Will the novelization survive the DVD era?

The joy of blockbusters.
June 28 2006 1:16 PM

Hacked to Death

Will the novelization survive the DVD era?

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Book cover: Superman Returns.

Disappointed by the new movie Superman Returns? Why not read the novel? For more than 70 years, movies have been turned into novelizations, and these books are how many of us relived the excitement of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or first encountered such off-limits fare as the R-rated Alien. Novelizations are evolutionary throwbacks to the romantic days of the pulps: two-fisted tales, banged out on a deadline by writers with strong chops and bags full of tricks. In 2006, however, they are a besieged breed. They have always been written under trying circumstances: After signing a heavy-duty nondisclosure agreement, the author is handed a copy of the screenplay, which may bear little resemblance to the movie that is actually being shot. He or she is put on a tight deadline, sometimes as short as two weeks. The result is a cheap paperback that bookstores consider sellable for the month around the movie's release. And, with blockbusters leaving theaters more quickly than ever, novelizations have become even more disposable—something few fans of the genre thought possible.

In the early '80s, the novelization of E.T.the Extraterrestrial sold over a million copies, an impossible number for the genre as it now stands. Today, a novelization of one of the Star Wars movies will sell well, but novelizations for nongenre pictures have almost completely vanished. Thus, we can no longer expect any more classics such as Joe Eszterhas' novelization of Sylvester Stallone's F.I.S.T. or Stallone's own novelization of his Rocky II. The novelization equation has always been depressingly simple: Big movies yield big sales figures for their novelizations, and the quality of the writing doesn't matter one bit.

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E.T. the Extraterrestrial was written by William Kotzwinkle, who has twice won the National Magazine Award for Fiction, and it is irredeemably bad. A reviewer of novelizations, Justin Olivetti, offers this helpful summary: "It turns out that E.T., the 10,000 year-old alien, develops a disturbing crush on Elliot's mother and stalks her at every opportunity." Allow me to quote Page 134:

[E.T.] crept down the hall to Mary's room and peeked in. The willow-creature was asleep, and he watched her for a long time. She was a goddess, the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. … Mary, said his old heart. Then upon paddle feet, he tiptoed over to her bed and gazed more closely.

Kotzwinkle expanded the E.T. mythos with a sequel three years later, but most authors aren't so closely attached to a novelization project. Figuring out who exactly wrote a novelization is often hard. In 1932, one of the first novelizations, King Kong, hit bookstores a few weeks before the movie opened with a title page reading, "Conceived by Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper, screen play by James A. Creelman and Ruth Rose, novelized from the Radio Picture by Delos W. Lovelace." When a novelization is credited to a director—most famously in the case of Alan Dean Foster who wrote the novelization of Star Wars that is credited to George Lucas—it has usually been ghostwritten.

Despite the businesslike manner in which novelizations are produced, some are satisfying, freestanding reads. Alwyn Turner, who celebrates junk literature of all varieties on his Web site Trash Fiction, singles out several for praise. "The best that I know of is the treatment of Nosferatu (1979) by Paul Monette, which bounced ideas off the original novel of Dracula as well as the two versions of Nosferatu to create something entirely unique. Performance has something of the dripping decadence of the original movie but isn't overwhelmed by the performances of Jagger and Fox. And Quadrophenia is surprisingly good, largely because it's written by a mod and therefore gets the period detail spot-on."

Adding to their troubles, novelizations have been supplanted by big-selling tie-ins—original novels based on existing properties such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, CSI, or Halo—and the Internet. In a DVD world, the idea of using a book to relive the pleasures of a film is practically counterintuitive. And fans who want to participate more fully in the world of a movie can find guides, encyclopedias, and video games that allow them to wallow in the background details. The more industrious can go online and debate canonical details, write and post fiction featuring their favorite characters, or read what's already available. Google will pull up thousands of fan-written tie-in stories: from Gone With the Wind (225 of them) to Pirates of the Caribbean (a staggering 7,550 stories).

But not everyone believes that the genre will be killed off. A handful of major publishing houses, like the Pocket Books line at Simon & Schuster, still publish novelizations, but only those based on sci-fi or horror movies (with the obvious intention to make a buck off of collectors). And fans have always valued novelizations for the ways they deviate from the final film. Previously this was an unavoidable accident, since the author often worked from an earlier script than the director in order to have his book finished before the film opened. These days, a few publishers are encouraging their authors to expand the material. One recent "special edition" novelization of The Toxic Avenger is a bizarre meta-novelization featuring entire chapters told from the point-of-view of characters who appear onscreen for mere seconds before being crushed and mangled.

The home-theater revolution may have wiped out a large part of the novelization market, but the lessons learned may wind up sustaining the genre. When DVDs first arrived, the studios quickly realized that they could get fans to "double dip" by issuing a bare-bones release of a movie and then following it with a "Deluxe Edition" loaded with special features. Now it looks like literary special features—expanded back stories, cut scenes, and deleted characters—might just make the novelization relevant again.

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