License to Slum, pt. 2

Sunday, 31 August 2008 — 11:40pm | Adaptations, Film, Literature, Tie-ins and fanfic

This is the second part of “License to Slum: The Novel of the Movie of the Game”, a pentapartite polemic about media tie-in fiction in which I investigate whether my prejudice against them is just a prejudice. I recommend that you start at the beginning.

In this instalment, I continue to assess some of the arguments that are often raised in defence of the tie-in novel, with a particular focus on movie novelizations and the behaviour of the property licensors.

5.

“Basing a book on a movie is no less legitimate than basing a movie on a book.”

Keith R.A. DeCandido:

What this really is? Is the fact that, in this country, we view things on screen as more real than things in print. Part of it is simple numbers: more people watch TV and movies than read books and comic books. That’s why when you adapt a novel into a movie, you’ve got an entire Academy Award category to yourself (and other adapters like you), but when you adapt a movie into a novel, you’re a talentless hack who’s just in it for the money (never mind that screenwriters are far better compensated for their work than prose writers).

DeCandido aims his post at those who dismiss tie-in novels because of their irrelevance to the “canonical” continuity of the core product, arguing that when it comes to movie adaptations of superhero comics, nobody cares. (Then again, I’m not sure continuity was ever a staple of superhero comics to begin with—certainly not prior to the crisis of infinite earths.)

Mind you, the quality of the Star Wars books themselves was irrelevant to me: my pressing concern at the time was to ensure that people understood that a) in no way was George Lucas beholden to the parasitic continuity of the Expanded Universe in crafting his Prequels, nor should he be; and b) that I was going to go on seeing possibilities in the ambiguities of the films, as I would with any other film, rather than seek hard, cold answers in some tie-in product with an official stamp on it. As soon as Revenge of the Sith brought the Star Wars saga to an end, the whole matter of canonicity died a merciful death (for me, anyhow).

Let’s look at the more interesting issue, though: have we indeed discovered an arena where—horror of horrors—movies are more respected than books? How is that possible?

Prime Minister Steven Harper Piziks:

I know the answer–money. Screenplays earn scads of money, scads of people see the movie, and rave about it on TV, in movie reviews, and to their friends. As a result, money pours into the studio, and money gets attention.

Far fewer people read books than go to movies. Even fewer people read books based on movies. Movies are easy entertainment; books are more challenging. So almost no one cares about a carefully crafted novel adaptation of a movie. Readers will flock to a movie based on a novel to see the book come to life and to see how well it does or doesn’t work. Unfortunately, the opposite isn’t true. Movie viewers are less likely to pick up books because are harder to get through, and they don’t figure that the book will add anything to what they saw on screen.

I don’t buy this. Let’s ignore for a second that the Star Wars prequel novelizations sold like hotcakes. First of all, the movies based on books that people flock to see for easy entertainment are, by and large, not the ones that get nominated for Oscars. I liked Iron Man, but it’s not Schindler’s List or The English Patient or No Country for Old Men, and their markets are not one and the same. (Every now and then you get an anomaly like Forrest Gump that manages to succeed with audiences, critics, and Academy voters alike, but never you mind—and any way you spin it, there’s only one Lord of the Rings. The Dark Knight? The jury’s still out.)

I’ll tell you why some movies based on books get nominated for Oscars: because in artistry and craftsmanship, they hold their own against the best that the medium has to offer. They are responsible to the great tradition of cinema first, and their source material second. Look at Gone with the Wind or The Godfather, both of which preceded the age of the modern commercial blockbuster (which, according to the orthodox history, begins with Jaws), both of which we are quite comfortable speaking of as among the best that the medium has to offer in terms of performances and sheer command of visual language. We put them right next to works written for the screen like On the Waterfront and Citizen Kane, and the presence or absence of source material, no matter how significant, is invisible to us.

More often than not, film adaptations are mediocre. We forget about them and try again later. It’s been happening since at least the 1941 John Huston film of The Maltese Falcon, a noir classic by any measure, but not the first adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel. The first Maltese Falcon was made a decade earlier. Nobody cared. The only people who remember it ever existed are film history geeks writing about book adaptations and itching to pick a fight.

6.

Prose novelizations of films, on the other hand, do not have the benefits of either a safe reflective distance from the source material, or significant room for reinterpretation. If there is any stigma against novelizations, it isn’t that they add nothing: it is that our (well, my) instinct is to see them as rough drafts plus deleted scenes, and without the benefit of the visual language for which the film was designed.

I am sad to report that publishers and film distributors intend to keep it that way.

Tod Goldberg:

Max Allan Collins practically did write a book with his own blood. Collins is the undisputed king of the media tie-in, having written more than 50 of them (including 10 CSI novels and several puzzles, video games and comics also based on the program) since 1990, but he nearly ripped a hole in the fabric of the time/space continuum by novelizing the screenplay based on his graphic novel Road to Perdition. (Do the math in your head for that one.)

