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The Literary Genius of Movie Novelizations

‘Based on the major motion picture’ doesn’t mean bargain basement — the exact opposite, really

Pretty much everyone likes the idea of writing a book — 81 percent of Americans supposedly feel like they have a book in them clamoring to get out. But there are obviously hierarchies within that, and differences in how we perceive certain types of books and authors. Some genres are romanticized, seen as passion-fueled works of great art, while others are seen as cheap and disposable.

One type of book that tends to be given fairly short shrift is the movie tie-in novel, the retelling of a big-screen tale on the printed page, published to coincide with the film’s release and make the studio a few extra bucks. 

However, a huge amount of these are miles better than they’re given credit for, put together by great writers often more passionate, talented and knowledgeable about the source material than the people working on the movie itself. They also involve a ridiculous amount of work, done under incredibly tight time constraints. Plus, sometimes they have pictures.

But how does it all work? “It begins with an editor informing me that they’ve just acquired the rights to the new Space Mermaids movie and inquiring about my schedule,” says Greg Cox, author of multiple novelizations starting with 2003’s Daredevil and going all the way to his most recent, War for the Planet of the Apes. “If the time and money is right, we’re off to the races. Usually, I’m working from an early version of the script plus whatever visual reference material I can pry out of the studio — pre-production art, cast photos, maybe even an advance copy of the trailer. The most common misconception I run into is that I actually get to see the movie before or while I’m writing the book. Nope. I see the movie when it opens at my neighborhood multiplex, just like everybody else. I like to describe the job as having to write a 300-page description of a movie I haven’t seen yet.”

This involves a huge amount of imagination and creativity on the part of the writer, expanding a script of maybe 20,000 words into something five times that length. Not to mention, writing for the screen and for the page are very different. Prose lets a writer explore characters’ inner lives in ways that are much more difficult to do on screen, but conversely, a huge amount of why we go to the movies is incredibly difficult to communicate without visuals. Among the most commonly repeated pieces of screenwriting advice is “show, don’t tell,” while books are famously hot shit at telling. 

They’re necessarily different art forms. Books don’t have as many car chases or enormous set-piece battle sequences. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson makes zero sense described on the page. Think of that first instance of bullet time in The Matrix — a few seconds of mindblowing visuals that caused gasps throughout the theater. Describing that moment in prose takes a lot more explaining, which can easily lessen its impact. The way around something like that is expanding and extrapolating, going deeper and more detailed, making up in depth what you lose in instantaneousness.

Alan Dean Foster, veteran author of screen-to-page adaptations including the original Star Wars novelization credited to George Lucas, described the difficulty of this to Vanity Fair in 2014: “It’s always amusing to me, you take a book, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, throw away three-quarters of it and win an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. But if you take a screenplay and add three-quarters of original material to it — which is a much, much more difficult piece of writing — well, that’s by definition ‘hackwork.’ And it’s much harder, having done both, to take a screenplay and make a book out of it than take a terrific book and make a screenplay out of it.”

“The film has generally been cast by the time you start writing,” says Tim Waggoner, author of the novelizations for — among others — Halloween Kills and XXX: The Return of Xander Cage. “So you’re able to find plenty of images of the cast so you can describe the characters more fully. Screenwriters usually write fairly detailed descriptions of settings and action, so you’ve got a lot to work with in the script. Overall, though, you have to use your imagination, and when you see the final film in the theater, you’re like, ‘Oh, so that’s what that’s supposed to look like!’”

To that end, some visual effects aren’t completed until very close to release, meaning the novelizer has to piece together what they can and use their imagination for the rest. “On Man of Steel, I could describe Metropolis or Smallville easily enough,” says Cox. “I could visualize a big-city street or a farm in Kansas, but I kept bugging the nice folks at Warner Bros. for more details about the Kryptonian settings and tech.”

Sometimes, writing from early drafts of the script means novelizations include a wealth of material that never gets filmed, or ends up on the cutting-room floor. “You don’t know if it’s the final shooting script or an earlier draft, but it’s what you create the book from,” says Waggoner. In the days before deleted scenes were released on DVD or online, for fans this could be the only way to know about alternate versions of their favorite movies. 

“Novelizations were always a fun way to revisit movies I loved, especially if they added new dialogue or extra scenes,” says Paxton Holley, co-host of the novelization-based podcast I Read Movies. “What keeps them appealing, even today, is that they’re a new, fresh look at movies I’ve seen hundreds of times. Want to see voodoo in a Jaws movie? It’s there. Or a mini Cannonball Run-type race from California to Las Vegas in Lethal Weapon? Check.  When you pick up a novelization, you never know what you are going to get.”

George Gipe’s novelization of Back to the Future contains a fascinating amount of differences from the final product — iconic lines phrased differently, beloved moments glossed over, Marty explaining that Calvin Klein is in fact an underwear manufacturer — that a whole other book, Ryan North’s B to the F, was written about it. Similarly — and this is admittedly quite a deep cut — the novelization of the 1993 baseball comedy Rookie of the Year doesn’t mention director Daniel Stern’s hilarious pitching coach — apparently mostly improvised — at all. And if you read the novelization of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York before watching the movie, you’d expect there to be a lot more trampolines in it. 

But is anyone reading the novelization before the movie? 

Back in the pre-internet days, yes. Novelizations would come out a few weeks before the movie as an extra bit of promotion. “Now that the internet has turned spoilers into a cottage industry, the studios often prefer that the novelization come out a few days after the movie,” says Cox. “I can’t really blame them — nobody wants their $200 million movie spoiled because somebody picked up the novelization at Walmart and just blasted the entire plot all over the internet. The biggest change I’ve noticed in this business over the last few decades is that the levels of secrecy have ramped way up. I was casually FedExed the Daredevil script, but now we’re talking password-protected files, code names and encryption. Sometimes I’m not even allowed to have a copy in my possession, but have to fly out to Hollywood to read the script and take notes on the premises. The precautions taken with the The Dark Knight Rises script would do the Pentagon proud.”

Yet reading the novelization before seeing the movie can affect how the film comes across — Batman Forever, to use one example, is a better film if you’ve read Peter David’s novelization, presumably because David wanted his book to make some goddamn sense. Terry Brooks’ novelization of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace — which came out three and a half weeks before the movie — fills in a bunch of plot holes and generally works better as a story than the finished film, the result of Brooks having lengthy conversations with George Lucas about what he was going for, rather than just having the finished script.

While their peak era — when VHS tapes cost a fortune, pretty much any movie that came out had a tie-in novel, and you could buy a novelization of Grease that turned the song lyrics into dialogue — is over, the novelization is still a pretty healthy business, if primarily limited to the sci-fi, fantasy and horror genres. Star Wars titles crop up on the New York Times Best Seller list now and again, but again, critically, novelizations continue to have something of a stigma around them. They’re seen as cynical, disposable cash-grabs rather than artistic endeavors.

Doing something to combat that is the excellent Twitter account @TiedInFilm, which celebrates novelizations through the ages, allowing you to revel in the idea that, for instance, Max Allan Collins — an incredible writer — was once tasked with writing a novel based on Steve Martin’s Pink Panther movie, a film that’s pretty much just a silly voice. 

It’s a well-deserved homage. After all, people always talk about the magic of Hollywood. But turning a blueprint for a movie you haven’t seen into a whole new thing with less than one percent of the personnel of a gargantuan big-screen undertaking in a fraction of the time? That’s truly miraculous.