BY George Pendle in Opinion | 20 MAR 12
Featured in
Issue 146

Post Script

The hybrid genre of the film novelization

BY George Pendle in Opinion | 20 MAR 12

Courtesy Bantam Doubleday Dell

I was ten years old and in the sick bay at school. Some people who suffer illness at a young age discover their life’s calling while convalescing. In a fevered state, they stare at the blank walls and resolve to become poets, scientists, artists. I was too busy reading the novelization of the film Platoon (1986) to plan my future. If any voices were whispering to me of immortality, they were lost amidst the explosion of claymore mines and the screams of Vietnamese villagers.

I’ve never quite understood why the school library held a copy of Platoon (‘a novel by Dale A. Dye based on a screenplay by Oliver Stone’). It was singularly inappropriate for our eight-to-13-year-old age bracket, but it was not alone on the shelves. I had already devoured novelizations of the films Tron (1982), Krull (1983), Ghostbusters (1984) and Spies Like Us (1985). I had ogled their glossy front covers plucked from the movie posters, and had studied their much-vaunted ‘eight pages of colour photographs’ repeatedly like religious icons. What I liked was that these were books without being ‘proper’ books. They were the closest you could get to watching movies without watching movies.

In the mid-1980s, film novelizations were messages in bottles for those without video recorders or access to a cinema. Even if you had seen the film in question, these novelizations acted as memento vidi, forceful reminders of what you had seen. Their curious power remains extraordinary considering how they are created. A marketing product designed to raise interest in a new film, they run to about 250 pages and are generally written in less than six weeks. The author works from a screenplay, often an earlier draft than the shooting script, and due to printing deadlines rarely sees the finished film before completing the text. Despite these re­strict­ions, or rather because of them, novelizations act as a sacred store of cut scenes, elucidators of lost characterization and pluggers of plot holes. In many ways, they prefigured DVD ‘extras’ and ‘alternate scenes’.

Yet despite the rise of ‘director’s cut’ DVDs and the emergence of YouTube as a clearing-house for out-takes, novelizations continue to be published. Terminator: Salvation (2009), Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) and The Smurfs (2011), to name but three recent films, were all novelized and all appeared on the bestseller lists. These books must, it seems, offer their readers more than just the thrill of completism.

Working from a screenplay, like the director of the film, the author of the novelization is creating some-thing other than a simple adaptation: he is creating another version of the script entirely. For, while film viewers are bombarded with sensory signals, during which ambiguity and inconsistencies can be easily overlooked, prose demands more attention to detail. Action is replaced by exposition, slapstick by wit. The results, while often awful, can sometimes rival or even supersede the film itself.

Take William Kotzwinkle’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), which is written from multiple perspectives – those of E.T., a dog and even a bunch of flowers (‘“Your voice is purest gro-formula, Ancient Master,” said the geranium’). Or the poet Richard Elman’s novelization of Taxi Driver (1976), which reads like the sequel to J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel Catcher in the Rye (‘Unreal. Drunks, dinge, skunk pussy everywhere just don’t go to make up a city in my book’) and significantly alters the characterization of Travis Bickle. One of the earliest novelizations, Delos W. Lovelace’s King Kong (1933), was also one of the most successful, and has been in print more or less continuously since 1933. Isaac Asimov’s novelization of Fantastic Voyage (1966), on the other hand, has completely overshadowed the film it was based on – many now think the film was based on the book.

Yet despite the surprising literary calibre of some of those that have turned to film novelizations – for instance Dave Eggers, who wrote The Wild Things (2009), a novelization of the film of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 book Where the Wild Things Are – there is something that makes us uneasy accepting novelizations as literature. Perhaps this is because they are something else entirely.

In his 2005 essay ‘Novelization, a Contaminated Genre?’, the cultural theorist Jan Baetens declares novelizations as a unique, if non-canonical,genre: ‘Novelization does not so much aspire to become the movie’s otheras it wants to be its double,’ he writes.A novelization is not an adaptation of a film but ‘an anti-adaptation – defined as an adaptation that strives to deny itself as an adaptation and to deny the ruptures every adaptation necessarily supposes’. Baetens posits that the film novelization is a hybrid of the visual and the textual, ‘a monster, simultaneously anachronistic and innovative, both cinematographic and anti-ekphrastic’. The argument is a persuasive one, since monstrosities are all too common when discussing novelizations. 

When Francis Ford Coppola’s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) was released in cinemas, it was accompanied by a novelization by Fred Saberhagen. Two years later, when Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) was nearing completion, Saberhagen reportedly offered his services for that novelization as well. When asked why, he stated simply that the book’s cover could then read: ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by the author of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.’ His offer was turned down presumably because, as Victor Frankenstein once said, ‘Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance.’

George Pendle is a writer based in Washington D.C., USA.