Movie novels are still around, and they aren't all trash — just ask the Chicagoans who wrote themApril 6, 2020 3:46pm

March 30-- CHICAGO-Recently, during C2E2 at McCormick Place, the Random House imprint Del Rey, which publishes Lucasfilm-licensed "Star Wars" books, made an unusual choice and offered the novelization of "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" three weeks early. And so, visitors to the Chicago comic con bought up hundreds of copies, within a few hours.

Then, hours after that, though the movie version of "Rise of Skywalker" was months old, it began trending again across social media: Excerpts from the book were posted, and though everyone had seen the film and knew the story and long ago decided if they loved or hated it, there was a shock of revelation-as if they didn't know the story at all.

Wait, Emperor Palpatine was a ... what?

Hold on, Lando Calrissian's daughter was ... who?

None of those details were explained clearly by the movie, just the novelization. And now a very roil-ready fandom was roiled again: Did this mean the novelization was better then the film? Or that the movie was actually even worse than they had thought?

A better question would have been: They still make movie novelizations?

Yup, they do. Bunches of them.

Novelizations are, in essence, book-length descriptions of movies, typically written not by the author of the screenplay. They are the complete opposite of the more familiar practice of turning a book into a movie. They probably sound counterintuitive. But the recent "Sonic the Hedgehog" movie adaptation of the "Sonic" video game received a novelization. Pixar's animated "Onward" got one, too. So did the new Vin Diesel action flick "Bloodshot," and the Will Smith dud "Gemini Man." Even the quickie horror film "Happy Death Day," and its sequel, have novelizations. That new "Rise of Skywalker" novelization? It debuted last week on the NYT hardcover bestseller list at No. 5.

It's a quirk of publishing.

A genre that largely consists of 250-page descriptions of movies the authors had not actually seen yet. A marketing niche that once found its spiritual home in spinning wire racks at drugstores. An alternate universe where E.T. appears romantically attracted to Elliott's mother, books are adapted from films that are adapted themselves from Charles Dickens' classics and the storylines of "Transformers" movies actually seem coherent.

It's a place of oddball contortions, where a serious author like Evanston's Daniel Kraus can dream up the story of the Oscar-winning movie "The Shape of Water" with that film's director, Guillermo del Toro, but the filmmaker writes the screenplay while the author pieces together the novelization, using the screenplay as his primary road map.

(Kraus describes the book as "beyond a novelization," and more akin to the way Arthur C. Clarke collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on the novel for "2001: A Space Odyssey.")

See, movies are adaptations of screenplays.

But novelizations are adaptations of movies, and therefore not the most loved form of literature. Albeit, one that often allows some tinkering by the author, who may deliver a version of a movie where interior thoughts of even the most fleeting role are given fresh weight. You might be surprised to know that, somewhere out there, probably gathering dust in an attic, or sitting waterlogged in a summer cottage, there are novelizations of everything from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" to "Friday the 13th" movies to the Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy "Jingle All the Way." There exists in the world (and this is no joke) a 128-page novelization of the Mike Myers movie adapting Dr. Seuss' "Cat in the Hat."

It probably goes without saying that the novelization is an ancient marketing practice that somehow managed, like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, to sidestep progress.

Its heyday was before the age of streaming and DVDs. "There was a time the only way to take home a favorite film or television series was through a novel adaptation," said Steve Saffel, senior acquisitions editor at Titan Books, the leading publisher of novelizations. Even as home video took off in the '80s, the genre made some sense.

At C2E2, Rae Carson, author of the "Rise of Skywalker" novelization, recalled her love for the 1983 novelization of "Return of the Jedi": "I was 10 years old and read it at a time in my life when I lived in pretty abject poverty. I could not afford to go to movies and the book came out a little before the movie. Since I knew we couldn't afford to go to the movie, I begged my mother to get a copy at the library." She said "the writing was smooth, the pacing great." She read it three times, before eventually seeing the movie.

