Looking back at Alan Dean Foster’s Alien novelisation

As Alan Dean Foster's novelisation of Alien gets a 35th anniversary reissue, we take a look back at its intelligent rendering of the film...

Celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, Ridley Scott’s Alien remains a timeless exercise in atmosphere and suspense. The intervening years may have diminished the impact of its bloodiest moments, but the air of astral coldness is still as potent as it ever was.

Alan Dean Foster’s Alien novelisation succeeds in capturing that same chilly essence – quite a feat, given that the author wrote the book in just three weeks, with what appears to be an early draft of the screenplay, and without having seen a photograph of the title creature.

Novelisations essentially a marketing tool – released around the same time as the films on which they’re based, they’re written quickly and bundled onto bookshop shelves without much fanfare. Yet Foster, one of the most prolific writers of novelisations and genre novels in general, approached Alien with what feels like great care. His book captures the tone of the movie, while also expanding on the drama and tensions between the central characters – not to mention the deadly movements of the alien itself.

In terms of structure, Foster’s Alien hews closely to Ridley Scott’s movie. A seven-strong crew aboard the towing ship Nostromo are awakened from hypersleep to respond to what is ostensibly a distress signal. Finding themselves in an unfamiliar star system, the crew traces the signal to LV-426, a hostile planetoid where a derelict spacecraft sits amid the howling winds.

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Foster eloquently introduces his characters in these opening pages, first among them warrant officer Ripley as the most resourceful and insightful member of these truckers in space. Foster establishes the uneasy tensions between the officer class on the bridge – Ripley, Lambert, Kane, Ash and Captain Dallas – and the working class engineers Brett and Parker below decks. Parker and Brett patch up the ageing Nostromo while openly voicing their resentment at the officers’ better pay, while the officers are irked by the engineers’ perpetual disgruntlement. Captain Dallas, meanwhile, has a more formal relationship with his crew while at the helm of the Nostromo; ship navigator Lambert repeatedly calls Dallas ‘sir’ when responding to orders, emphasising a hierarchy that was only hinted at in the film. 

As the crew prepares to land on LV-426, Foster peppers his prose with detailed descriptions of the stresses the ship undergoes, and the repairs Parker and Brett are making as the planetoid’s atmosphere takes its toll. Alien’s premise may be ‘haunted house in space’, but Foster gives his novel a hard-SF-like sheen that makes its slow build-up all the more convincing.

The discovery of the derelict alien vessel and the eggs within it differ between book and film – the finding of the huge, long-dead space jockey, which would later inspire Prometheus, is notable for its absence – but the sense of the unknown is masterfully handled. We may not be able to see HR Giger’s spectacular set designs, but Foster succeeds in conveying not only the derelict ship’s weird, off-kilter shape, but also its unearthly, organic quality (“The ship conveyed the impression of having been grown rather than being manufactured”).

In a handful of instances, the novelisation’s tendency to spell out the characters’ inner motivations lessens the impact of some scenes . In the book – and presumably, in the draft of the script its details are taken from – Kane is explicitly depicted as an adventurer with a preoccupation with diamonds. His cheerful descent into the bowls of the derelict in search of the jewels he believes are “spilling out of old alien crates down there” undercuts the ominous build-up we see in the film – though not enough to dispel the sense of foreboding entirely.

What Kane ultimately finds, of course, is quite the opposite of a crate of diamonds. His encounter with the contents of an alien egg is more protracted and grim than Scott’s version in the film, which is over almost before we can register what’s happened. Foster’s take on the scene is more explicitly violent (“something was pushing insistently at his lips…”), underlining the button-pushing subtexts of Dan O’Bannon’s original script (surviving intact in David Giler and Walter Hill’s rewrites) and HR Giger’s design work. 

What happens next is the stuff of movie legend, and Foster synthesises it well in prose form. The infamous birth of the alien is as gut-wrenching as it should be, with its arrival accompanied by a “nauseating stench” and “crimson slime”. Foster may not have had access to what Giger and his team were making (he describes the infant Star Beast as a “butchered turkey with teeth” – but he has a total understanding of what makes the scene horrific – its sense of violation. The alien, as Foster rightly puts it, leaves “an unclean wake”.

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For fans of Scott’s movie, the Alien novelisation offers all kinds of additional interest, aside from its incisive rendering of the story. There are little studs of information, like Kane’s first name – here, it’s said to be Thomas – plus a few scenes that didn’t make it into the film. There’s a sequence where Ripley and the rest of the surviving crew attempt to eject the alien from an airlock, only for a treacherous Ash to sound an alarm and scare the thing off. A hatch door slams shut, tearing off a limb as the beast escapes, the subsequent flow of acid from the wound almost causing a deadly depressurisation.

It was a scene ultimately left out of the production to save money, but preserved in book form here. Another sequence, where Ripley finds Dallas cocooned in a darkened corner of the Nostromo, was filmed but left out of the final cut, and would go unseen for several years before appearing as a deleted scene on LaserDisc.  

Still others are expanded or significantly different from those in the final cut – Ripley, Parker and Lambert’s conversation with Ash (now severely damaged and revealed to be an android) is particularly illuminating. In it, Ash makes clear the full duplicity of the crew’s employers.

“[The Company] knew all along that the transmission was a warning and not a distress signal,” Ash says, before going on to reveal that the Company’s experts had even succeeded in party translating it: “The derelict craft we found had landed on the planet, apparently in the course of normal exploration. Like Kane, they encountered one or more of the alien spore pods […] wherever they came from, they were a noble people. Hopefully mankind will meet them again, under more pleasant circumstances.” It’s a sentence that contradicts Ridley Scott’s later suggestion that the space jockeys use – and possibly even created – the alien as a kind of deadly bio-weapon. 

There’s also a brief moment where Ash talks about the xenomorph’s intelligence, and even hints that he’s attempted to communicate with it himself:

“Maybe it is truly intelligent,” Ash says. “Maybe you should try to communicate with it.”

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“Did you?” asks Ripley.

“Please let my grave hold some secrets,” Ash replies, as his lifeline is cut off.

It’s intriguing to think that some unknowable intelligence might be lurking behind the alien’s eyeless face. But then again, it’s possible that Ash is simply playing one last sick prank on his luckless crewmates. Ash probably died with a wry amusement  at the thought of, say, Ripley attempting to speak to the xenomorph and dying horribly in the process.

These are all details worth picking over. But what’s most notable about Foster’s Alien is how perfectly it fits the form of a novel. Where some films – particularly of the action variety, like Lethal Weapon or Universal Soldier – were an awkward fit, Alien‘s measured pace makes it the perfect candidate for a suspense-filled novel.  

Foster writes with an awareness of both the filmmakers’ intentions, and also the debt Alien owes to decades’ worth of genre fiction. The shudder-inducing winds that scythe across the surface of LV-426 have the same effect as those that blow through HP Lovecraft’s At The Mountains Of Madness. Foster’s depiction of the unknown and the unspeakable reach back into the depths of horror storytelling. It’s these qualities that make Alien: the novelisation almost as timeless as the movie that spawned it.

The reissued Alien: The Official Novelisation is available now from Titan Books.

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