Reading Pictures

Boooooks!

Novelizations. We’ve all seen them. We may have even read some of them. I myself have a bookshelf-full of them (pictured above); a combination of ones I’ve had since childhood and ones I picked up at visits to used bookstores over the last several years. These are part of my “comfort reads” – the books, magazines, and comics that I’ve read and re-read multiple times, whose familiarity is the entire point. Those stories where, unlike the current global crisis, we know how it all ends. That’s what a Novelization is; a story you likely already know, told in a different way.

More boooooks!

First we need to clarify the difference between a “novelization” and a movie based on a novel. In the latter case, someone wrote a book; call it Jaws or the Silence of the Lambs or The Hunger Games. That novel, that source material, existed before the movie version did. Novelizations, by comparison, are the books based off a film or more specifically that film’s screenplay. The books that exist only because some screenwriter wrote a screenplay that was turned into a major motion picture, and the studio sold the rights to a publisher to assign an author to turn out a book based on the film to sell in stores as a nice little bit of promotion.  

Novelizations are frequently rudimentary in prose; “workmanlike” is the best descriptor, as though there’s something wrong with that. Frankly, I’ll take “workmanlike” over “MFA trying to impress me with their three-page treatise on the texture of a raindrop” any day. They’re serviceable; the perfect beach or pool-side reading. The types of books you can read with one eye while keeping the other on your child, to ensure they don’t drown or get munched by a roving Great White Shark.


Novel, not Novelization (though the prose is about the same)

Novelizations aren’t concerned with great turns of phrase. The exist to tell a story; or re-tell it, if you will. And to be fair, some novelizations are actually well-written, but you aren’t going to impress the teacher with your book report on the novelization of Rambo: First Blood Part II or Starman. Novelizations are the bastard stepchild of the literary world. They are books, and they are readable, but wouldn’t you be better off reading something more substantial?

Yes. To all of the above. Every criticism thrown the way of the novelization is valid. However the first “adult” books I read were novelizations. They were my gateway, from books geared to my age group; “Middle Grade” or “Young Adult” before those terms even existed. While I rack my brain trying to remember which novelization was my first, I have to assume it was one of these:

The Holy Trilogy

I was a child of the 1970s, and if you are an adult of a certain age it’s likely the years 1977-1983 were dominated by a trilogy set in galaxy long ago and far, far away. I can’t exactly remember what year I read Star Wars by “George Lucas” (actually sci-fi author and novelization mainstay Alan Dean Foster), but I want to say it was the early 80s, probably 1982. We would have been visiting family and I think a cousin had the paperback novelization and gave it to me. I read it over a weekend, and was, of course, hooked. Even knowing the story, there were surprises to be found within its pages. What made reading Star Wars interesting was the context it provided. Here was the first inkling of a galactic history, opening with an excerpt of “The Journal of the Whills” laying down the backstory for the Republic, the Jedi, and the rise of a bureaucrat named Palpatine.

The Prequels, only with less Jar-Jar.

It also gave you a taste of scenes left on the cutting room floor. Casual Star Wars fans might not know that originally we were meant to spend a lot of time on Tatooine with Luke Skywalker before encountering R2-D2 and C-3PO. We met his friends Fixer and Cammie, and his good friend Biggs Darklighter.

If you wanted to see what an “earlier version” of a beloved movie may have been like, you picked up the novelization. Given these books were written to coincide with the release of the film, they were most often based on a version of the screenplay that became a much different movie. An example of this would be Orson Scott Card’s novelization of James Cameron’s 1989 sci-fi adventure The Abyss, which prominently featured a Tidal Wave sequence and various subplots that wouldn’t see light of day until three years later with the release of The Abyss Special Edition.

Life’s Abyss … and then you dive

Novelizations told a story you already knew the outcome of. But they did it in a way that put you in the head-space of the characters you only previously witnessed onscreen. Here you were in the cockpit of Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing as it raced down the Death Star trench. You were with the Goonies as they hunted for One-Eyed Willie’s treasure. You were Short Round as he occupied himself throughout Shanghai in the day leading up to the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Novelizations gave you backstory and character histories, it filled in the blanks on little mysteries lurking in the corners. It gave you more, at a time when you wanted more. You didn’t read novelizations for something new; you read them to re-experience the story you’d already fallen in love with. This was especially crucial in an era where home video was still in its infancy. Where you had to wait years to see a movie again. This was the age of the re-release. Star Wars, released in theaters in 1977 didn’t arrive on video until 1982. Return of the Jedi, released in 1983, didn’t show up until 1986.

