In praise of movie novelisations, and the gold they offer movie geeks

News 28 Sep 2011 - 11:52

Mere marketing tool, or thumping good read? Here, David praises the greatness of movie novelisations…

They’re the novels film buffs love to read, and collect omnivorously. The books take up at least a single shelf, and their collectors smile, impressed, at the way a multi-million dollar scene sparkling with special effects can be effectively emulated in prose. Or maybe that’s just me.

But seriously: haven’t you ever watched Lethal Weapon and thought, “This should have been a book!” If you ever have, then track down and pick up Joel Norst’s paperback version and see how he can make maverick cop Martin Riggs jumping off a building while clinging to a hysterical civilian just as breathtaking as when Mel Gibson does it onscreen.

Or how about when James Bond free-falls over a cliff in Goldeneye? Check out veteran Bond novelist John Gardner’s take on it. These scenes, and the ones surrounding them, are given new depth, plus added insight into the back-story.

In the 90s, almost every blockbuster released had its own book to go with it, from mega-hits such as The Mask, In The Line Of Fire, The Bodyguard, Air Force One, Saving Private Ryan, True Lies, Basic Instinct, The Fugitive and, ahem, Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure, to moderate hits such as Maverick, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Dante’s Peak, Outbreak, Chain Reaction and Vertical Limit.

Even films now largely forgotten were given the prose-treatment, like the awful Clint Eastwood/Charlie Sheen actioner The Rookie, the vacillating hostage satire-thriller Mad City with Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta, Assassins with Sly Stallone – and even Speed 2: Cruise Control (a film which actually works when you think of it as a disaster flick).

Writing these things isn’t particularly credible, however. They don’t even pay well. Most authors write them for a one-off fee, the publishers covetously keeping the royalties to themselves. There is no promotion, either – unless you consider the movie itself (seen on thousands of screens around the world) as promotion for the book. In which case, it was very nice of Robert Downey Jr to help Peter David out with Iron Man.  

There’s also the dreaded deadline.

Generally, authors are accustomed to deadlines: it is part and parcel of a writer’s life, as the publisher wants to make sure the book hits the street by a particular time. But with regular novels, the writer is in charge. With novelisations, they are, at best, an afterthought. If the release date for the movie has been brought forward, the novelisation date has to be forwarded accordingly – more so, most times, so it can serve its general purpose and promote the film before it reaches cinemas, signalling to its potential audience that something they might want to see is on its way to multiplexes.

Many scribes have to turn the screenplay into a complete novel within three to four weeks. Sometimes, it’s even shorter than that. The book-of-the-film is decided through the marketing department, and in that respect, it’s just one of many tools – like the toys, posters and other merchandise – to promote the movie. And it’s the movie which is the main concern. That’s what the studio has invested gazillions of dollars into. They need to get that money back with a wide a profit margin as possible.

For fans, they get to read scenes which never made it into the final cut. In the Back To The Future novelisation, we open with Marty and his classmates watching an educational film on atomic power, and a scene of a 1950s living room with mannequins burnt to a crisp – similar to the scene in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, which also spawned a novelisation with unfamiliar material.

In that, James Rollins (best-selling author of the SIGMA Force series) we open with Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Orellana, filling in the back-story which will be needed to understand the film’s (much-criticised) final reel in the Akator Temple. More trivially, Mac calls Indiana Jones ‘Indy’ instead of ‘Jonesey’ (presumably, the deal with Mac is that he gets Indy’s nickname wrong, so we think he’s only comic-relief and won’t anticipate his betrayal). The book became a New York Times bestseller, and Rollins apparently took lower pay for it than his regular novels.

We also get to delve into the character’s heads and find out what they’re thinking. For example, in the book Star Wars: A New Hope (originally titled Star Wars: From The Adventures Of Luke Skywalker) we get to see what is shuttling through Princess Leia’s mind while she is interrogated by Darth Vader on the ship. She is defiant – as seen on screen – and although angry and scared, she is exuding the ‘stiff-upper-lip’ which is inherent in the British royals. Foster makes us sympathise with her earlier than we would do in the screen version. Also in this interpretation, Obi-Wan Kenobi doesn’t stop fighting Vader and let the Sith Lord strike him dead; he appears to lose the fight due to his lack of vitality.

