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John Scalzi – Lights! Camera! Literature! Good SF Movie Novelizations Like The Abyss and E.T.

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Oooh, a question in e-mail. And you know how I love those:

“Can you explain the whole point of movie novelizations? Science fiction movies have lots of them, and they kind of drive me crazy, because they’re mostly bad.”

Well, the point of movie novelizations is simple: There’s money to be made. It’s no secret if a movie is made from a book, the existence of the movie drives people to pick up the book — even if the movie adaptation is not particularly good. There’s an apocryphal story that someone complained to Robert Heinlein’s widow that the movie version of Starship Troopers was a travesty compared to the novel, to which she replied that because of the movie, the book itself had once again shot up into the bestseller charts. So the movie, regardless of quality, was doing the book a favor.

If movie adaptions drive people to original books, it’s not that much of a leap to believe that they would also drive people to novelizations — books adapted from movies rather than the other way around. And the belief is largely correct, as novelizations of popular movies (for example, the Star Wars prequel trilogy) often find themselves lodged on bestseller lists selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Even relative flops can move tons of books: The Chronicles of Riddick didn’t set the box office on fire, but its novelization (by Alan Dean Foster, the patron saint of science fiction movie novelizations) was a decent-sized hit.

As for the contention that science fiction movie novelizations are bad, well, I’m of two minds on this. First, yes, some of them are bad, although that has as much to do with process as with any perceived deficiencies of the writers. Many novelizations are written from early drafts of screenplays and have to be kicked out by the writer in a matter of weeks; speed rather than brilliance is the goal here. As a result, lots of novelizations are best described as “workmanlike,” and might feature scenes, plots and indeed endings at variance to the actual finished movie. These are all strikes against novelizations, to be sure.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Given a good enough writer and also filmmakers who treat the novelization as something more than just a marketing tool, you can get good results. A fine example of that, actually, are the Star Wars prequel trilogy novelizations — possibly because the people at Lucasfilm have so extensively integrated their tie-in books with the Star Wars universe that they recognize the value of getting good writers and giving them room to write. As a result, the novelizations end up better than the movies they’re based on: Read Matthew Stover’s treatment of Revenge of the Sith and tell me it doesn’t give gravity and context to the candy-colored mess that was the movie.

Some other movie novelizations worth checking out for themselves (if you can find them):

Orson Scott Card somewhat famously agreed to do the novelization of this movie only if he could develop and delve into the characters’ backstories; James Cameron was pleased enough with the effort that he gave early chapters to his production’s stars to give them insight into their characters.

E.T.
William Kotwinkle’s novelization sold like hotcakes, and deserved to because he filled it with gentle humor — in particular expanding E.T.’s relationship with the family dog and his infatuation with Elliot’s mom (because, come on, who didn’t have a little crush on Dee Wallace?). Kotzwinkle worked with E.T. screenwriter Melissa Matheson to get the details of this one just right.

you can see in full on AMC’s nifty new B-Movies site ).

Buckaroo Banzai
This is one of the rare examples of a novelization of a movie that’s written by the flick’s screenwriter. But Earl Mac Rauch didn’t just confine himself to the story onscreen — he filled his book with asides, footnotes and a distinctly literary (and pulpy) narrator. Easily the weirdest novelization you’ll read.

Long story short, there are good scifi movie novelizations out there, though (as with anything of quality) sometimes you have to look. On that note, are there any science fiction movie novelizations you’ve enjoyed? Share in the comments below.

Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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