We waited THREE YEARS for this.

The heyday of the novelization, for me, spanned roughly 1977 to 1989. Star Wars to Batman; famously one of the first films released on home video for purchase within six months of its theatrical debut. Once that six months threshold was broken, it became more common. By 1995 I was clerking at a video store, and it was pretty much a given that that summer’s theatrical releases would be available to rent by Christmas. As a result, novelizations became a lot less essential than they used to be. I look at my collection of novelizations and they really do begin in 1977 and end around 1989. Some are okay, none are truly terrible, and if you want ones that are a cut above the norm, look for names like Wayland Drew (Dragonslayer, Willow), George Gipe (Back to the Future, Gremlins, Explorers), and the Big Kahuna, Alan Dean Foster (Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Krull, The Thing, The Black Hole, The Force Awakens, and a host of others).

The late George Gipe wrote three of the best …

Novelizations still exist, though in some notable cases, they’re released after the theatrical release, to keep spoilers at a minimum. All of the Disney Star Wars movies had novelizations released several months after the theatrical release; quite a contrast to Terry Brooks’ novelization of Star Wars: Episode One back in 1999, which arrived in stores nearly a month before the movie hit the silver screen. Overall these newer books are quite well-written, employing acclaimed, well-known sci-fi-fantasy authors to draft prose based on screenplay format. Yet with the theatrical-to-video window now averaging three months if that, you don’t really need the novelization to keep you engaged in that world and its characters; all you have to do is watch clips on YouTube, and wait for the digital version or Blu-Ray to become available.   

Yet I believe what has in some way made movies a little less essential than they used to be has been in part because of the shrinking of that theatrical-to-video window and death of the novelization. They used to be part of the package, alongside the comic book adaptation and the Making Of book and TV specials. They made those movies feel a piece of a much bigger whole. They made them events, rather than mere entertainment.

The novelization was also very important to me as a developing reader. They were the bridge from books geared to people my age, to ones that skewed older. I might have been immersed in novelizations in 1984-1985, but by 1986 I was moving deeper into the adult world. In fact it would have been this book (no a novelization) and this movie that had the biggest impact:

Not a Novelization, but even more important.

Stand By Me, the movie, led me to Different Seasons, the collection of four Novellas by Stephen King (the other three being the little known The Breathing Method, as well as Apt Pupil, released in 1998 and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, released as The Shawshank Redemption in 1994). Different Seasons led me to The Stand, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Cujo, It … the list goes on. By 1987 I was reading Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, and a host of other horror and suspense authors and I never really looked back. And while I was aware of Stephen King, it wasn’t until seeing Stand By Me that I wanted to know more, and more importantly read more.

Admittedly, my novelization shelf is more of a show-piece than a practicality. They’re a conversation starter for house guests. Yet occasionally, usually when between projects, I’ll pull out one of my old novelizations and take a trek down memory lane.

Speaking of Treks …

When talking about novelizations it helps to remind one’s self that yesterday’s trash is tomorrow’s treasure. It wasn’t so long ago that comic books were considered Low Art; now they’re winning Pulitzers and Hugos. There have been many scholarly looks at the Pulp Magazines of the 1930s, cheap, simple, and exploitative, which are now regarded as the cornerstone of modern genre fiction. The internet has changed the world, and even those ephemeral things that didn’t even exist ten years ago like Podcasts and YouTube are regarded as essential, even ground-breaking media.

I love movie novelizations. They were a gateway to more adult fiction; they were what spurred my interest in movies and the making of them. They’re what made me want to tell stories of my own. But mostly, they’re a simple, analog comfort to help us get through an uncertain world.

On that note: remember to wash your hands.

Brad’s Top Ten Novelizations

The Abyss – Orson Scott Card’s adaptation of James Cameron’s sci-fi thriller was granted unprecedented access to the film and unsurprisingly the novelization reads as top-level sci-fi. The book begins with three POV chapters each about its three leads – Bud, Lindsay, Coffey – in their younger days, and impressed James Cameron so much he gave the chapters to his actors and told them “this is canon”. One of the few novelizations that works as a stand-alone book.