That author was James Kahn, then a 36-year-old emergency room doctor from Chicago. He was also, like many writers of novelizations, already an established writer of science fiction. He had grown up in Hyde Park and Des Plaines, attended the University of Chicago and was working at a Los Angeles hospital when he got an unusual phone call:

"It was this woman named Kathleen Kennedy. She wanted to know how to resuscitate an alien. Of course, we found out this Kathleen Kennedy (now president of Lucasfilm) was producing 'E.T.' with Steven Spielberg. She invited a bunch of doctors to the set and dressed us in hazmat suits. I already had a novel published by Del Rey so I gave Spielberg a copy and asked him to make the movie. He said he'd get to it, then the next day he told me my book was already in his office and he wouldn't make a movie but he needed someone to novelize 'Poltergeist'-the catch was I had one month. I found people to cover my shifts for a solid month and then I sat in a conference room at Spielberg's MGM offices with a copy of the script and production stills. He ended up loving the work so much I got to do 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' and 'The Goonies.' When George Lucas needed someone for 'Jedi,' Spielberg suggested me."

Kahn has written 12 books. That "Return of the Jedi" novelization from 37 years ago remains his high-water mark, reaching No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.

But it's not his galaxy.

Authors, particularly of sci-fi and fantasy, revel in world building, constructing universes from scratch. But a novelization is a sandbox already occupied by someone else's toys.

Matthew Stover, who lives in Danville, wrote the novelization for the 2005 "Star Wars" prequel "Revenge of the Sith." Like Kahn, though he's written more than a dozen books, all sci-fi and fantasy, his "Star Wars" novelization is his sales peak. "The truth is, I didn't really want to do any media tie-ins. I wanted to do my own stuff. And what I discovered was, if you take it seriously, you are doing your own stuff. I see it like this: You go to a friend's house, he has a Lego set, you see what you could do with it. And so you do, but ultimately, those are his blocks, he can take it apart however he wants. It's not so bad."

Novelizations have lousy reputations.

They are often seen as derivative, sub-literate promotional material, a genre pounded out by hack writers being paid to somehow pad a 20,000-word script into a 60,000 word paperback. So whatever endurance the novelization has, Stover said, "is thanks to one guy, Alan Dean Foster, the godfather of novelizations. His book for 'Alien' alone is a lesson, it adds so much to the movie without feeling like a retelling of the same story."

Foster, now 73, living in Arizona, wrote the novelization for the first "Star Wars" movie, and "Alien," and the "Transformer" movies, and a "Terminator" film, and "The Thing," and the original "Clash of the Titans"-and many, many others. Later this year he has a memoir about his life as a novelizer, "The Director Should've Shot You," which takes its title from his time on the set of the Vin Diesel film, gathering information for the novel.

He likes to point out that people win Oscars for adapting screenplays into films (or for adapting books into screenplays that are adapted into films), but somehow the author who transforms a skeletal screenplay into a novel is seen as a hack. He said he never thought of the novelization as trash. He said he's only read good books and bad books.

"I'm sure Rembrandt didn't want to spend his life painting fat businessmen. Brahms wrote an overture based on a German drinking song. Artists have done great work on commission, because a source is one thing, but what you do with it is something else."

That novelization of "Alien," for instance, was written without his ever having seen, well, the Alien. The studio 20th Century Fox would not provide him one image of its monster.

Likewise, Greg Cox, who had an unlikely 2014 New York Times bestseller with his novelization of "Godzilla," didn't actually see what the latest Godzilla looked like until he saw the movie in his neighborhood multiplex. "Which is often the main struggle of this line of work. Just getting the visuals. You have to pry this stuff out of (studios), even as you're working for them. I did the novelization for 'Man of Steel,' the Superman movie. I know what a farm in Kansas looks like, and I know what the Daily Planet newsroom looks like. But a 'Kryptonian birthing chamber'? So I get on the phone with Warner Bros., begging them to explain a Kryptonian birthing chamber. Scripts never describe enough."


