Film novelisations

On the ladder of literature, film novelisation was once considered above only pornography

In Praise of Sacred Cows

This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Up until the second half of the 1980s, books-of-the-film constituted a culturally invisible but huge chunk of the paperback fiction market. No newspaper or literary journal deigned to review them, but they underwrote vast swathes of the publishing industry.

It was a market predicated on era-specific media traditions and technological limitations. The gap between the release of feature films and their first television transmission was one of several years. When they were eventually broadcast, there existed no ability on the part of the viewer to record them. 

Ditto for TV shows, which were usually shown only once. The only way the public had of readily revisiting moving media was to read the “novelisation”. Almost every major film and TV series was the subject of one or more. 

It was for sales reasons that for a while there was a fashion for attributing novelisations to the creative brains behind the adapted property: George Lucas’s name appeared on the cover of the Star Wars book, Steven Spielberg’s on that of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There were also some writers who managed to straddle such work-for-hire with respectable original writing, Alan Dean Foster being the prime example. 

However, on the ladder of literature, film novelisation was otherwise considered above only pornography. Moreover, few “real” authors were willing to apply themselves to material that started life in a different medium and a different writer’s inspiration-well. Accordingly, novelisations were usually the work of humble specialists in such fare. 

A noveliser often ended up exploring a character’s interior world in a way the screenwriter couldn’t

Novelisers may not have been glittering stylists but they made up for it in productivity. Some turned out so many adaptations that for decency’s sake they resorted to multiple pseudonyms. Novelisations sometimes didn’t even provide the experience one might assume. 

So that novelisations could appear in print at the same time as the parent movies, writers habitually worked from nothing so grand as rough cuts, let alone final prints, but from screenplays and stills. Directorial changes executed at the shooting or post-production stage or both regularly created discrepancies ranging from subtle alterations of dialogue to significant plot shifts. 

The novelisation of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) featured a finale involving a pitiless revolt by subjugated simians that was absent from a film hastily toned down following unfavourable test screenings.

Yet while novelisations may have perennially been more merchandise than art, there were always major plus points about them. They were, for instance, handy for those who would never have been able to gain entry to a screening, like under-18 Bruce Lee devotees who could only get as close to his X-certificate Enter the Dragon showpiece as Mike Roote’s Tandem softcover.

A novelisation could provide a deeper experience than its moving-media progenitor. Because the average novelisation required three times the number of words to be found in the standard film script, by necessity a noveliser often ended up exploring a character’s interior world in a way the screenwriter couldn’t, as well as providing descriptive passages that would be irrelevant in a screenplay. 

For “deeper”, sometimes read “more thoughtful”. When Sylvester Stallone turned David Morrell’s anti-US interventionism tale First Blood into the gung-ho Rambo franchise, Morrell — commissioned to write the sequel novelisations — proceeded to undermine the American exceptionalism underpinning Sly’s visions. This must surely have made for a bewildering read for any readers intent on reliving the film Rambo’s uncompromising worldview.

There were even some novelisations that constituted great writing. The Omega Factor is a short-lived but well-regarded 1979 BBC drama about an investigator of the paranormal. Series creator Jack Gerson’s fluent and plush prose in his own book version was admirable precisely because it was so optional: people would have bought it even if it had been knocked out in a week (as many were). 

Another example is the very first Doctor Who novel. Terrance Dicks’s Target Books novelisations of the Time Lord’s adventures with their distinct montage covers became comically numerous in the Seventies, but Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks (1964) by David Whitaker was a cut above its sundry successors. It was surprising in being written from the first-person perspective of an assistant to the Doctor but even more surprising in being gratifyingly gritty. 

It’s inconceivable that the form will ever return to its glory days

Ridley Scott’s Alien is widely hailed as a sci-fi classic. However, many was the cinemagoer who emerged from a showing of that 1979 film lamenting, “Nowhere near as good as the book”, such was the gut-clenching dread that Alan Dean Foster managed to inject into his adaptation. This despite the fact that Foster was unable to describe the predatory extra-terrestrial in question because the secretive 20th Century Fox refused to provide him with pictures. (Ironically, in Star Wars, Foster — for it was really he who produced that novelisation — turned an endlessly engaging romp into a dull plod. Not that that stopped it selling over a million copies.) 

Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the novelisation of the 1971 instalment in the simian franchise, was written by Jerry Pournelle, who went on to become an acclaimed science fiction author in his own right.

 The film’s ending is moving enough — sentient chimpanzees Cornelius, Zira and newborn baby are gunned down because they are considered a danger to man — but in the book Pournelle cranks up the blood-drenched poignancy with omniscient reflection. Meanwhile, the unaltered violent ending of the Conquest of the Planet of the Apes novel made for a far more powerful climax than that of the film re-edit. 

By far the most important role fulfilled by novelisations, though, was the wholly unacknowledged one of culture gateway. “Proper books” seemed forbidding to reluctant readers but their interest in the adapted property made novelisations attractive and intriguing to them, and thus ultimately a backstairs up to the “higher” realms.

The demand for novelisations abruptly evaporated. By 2001, the New York Times was reporting that “only about two dozen movies are novelised each year.” DVD and streaming — like their predecessor the video cassette — scratched the itch that novelisations once did. The slack has been taken up a little by “same-universe” fiction and novelisations of computer games. However, it’s inconceivable that the form will ever return to its glory days.

This market collapse is a matter for regret. At their peak, novelisations were a real form of people’s prose, pored over and enjoyed by more readers than read the classics purely for the pleasure

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