Back to the Future – George Gipe’s adaptation of the beloved blockbuster puts particular emphasis on Marty’s friendship with Doc, and him getting to know the his own father before life crushed those same dreams now threatening to crush Marty’s. Gipe sadly passed away in 1986, but if you see his name on the cover it’s well worth your read.

Dragonslayer – acclaimed Canadian fantasy author Weyland Drew takes a middling Disney fantasy movie into a fine little piece of almost Tolkien-esque prose, focusing more on the threat the rise Christianity represents to an untamed world than the dragon hunting its people. The first of Drew’s two novelizations on this list.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. There was no way the novelization was ever going to recapture the wonder, the emotion, the soaring spectacle of Spielberg’s masterpiece. But what the E.T. novelization does do is expand the roles of Elliot’s mom Mary, and government investigator Keys, and gives Elliott and his siblings a foil in a nosy neighborhood kid who suspects something is up at their house. This kid never appears in the movie, which makes me wonder if he was an invention of author William Kotzwinkle, or a character and subplot excised from the screenplay before the filming commenced.

Explorers – George Gipe corrects the biggest problems with this Spielberg-Dante misfire by relegating the stuff that doesn’t work (i.e. the moment the aliens show up) to the last 30 pages, choosing to focus his retelling of the story on exploring the bonds of friendship between the titular Explorers.

The Goonies – I’m not a particular fan of 1985’s the Goonies, but the novelization is an interesting read, as it’s told almost exclusively through Mikey’s eyes, relating what happened to the Goonies gang after the events of the movie have passed. It also gives us a post-script to the story, telling readers and Goonies fans what happened to their gang of misfits after the end credits rolled.

The Last Starfighter – This mostly forgotten cult film about a young man stuck in his trailer park community only to be enlisted in an interplanetary war (don’t ask) is almost meta-textual in its portrayal of life as an 80s teen; a world of video games, dead-end jobs, and, yes, novelizations. It’s another Alan Dean Foster joint. He pops up a lot when you talk about novelizations.

Poltergeist – On paper, the story of Poltergeist is a little thin. But here author James Kahn expands on the trials of the Freeling clan, by giving almost equal footing to the paranormal investigators stories, particularly psychic Tangina Barron, whose detailed visits to the spectral plane actually precede the kidnapping of Carol-Anne, and sends her and her team on the hunt for the Freelings before the Freelings even know their daughter is in danger.

Star Wars – the George Lucas/Alan Dean Foster adaptation that kicked off the Golden Age of Movie Novelizations. Released in December 1976 (the original release date for Star Wars), it sat on shelves nearly six months before the film eventually was released to stun the world. A pretty engrossing read, but for a couple of anachronistic references to dogs and ducks (which I suppose now makes them canon in the Star Wars universe).

Willow – Wayland Drew returns with his adaptation of George Lucas’s and Ron Howard’s mushy fantasy would-be epic, applying his own high fantasy skills to the boilerplate plot, spinning off tales within tales, backstories, and histories into something that comes very close to being a classic High Fantasy.

ADDENDUM: there’s an excellent podcast called “I Read Movies” from Paxton Holley, in which he reads and compares movie novelizations to the filmed versions. Paxton really knows his stuff, is an engaging host, and an always entertaining listen. Here’s a link to his show page:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/i-read-movies-podcast/id1276623435

And, for more information on Novelizations, including a massive, comprehensive index of pretty much every one ever written, https://www.movienovelizations.com/ has your back covered.

Far, Far Away …

Here’s a confession that will shock everyone who knows me (and probably more than a few that do not): I don’t like STAR WARS.

The Saga, I mean; I’m talking Episodes I through IX, its spin-offs, its TV series. I’ve certainly enjoyed them, but once you’ve consumed 99% of Star Wars-related content you’re kind of left with an “ehh” feeling. A couple of hours of escapism, some robots, some aliens, some mystical mumbo-jumbo made up on the fly, the end.

Oh, and there’s usually a big explosion too.

Now with that out of the way, I will admit I love STAR WARS the movie. The first one. The one I saw in 1977. I’ve seen it the most of all of them, and 43 years on I still don’t get tired of it. I speak of the one called Star Wars. Not “A New Hope” not “Episode IV”. STAR. WARS. I love its low-tech (pre-special editions, of course) feel. I love its fast pace, its leap from planet to planet, location to location. I love its iconic set-pieces which remain memorable decades later, to a degree few of the other films in the lengthy series recapture.

