We’ve all run into it at one time or another. As a literary genre it’s pretty much inescapable. There are a few gems here and there, but the quality is generally middling-to-poor: words churned out by writers who might not excel at anything else. Sometimes we find one that appeals to us, or that we’ve secretly been looking for. Maybe we’ve even written one ourselves.
I’m talking, of course, about movie and TV novelizations. (Okay, hands up anyone who thought this could also apply to fan fiction. Cool, thanks, I’m sure I’ll see all of you sometime over on Tumblr.)
Published quickly, and forgotten soon, you’re more likely to find “the novelization of the award-winning movie” than you are to find “the award-winning novelization”. And yet they’re everywhere, and I’m sure authors fight over the chance to write the studio-approved version.
I can understand the allure; I wrote one myself for an X-Files episode, and one for the 1980’s Transformers movie when I was a teenager. (Okay, twenty-something. Maybe closer to thirty. Shut up. Everybody was doing it. And I don’t have to explain myself to you. Anyway…) When you enjoy a movie or TV show that much, you just want to get further inside it, maybe expand the characters a little and see what they were thinking at various points.
The problem is that you have to walk a fine line between being loyal to the source material and writing something that actually works on the page. Stick too close to the film and you might as well find a copy of the script to read, or better yet watch the movie again. Try to create a book that stands on it’s own though, and you run the risk of ticking off your target audience: the people who really liked the movie, and would rather you didn’t mess with it, thank you.
Some authors manage better than others. Alan Dean Foster has been called “the patron saint of sci-fi movie novelizations”, and one reason why is that he can get inside the characters’ heads and still stay loyal to the subject material. He’s also been writing sci-fi works of his own for decades, so he knows how to navigate the science involved without bogging down in paragraph-long explanations, or worse, footnotes. One of my favorite novelizations he’s done is, not kidding here, the Star Trek Log series. Those are the novelizations based on the Star Trek cartoon series, and I loved those books when I was growing up. Log 5 was the best, in my opinion. The episodes it was based on weren’t my favorites, but I loved seeing what Foster could do with the stories.
Sadly, there are way more examples of bad adaptations (which, let’s face it, are a lot more fun to review); laughably, excruciatingly bad, especially ones for movies that were mediocre at best. I flipped through the book based on Schwarzenegger’s film End of Days to see if the adaptation made any more sense. I lie to you not, the author changed the ending. Deleted a character’s death and wrapped up the whole story in rainbows and sunbeams. I had the distinct feeling while reading it that this somehow had to be illegal.
Every now and then I take another chance on a novelization, the latest one being Tim Lebbon’s adaptation of The Cabin In the Woods. Liking this movie was a big surprise; I normally
don’t get much out of slasher films. Of course this was a lot more than a slasher film, but I even got a nice chill at the over-the-top hack-and-slash scenes, and the movie as a whole was just so creepy and addictive and bizarrely fun that I had to give the book a try. The problem is that there are a lot of clever quips and sight gags that don’t work if you have the characters running an internal monologue the entire time. Having everything written out just felt to me like it was slowing. Things. Down. In the final analysis, the book was simply a loving recitation of every bit of dialogue in the movie, with a lot of over-long description wrapped around it. Which means it’s, *sigh*, pretty much exactly like the novelizations I used to write. Maybe like a lot of novelizations, it’s better if you haven’t seen the movie first…