The Surprising Persistence of the Movie Novelization

Slate's Culture Blog
April 16 2012 10:39 AM

Do Movies Still Get Novelized?

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Six years ago, Grady Hendrix asked in Slate whether the movie novelization, that odd literary genre, was on its last legs. His conclusion? Maybe not. Perhaps, Hendrix speculated, the “age of the DVD” would give the novelization new life, as the “literary special features” it provides (“expanded back stories, cut scenes, and deleted characters”) could keep the genre afloat.

Six years later, we thought we’d check into Hendrix’s speculation. And it looks like he was right, broadly speaking: Since 2000, the top twenty grossing American films that were not directly based on a book already were all made into mass market paperbacks. (13 of those arrived after Hendrix’s piece was published, in 2006.) However, while there are still regular novelizations among the biggest blockbusters, adaptations of smaller films appear to have declined in frequency, due to dropping sales figures.

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And while the novelization business is holding stronger that we might have guessed, its survival does not seem to stem from any “literary special features.” The story you’ll find in a standard novelization is still a carbon copy of the film, with little creative input from the author. The increasingly popular notions of “world building,” “drillability,” and changing subjectivity have not much dented the novelization field—although many prequels and sequels are written that expand the universes of the bigger franchises. These books often sell much better than straight novelizations, as Stephen W. Saffel, senior acquisitions editor at Titan Books, explained to me.

Where do novelizations come from? Sometimes it’s the studio that pitches the idea, sometimes it’s a publishing house. In the former case, the studio will usually auction off the rights to the highest bidder. In the latter scenario, a publisher may need to pester a studio for years before granted rights to a franchise. For their services, authors are typically given $5,000 to $15,000 for a 85,000-150,000 word novelization and only receive about 1-3 percent of the royalties. However, this process is sometimes reversed, notably in the case of Halo novelist William C. Deitz, who only took a small up-front fee in exchange for a larger percentage of the backend, which ended up being a very wise decision on his part.

The conflict between generating buzz and withholding spoilers can create an impossible task for the authors of film novelizations. Some studios tell authors that they must describe a scene in print exactly as it appears on screen—but don’t allow them to see any of the filmed scenes. Others allow adaptors to have every page of the script—except for the final scene. The lack of communication between the studios and publishing companies sometimes leads to awkward results; the Del Ray Expanded Universe Star Wars novel, Splinter of the Mind's Eye, published in 1978, depicted a steaming romance between Luke and Leia, who were not known (except by George Lucas) to be twins at the time.

The vast majority of these books seem geared toward a very young audience—but then most top-grossing films are also a little childish. And film novelizations aren’t written to be taught in English classes for the next hundred years. They’re simply another part of the transmedia empire of a franchise along with action figures, clothing lines, and cereal boxes, solely intended to supplement the bottom line of a studio’s budget. (Perhaps surprisingly, horror films, including this weekend’s Cabin in the Woods, also are adapted fairly often. The Cabin in the Woods novel is actually coming out after the movie’s opening weekend, presumably because of the film’s surprise ending—even though the film already premiered at SXSW last month, and spoilers abound online.)

Are any novelizations good? Not as far as I can tell. Twist endings and dramatic reveals crafted for the screen often suffer on the page. Consider The Sixth Sense: “He still lived here. Didn’t he? Malcolm felt as if a caul were being lifted from his face. The video ran on and on, Malcolm raising a glass, Malcolm toasting his wife—Malcolm, but not Malcolm, an image of the past, of a young man who no longer existed. A ghost.”

Dramatic reveals are also the nadir of Avatar’s novelization; nearly every chapter ends with something like this: “Underneath the blue and slightly flattened nose, he could see the features of his brother Tommy’s face. And then Jake realizes that it isn’t his brother Tommy’s face he is seeing. It’s his own.”

However, the structure of the page can contribute coherence to scenes that were jumbled chaos before: The Transformers novels (also penned by Allan Dean Foster) allow the reader to actually understand what is occurring in each clash between the Autobots and the Decepticons, presenting the battles with straightforward, logical description, rather than the spurting array of sparks, explosions, and metallic grinding.

Frenzy spun behind the first two arrivals as they advanced. Impossibly thin, impossibly sharp metal discs shot from the Decepticon's upper torso. Both men went down as the agent at the other end of the room crouched and opened fire.
Electronic predictors faster than anything on Earth were able to note the dispersal of the individual bullets in the enclosed space and their trajectory. They were easily blocked. More discs spat from the whirling mechanoid. When a line of heavily armed agents charged into the storage area from opposite ends all they found were three bloody, motionless bodies riddled with metallic discs. That, and a boom box on a food preparation table playing easy listening...

On second thought, maybe logical order is overrated. Somehow reading that something is “faster than anything on Earth” lacks the oomph of a Michael Bay-directed extravaganza, even if we have a better idea about what’s actually going on.