Star Wars is one of those movies I’ve seen so many times that I can close my eyes and roll film from beginning to end and know every shot, every musical cue, every FX shot. On my list of desert island movies, it’s near the top. If fleeing my burning home I can only save one movie in my collection, it’s Star Wars. If I’m tasked by the government to save the world, bring world peace, end climate change, by keeping just one Star Wars movie in existence and obliterating everything else, well, the choice would be easy and obvious.

STAR. WARS. Period.

Why does Star Wars still hold my imagination? I think because it was my first major gateway to storytelling and being a storyteller. I was four. I’d seen TV, I’d had bedtime stories read to me. I’d possibly seen other movies. But nothing had that impact as Star Wars did. It got me interested in stories, in sci if and fantasy and that flood of SFF films and TV that followed well into the 80s. It certainly was the most instrumental and influential piece, for me, that led me down the road to a career as a storyteller. It’s what got me into film school and that 20 year career that followed it. It’s what got me to want to tell my own stories. Magicians Impossible is hugely influenced by Star Wars in its initial incarnation, that “we join our heroes midstream” pulp vibe. Not part of a series, no prequels, no sequels, just this rich mythology world. There’s a backstory, there’s a hint of the story continuing, but really it’s just a story set in a much larger universe.

To clarify; I don’t hate the other material – I just don’t need them to enjoy Star Wars. I don’t need sequels, I don’t need prequels. I don’t need the spinoffs, the TV, the CANON. I don’t even need The Empire Strikes Back (arguably the better film) or Return of the Jedi (arguably the weakest). I don’t need Darth Vader to be Luke’s father. I don’t need to know what the Clone Wars were; they’re a throwaway line in Star Wars and that’s all you did need. I think it’s a testament to that film that we wanted to know more. It had worked its magic on us all.

Pictured: all the backstory you need.

With the sequels, things changed. When Star Wars ended, Luke and Han got their medals (Chewie didn’t, but to be fair Leia was quite short), the Rebels had won, the Empire had their white-armored butts kicked. The galaxy beyond was wide open. You got an all-too brief taste of what was to come in the ancillary materials – the Marvel comics, the serialized newspaper strips (my personal favorites), the execrable Holiday Special, and – most importantly – the action figures. The adventures they went on, in suburban sandboxes and basement rec rooms were sequel enough for me. Even when pretenders to the throne – the “Killer Bs” of Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, and The Black Hole just gave the Star Wars figures more enemies and allies in their 3 ¾ inch adventures.

Heaven

Did we have questions? Sure we did. But answering them was our job, or it should have been. For a time it was ours. Luke could have found his mother. He could have tracked down the Emperor, or could have turned bad, brought back by his friends. Before we even heard of a sequel, we were going on new adventures with our favorite heroes and villains.

But what would have been really daring was to not have those questions answers. I often like to ponder a world where Star Wars was neither a flop nor a massive hit; it was something that made its money back so George Lucas could keep making movies, maybe focus on running ILM. A world where Star Wars was enough of a success for those toys and comics, but something that didn’t make enough money to justify a sequel

*Really, what would have been interesting is to have a Star Wars universe where they did make more movies but they were stand-alone ones cataloging further adventures. Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was famously initiated as an idea for a lower-budgeted sequel to Star Wars should it just do “okay”. You may have seen further adventures of Han and Chewie minus Luke and Leia and the Rebellion (maybe mishaps along the way to paying off Jabba the Hutt – who we did not see in Star Wars). Darth Vader would have remained the Bad Guy with no familial connection to Luke other than being the guy who offed his Jedi Knight father, exactly as Obi-Wan said. Vader could have been Ming the Merciless from Flash or Baltar from Battlestar, or Princess Ardala from Buck ; a foil, and a threat, and a constant reminder that these adventures were always meant to unfold in situ. That, while there was a history, it remained a history. Something as backdrop.

Episode II. Seriously.

I think it all gets to the heart of what I don’t need in my stories these days, which is a deep and detailed exploration of backstories. The dramatization of backstories has, to me, become the worst thing about popular genre entertainments today. We’ve become accustomed to expecting to have all those questions answered in some official capacity. We can’t just imagine what was and what might be. It has to be part of a canon. You rarely can sell a fantasy or sci-fi book without having some plan in place for a second, a third, a series of books to follow should the first hit. And I have to confess that my fandom brain is the same as my writer’s brain; I only need one very good bordering-on-great story. I don’t need the same wine in a different bottle. I need that pure experience, that, when the book is closed and the house-lights come back on, I feel like I was on a journey.