“The Road to Perdition novelization was a nightmare, frankly,” Collins says. “I went after it for obvious reasons—I didn’t want a ‘Perdition’ novel written by someone else out there. I proceeded to write the best novelization of my career, staying faithful to David Self’s script—which was already fairly faithful to my graphic novel—but fleshed out the script with characterization, expanded dialogue scenes and just generally turning it into a quality novel of around 100,000 words. After I submitted it and had the New York editor say it was the best tie-in novel he’d ever read, the licensing person at DreamWorks required me to cut everything in the novel that wasn’t in the script. That I was the creator of the property held no sway. I was made to butcher the book down to 40,000 words.”

It’s a tragedy, really. In Collins’ intended form, that sounds like a novelization I would read. Mind you, I would still approach it with caution. Road to Perdition is a remarkable film, but much of its success rides on strong performances, meticulous staging, and exemplary cinematography of the striking electricity that we associate with the mantra, “Every frame a Rembrandt.” In some respects, it is a film that holds its own against the very best. It invites us to judge it not only against gangster pictures or comic book adaptations, but against all motion pictures—and the comparison is not ridiculous.

In the meantime, riddle me this: even if we set all stigmas aside, are there any tie-in novels—novelizations, individual series, or otherwise—that we can truly conceive of as contenders for the Booker? The Pulitzer? Or to be more realistic—not all films get tie-ins, after all, and not all authors are willing to write them—the Hugo, the Nebula, the Edgar?

No—because nobody wants to commission one.

(In case you answered “Yes”: please leave a comment, and name the book.)

7.

I don’t think it’s conceptually impossible for a novelization to be a serious work of fiction. What is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, really, but a tie-in novel for a BBC radio miniseries?

To clear the institutional barricades against novelizations is probably a good thing. In fact, films that fail to live up to the promise of their screenplays—whether the cause be poor acting, editorial incompetence, budgetary constraints, or something completely different—are probably ripe for novelization. But the ensuing novel must be more than just an adaptation, and preferably composed at some temporal distance from its source material. For one thing, it must pay serious attention to structure and prose: why dump the content in a new form if you’re not going to excel at the form? We don’t forgive films either when they just adapt. There’s a reason Alfonso Cuarón’s interpretation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is far superior to its (literally) by-the-book predecessors.

The fact is, most of what gets novelized is not that suitable for novelization. The finest special-effects spectacles on the silver screen are the ones with that poetic choreography of clashing swords and fiery explosions that were born to be visual. Animators don’t think in words. Take away the visuals and trade them for a verbal substitute, no matter how eloquent, and the essence of the source material’s appeal is lost.

Requisite exception to every rule: perhaps the most well regarded novelization of a film is Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on an early draft from his concurrently written screenplay to the Kubrick film, itself based on a short story of his from the 1940s. It stands alone as a serious classic of hard science fiction, even though—and, arguably, because—the manner of its inventiveness is quite different from what Kubrick did to plant 2001 as a monolithic landmark in the cinematic canon. On the page, “My God, it’s full of stars!” doesn’t imitate Kubrick’s fetal montage of transcendence and rebirth. It replaces it.

8.

We must remember, too, that the prose novel had a head start on film by several centuries. The standard of achievement on the printed page is staggeringly, mind-bogglingly high. All the same, that’s no excuse for not even trying.

Or is it?

Tie-in readers are a renewable resource. The existing brand is what draws them in, not the books themselves. Familiarity with the brand’s core product—the game, the television show, the movie—is an implied prerequisite; moreover, that is a safe assumption to make. The licensors of the franchise have no incentive to expand their audience. They’re not the gatekeepers. It’s not their responsibility. Star Wars novels draft their readership from the audience that is already receptive to the Star Wars films; that’s the extent of expansion. It is a safe assumption that the percentage of Star Wars fans who read daring, intellectual literature and have yet to erect an impermeable stigmatic wall against franchise fiction is, to say the least, infinitesimal.

This isn’t to say that franchise fiction never expands it audience, or that its audience is a strict subset of the brand’s followers. I’m certain there are legions of Forgotten Realms readers who don’t play Forgotten Realms, or Star Wars readers who abandoned the films when the prequels came about.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the publishers (or property holders or book packagers or whatever you call them) produce fiction as merchandise precisely because of its reliability as a source of revenue. Their natural inclination is to play it safe. That encourages them to produce more of the same, but with just enough variation that their existing audience doesn’t abandon them. The expansion of that audience does not occur from within. Their ranks swell on the back of the brand’s core product—and that is where the perception of legitimacy comes with the money, and goes with the promotional machine that affords the brand its access to the mass consumer market.

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