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Author Alan Dean Foster Reveals the Secret to Penning SciFi Novelizations

Alan Dean Foster is the “the patron saint of scifi movie novelizations,” having penned the original Star Wars and the first three Alien movies among many others. He discusses his recent adaptations of Star Trek, Terminator Salvation and Transformers 2.

Q: What makes you the go-to novelization guy?

A: I don’t get pretentious with my work. I don’t write through the movie and then spend the rest of the book doing a scifi riff on Sartre. I’m also extremely respectful of the original writers — I don’t regard this as redoing somebody’s work. And I respect the audience: If you’re going to shell out $8 for a paperback, you darn well better get at least 50 percent original material.

Q: Which novelization was the hardest to write?

A: John Carpenter’s Dark Star, which I see you have on your site. It’s basically about three guys sitting around in a spaceship talking about how bored they are. To get a 60,000 word novel out of it was pretty tough. For that adaptation I was able to see a screening of the film, and John Carpenter and I went to the Hamburger Hamlet across from Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, and he talked about how he wanted to be a director and I talked about how I wanted to be a writer.

Q: You wrote novelizations for three of this summer’s biggest movies. Which one was the most challenging?

A: I would have to say Transformers, because it’s a straight-up sequel. And any sequel, whether it’s a film sequel or a book sequel, you’re already operating at a loss with the audience because they already know the principal characters, and it becomes difficult to find new things to surprise them with. So you try to find new ways to surprise people about characters they already know.

Q: Everybody knows the Star Trek characters as well. How do you surprise the reader with them?

A: With Star Trek, these people don’t feel like characters in a movie any more. They feel like friends. So the most enjoyable thing for me was to expand on the characters. So McCoy for example, tells Kirk that his ex-wife took everything but his bones. So I can expand on that a little bit and explain why he’s so crotchety. It’s a very prosaic thing to put in a science fiction film, and the sort of thing you need more of — it’s called real life.

Q: Star Trek and Terminator and Transformers are all effects-heavy movies. Does that make them harder to adapt?

A: I think one of the main things that’s changed in science fiction films over the last 30 or 40 years is people realized that at heart it’s not the gosh gee golly explosions that make the film, it’s the characters. People really want to know what happens to Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, regardless of what they’re firing or flying in. And that’s true of all three of these films, that the human element is much more important.

Q: But that was a complaint against Terminator — that it missed the “human” element.

A: It’s a complaint that’s often leveled against films like Terminator Salvation. And the problem you have there is if you’ve got two hours to sell tickets, and in that two hours you only have so many moments to get into the characters’ life stories. I think the key to this film is the character of Marcus Wright. And I get to spend a lot more time in the book with him because I have an unlimited time frame and an unlimited budget. I can say that if the film was an hour longer, you probably would have seen more of its humanity. But it’s a constant problem with films like this, and it’s a complaint a number of fans made about Star Trek — too much flash and lens flares [Laughs].

Q: You wrote the treatment for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. What’s your impression of it after 30 years?

A: Most of the criticisms are correct. Of course there were problems with the special effects, and the biggest problem of course is the editing: There are too many long pauses. But I think the basic idea behind the film — the melding of men and machines — is very weighty, perhaps too much so. But I was immediately cut out of the loop on that film. I was never asked to contribute. In the treatment, Kirk is stuck in San Francisco, he’s in agony trying to get back to the ship, and it’s up to everybody else to actually solve the problem.

Q: Maybe you should write a book like that.

A: [Laughs] Maybe.

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