Alan Dean Foster is one of the most prolific tie-in writers working in sci-fi, and since the mid-70s, has produced a steady stream of novelisations for films such as Dark Star, the first three Alien movies, The Last Starfighter and, most recently, Terminator Salvation. His novelisation of Ridley Scott’s Alien contained a few scenes that were in the shooting script, but had to be left out of the film due to time and budget constraints. The same was also true of his superb novelisation of John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, which is now something of a collector’s item.

The king of novelisations is deemed to be Max Allan Collins, ostensibly a mystery writer, but also the guy behind the Road To Perdition screenplay, books and graphic novels. He has penned a staggering 18 tie-ins, most of them culled from bit hits. Also, with Monk and Diagnosis Murder author Lee Goldberg, he has founded the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. On the site, there are numerous articles and interviews detailing the variables behind working on these projects. These articles can be seen in book-form in Goldberg’s Tied In – The Business, Craft, And History Of Media Tie-In Writing.

Despite its writers having their own club, there doesn’t seem to be as many novelisations as there once were. There’s Cowboys And Aliens, yes, and oddly, even the Hillary Swank Hammer thriller The Resident (by British writer and editor of Men’s Fitness magazine, Francis Cottam), but Green Lantern, Captain America, Thor, The Expendables and The A-Team didn’t get the prose-treatment one might have expected had these flicks been released in the 90s.

Strangely, the Russell Crowe version of Robin Hood did – which we really didn’t need, as there was a tie-in for the Kevin Costner version 20 years ago (you know, the one which was an actual hit).

Perhaps studios don’t want to invest in the publication of their film in novel form when they’re not even certain if their project will be a hit in celluloid. Whatever the reason, the big-screen novelisation is fading.

Conversely, the TV-tie in has never been more rampant.

They’re different, in that they have original stories and aren’t (these days, anyway) adapted from television episodes. There has, of course, been TV tie-ins before (the 60s gave us the The Man from U.N.C.L.E. novels, and the 70s and 80s Starsksy And Hutch and Miami Vice, respectively, while teen readers got their 90410 and The OC fixes when those shows were in hiatus).

The last decade, however, has seen the most bountiful supply of small-screen tie-in product ever, with the CSI franchise, 24, Alias, Bones, Criminal Minds, Monk, Burn Notice, Psych, and most recently, NCIS all getting their shiny photo-covers onto bookstore shelves. I’m waiting on The Mentalist book series, should there ever be one (and if series creator Bruno Heller is reading this, please let me write them).

Similarly, in 2005, Marvel and Pocket Books together developed a prose-line in which a whole slew of superheroes, like Wolverine, Spider-Man and Fantastic Four, found themselves in graphic-less books. The line was dropped after only a couple of books – surprisingly, as they were invariably good. Perhaps the fans are too busy watching the movies Marvel keeps putting out than reading about those same characters in books – you know, with words and that.

Maybe DVDs are the trouble. They shouldn’t be, as videos never stopped novelisations selling. But there’s a five or six month gap between the movie closing in the cinema and coming out on DVD, and that should be the perfect time for eager fans to experience the film all again – with the bonus of getting extra material and added insight into the story and character.

It could be the best film you’ve ever read.

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Max Allan Collins was also one of the long-time writers of Dick Tracy, and wrote the novelisation of the Warren Beatty film, which ended up being baffling. You see, despite the identity of the masked villain being incredibly obvious (Spoiler below), the producers didn't want it spoiled. So the book was a whodunnit without an ending. He wasn't even allowed to mention that it was a woman. I think they even made him delete "No face said...breathlessly". And then the book came out after the film, anyway.

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