If a film hits me so hard that I can walk out of the theater on a total high, I don’t need to see more of the same. I didn’t need more adventures of Robocop or Neo or John McLane on-screen, because I already have those in my mind. It’s what was in my mind after seeing Star Wars. I had my toys, I had adventures with them. They’re a part of who I am.

I recognize that creative work is a hustle. It’s about the paycheck, about spinning gold when you have the materials and the interest. It’s about paying those bills and socking some away for your golden years. But writing to me has always been an intensely personal experience, driven by a lot more than just dollars and cents.  

Every Star Wars fan has their “era”, the era where they discover it (and when and how they do). If you discovered them on video, where you could pop your VHS or DVD into the machine and watch one after the other, it’s different than if you had to wait three years between chapters. When the Prequel trilogy came out, by and large the older fans weren’t too crazy about them (and I say that very, very diplomatically).

Exhibit A

But if you were five or six when Star Wars came out, you were pushing 30 when The Phantom Menace arrived. The Prequel movies weren’t going to be your favorite ones. You’d grown up and come of age in a decade of Dragonslayers and Terminators, Robocops and Predators, Goonies and Gremlins, Alien and Aliens.

But now, the kids who were five or six when The Phantom Menace arrived, are now in their mid-late 20s, and have the same nonplussed reaction to the Disney films we older fans had to the Prequels, because they LOVE the prequels.

And now, everything’s different. It’s bigger, and smaller at the same time. With Star Wars you have this huge volume of movie and TV and video games and comic books and toys and novels. It’s everywhere. There are Original Trilogy fans, there are Prequel Trilogy ones, and there are Sequel Trilogy ones. That fandom has become a lot more fractured as a result. There’s fans that up and hate everything Disney has done with the property. There are fans that worship the Prequels. There are fans that ceased being fans after Return of the Jedi left theaters. For me, Star Wars: The Saga is essentially a big carnival midway. There’s rides, there’s games of chance, there’s food. You can’t take in it all, so really you should just find what booth appeals to you and focus on that. For my part, I’m a fan of a lot of the ephemera from the Original Trilogy; the Making of books, the Art of books, the Illustrated Screenplays. I love the collected editions of the Newspaper strips and the Marvel comics. I’m less enamored with the Prequels and while I’ve enjoyed the Sequels, I feel exhausted by the overkill. By the end of 2019 we’d had five Star Wars movies in as many years. Star Wars used to be more of an event. Now it’s just another film series.

You can only pick one.

And yet, while I’ve become largely indifferent to “Star Wars: The Saga”, I remain ride-or-die with Star Wars the movie; that singular experience. That type of movie experience that comes along with less frequency now than before. And at the risk of sounding like one of those old guys, I have to say that unless you were there in 1977, seeing it on the big screen with no knowledge of what was to come, and no idea what it would all lead to 42 years later, you didn’t really see Star Wars at all. At least not the way I saw it.

And that’s okay.

Top 10

Without preamble, my Top 10 movies of the teens.

10. Boyhood

A bold experiment that shows just what film can do that no other art can.

9. The Irishman

Scorsese’s masterful swan-song and farewell to the genre that made him.

8. What We Do In The Shadows

A Spinal Tap for the teens, this one still makes me laugh my ass off.

7. Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood

Still can’t believe how much I enjoyed this one. Surprisingly sweet too.

6. Cloud Atlas

It’s a big sprawling mess of a movie the likes of which we’ll never see again.

5. Headhunters

The twisty film/novel that made me want to write something just as twisty.

4. The Social Network

Biting satire that became re-life. Delete social media. You’ll feel better, trust me.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel

The movie I never get tired of watching. Anxiously awaiting the Criterion treatment.

2. Mad Max Fury Road

The one time this decade a movie overdelivered on what I was hoping to see.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis

The story of my life and that’s not an exaggeration. Also Llewyn is the cat.

I could elaborate on these films, individually, for days. But all I will say is each of them surprised me, moved me, and reminded my why I fell in love with the movies in the first place (a love that sadly has diminished since the start of this decade).

See you in 2020.