun at his protean ability to enter into universes not of his own making and turning out novels based on movie scripts. I came across a copy of his novelization of the original Clash of the Titans movie some years ago in a used bookstore. The dusty, worn paperback came home with me and I devoured it avidly. Even the mechanical owl Bubo got some love and attention from Foster’s writing.
I’ve never really looked down on novelizations precisely because I’ve come across enough good ones over the years that have added interesting and entertaining dimensions to the stories already presented onscreen. In fact, I’ll go even further and say that in some cases a good novelization can be better than, and possibly redeem, a story that wasn’t so great on film. To my mind, the best novelizations are:
Vonda N. McIntyre’s renditions of Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III The Search for Spock. McIntyre does a fantastic job of expanding on the dramatic elements of these two stories: TWOK’s coming to terms with ghosts from the past, mid-life crisis, and a Moby Dick-style reckoning with an old enemy; TSFS dealing with mourning, obsolescence, loyalty and rebellion. At the same time, she adds to the story, introducing dramatic elements that may or may not have been in the script drafts but certainly never made it to the screen, such as the relationship between David and Saavik. There’s no indication in either movie that there was a romance between the two. However, its portrayal in the books certainly tells us a lot more about Saavik’s character; in reaching out to Kirk’s son (metaphorically reconciling herself with Kirk, a human who’s kept her puzzled since the academy) she shows herself to be more than the school keener, she’s now shown to have complex emotions like romantic attraction under the surface, even while dealing with the vulnerability and loss associated with Spock’s death. I was also impressed with how McIntyre captures the wonder and promise of the Genesis project, and the disappointment at its failure – things that are only touched on quickly in the films. And, to her credit, while putting a first class effort into preserving and enhancing the drama of the stories, the author also does a fine job of keeping a solid feel for the action of the starship battles and slugfests with the Klingons. McIntyre’s taken two movies that I really enjoyed and expanded them into a pair of very readable books.
Another novelization that did justice to a good movie was Orson Scott Card’s version of The Abyss. Card does a superb job of creating that claustrophobic feeling that Cameron showed onscreen, as well as the moments of gut-wrenching action that come crashing into the story to interrupt and heighten the tensions between the characters. In terms of enhancing characters that were already three-dimensional for the most part, the author wastes no time, providing the reader with the backstories for our three main players, Bud, Lindsey and Coffey, in the first three chapters of the novel. That’s a gutsy move… most writers would probably have slipped in more condensed versions of this information later on as flashbacks. But Card puts all of their emotional baggage right up front to provide the reader with an even more solid basis for why these people do what they do. In the case of Coffey, it makes him into a real, fully-developed person, rather than the simple, spiraling out of control “jarhead robot” that we see in the film. Choosing to open the book with these moments in the past, rather than with the slap-you-in-the-face action of a submarine collision, defines the story as one about realistic characters that readers can identify with as opposed to one simply about passing thrills lurking in the darkness. I remember thinking when I read The Abyss for the first time that while Card was building on a story that, in a general sense, wasn’t so different than Michael Crichton’s Sphere, Card did a far more successful job of writing a gripping book with characters that I actually cared about. I don’t tend to like Card’s work and don’t reread it when I do come across it, but I’ll certainly give him top marks for The Abyss. He took someone else’s source material, built on it, and left his own mark it, and for once created a Card book I will come back to.
In a similar vein, there’s Piers Anthony’s novelization of Total Recall (a strange example, I know, because it’s an Anthony novelization of a movie based on a Philip K. Dick story… but whatever). I don’t like most of the Anthony books I’ve read, and yet I have to acknowledge that he took a pretty mediocre movie (and I’m talking about the movie here, folks, this does not reflect my opinion of PKD’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”) and turned it into a somewhat enjoyable book. It’s been a few years since I’ve read Total Recall, but something positive that sticks out (no, not Kuato coming out of that guy’s stomach – “Quaid, start your acting lessons!”) was the effort Anthony made to explain the nature of the alien reactor on Mars and the threat it posed, even as it offered the promise of an atmosphere. Not a book I’d come back to again, but also not a bad example of the value of a novelization and how it can sometimes be better than the movie that inspired it.
Lastly, (and I know this will inspire some groans) I’d like to offer up Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of The Black Hole as a book that accomplishes where its movie fails. I reread Foster’s version during Christmas, so it’s fresh in my memory. One of the failings (okay, one of the many, many, many failings) of the movie was that it didn’t know whether it was a suspense/mystery story or an action flick. Foster makes the choice that Disney couldn’t and comes down squarely on the side of the mystery and developing the characters. In fact, where Disney devotes a good portion of the second half of the movie to the extended chase through the ship and all the gunfights and rolling chunks of cosmic debris that go with it, Foster, for his part, covers that material in just a few pages. He spends more time letting us get to know the crew of the Palomino. In Foster’s novelization, reporter Harry Booth is more of a person and a respectable professional, than the simple blowhard and coward he’s made out to be in the film. We learn a little more about Dr. Kate McCrae and co-pilot Charlie Pizer, as well as VINCENT and his robotic point of view. In fact, the only protagonist who suffers from this extra attention is Captain Dan Holland, who’s written as unimaginative and kind of uninteresting. As for their tormentor, Foster paints the villain Reinhardt with a different, and ultimately more menacing colour of madness than the movie. Where Maximilian Schell’s onscreen commander is subject to mood swings and seems to be making up his story as he goes along when he’s not leering at McCrae in a creepy uncle kind of way, the book gives us a picture of a colder, far more deliberate megalomaniac who has had everything planned out for quite some time. But beyond the character building, Foster’s greatest achievement with The Black Hole is to give the story and ending that works. It’s clear from commentary on the DVD that during production, the director and producers didn’t have an ending for the film and had to cobble something together that they thought would be deep and meaningful, hence the strange journey of Reinhardt through hell and redemption. It wasn’t. Foster brushes all that aside (spoilers ahead), leaves Reinhardt when he’s crushed, and focusses on the escapees, having only their minds survive the singularity, courtesy of Kate’s telepathy, and emerging as a gestalt entity. Strange, but more satisfying from a science fiction perspective than what the movie served-up. Foster’s novelization isn’t without its problems. The writing is at times repetitive, and I wonder if the story wouldn’t have been even better if he’d just been given the concept to work with, rather than what was likely a portion of a script. But ultimately, The Black Hole is a pretty entertaining SF book, and proves that sometimes the novelization can exceed the story presented on-screen.
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