The genre comes out of a time when movie theaters hadn't reached every city yet-but actually, according to Grady Hendrix, a film historian and author who has reviewed novelizations ("Book Reviews of the Damned") online, believes the novelization dates back even further, to the 17th century practice of novelizing stage plays. "Then throughout the 19th century, because theater was limited by geography, perhaps people in Chicago wanted to know the latest hit. There were novelizations of shows with photo inserts. Even after cinema was invented, movies didn't play everywhere, and what if you missed one?" So silent films occasionally had novelizations; later, the novelization of "King Kong" became part of Random House's venerable Modern Library line of classics.

Though not until novelizations of episodic TV series like "Star Trek" and "Dark Shadows" did the genre become routine. By the late '70s, Foster's novelizations of "Star Wars" and "Alien" were blockbusters; novelizations of "E.T." and "Gladiator" had similar sales.

These days the novelization more closely resembles a step on an evolutionary ladder that includes marketing, fan fiction, recaps of TV shows and the sort of "expanded universes" that allowed room for new James Bond novels long after creator Ian Fleming died in 1964. "Growing up in Chicago," Kahn said, "I didn't even know novelizations existed. On the other hand, I was writing since I was nine and you know what I was writing? I loved comic books, I would imagine the twists that they didn't include, and so I would rewrite them into my notebooks. I had a creative impulse to transform the story."

This June, for instance, Evanston's Kraus has "The Living Dead," a new novel, co-authored with filmmaker George Romero, creator of the original "Night of the Living Dead." Romero, who died in 2017 and virtually invented the modern zombie, had written about a third of the 600-page book and left notes for more, which Kraus then fleshed out through research and interviews. "There was this great feeling of responsibility towards George. The man himself isn't here to bounce ideas off. But limitations are wonderful. Everything I write I try to install limitations, they force you to work creatively."

Carson said that, after she read the script to "Rise of Skywalker," she drew up a list of ways that she wanted to expand on the story; Stover said that after he interviewed Lucas for three hours about the "Sith" screenplay, he asked how much of Lucas' dialogue should be used verbatim.

Turns out, even within a franchise as large as "Star Wars," there's often room for invention. Partly, several of the novelizers said, there's no time for writer's block. Many regard it as a creative challenge-indeed, playwright David Rabe, who wrote the novelization for Sean Penn's 1995 film "The Crossing Guard," has said he thought of movie novelizing as similar to the creative-writing prompts that MFA programs use. He's also far from the only celebrated writer to punch above his weight here: Paul Monette, known for his memoirs about coming out and AIDS, wrote the novelization for Werner Herzog's "Nosferatu," Brian DePalma and Oliver Stone's "Scarface" and the Schwarzenegger movie "Predator." Sylvester Stallone, despite having won an Oscar for his "Rocky" screenplay, followed it a couple of years later by writing both the screenplay and novelization for "Rocky II."

The drawbacks, of course, are not minor.

Saffel at Titan said they try to give writers a year to prepare, but three months is common. A few weeks is even more common. "We're part of merchandising a film," Foster said, "like beach towels and McDonald's cups, and we're treated as such." There is an International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, to promote the profession, co-founded by Max Allan Collins, author of the Nathan Heller thrillers and the graphic novel "The Road to Perdition," which Collins novelized himself when it was adapted into a Tom Hanks film. But Carson described writing "Rise of Skywalker" as daily 15- to 20-page bursts. Typically, the work is fast, tough-and prone to disconnected filmmakers.

Cox said, "A friend of mine who edits these books once said that the more confusing the movie seemed to audiences, the better the novelizations of that movie tend to sell."

Foster said the greatest compliment a movie novelizer can hear is "I wish they had filmed your book." The first movie he adapted into a novel was an Italian Tarzan rip-off. Ballantine Books owned the rights and asked him to do it. He was young, he pounced. And they screened the movie for him, without subtitles. Then he went home and worried about what to do, until he saw the posters for the marketing campaign and he started.

"Essentially what happened was, I novelized a poster. Best part, a week after the book comes out, someone at Disney calls the publisher and asks to buy the movie rights."


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