Are film novelisations really that bad?

You‘ve seen the blockbuster – now read the book! Many major Hollywood movies spawn a novelisation, but are they really as bad as their reputation suggests? Tom Huddleston ploughs through a trio of ’Indiana Jones‘ books and offers his verdict on a much-maligned movie spin-off

Every widely disparaged artform – be it clog dancing, happy hardcore or musical theatre – has its share of devotees; those willing to stand up in public and sing the praises of their chosen sphere, no matter what the haters say. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing the same for that most benighted of modern forms, the film tie-in novelisation. Hurriedly written, shamelessly trashy but often highly readable, these expanded précis of hot new films seem as popular now as they ever did, with new titles ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ wending their way to bookshop shelves – and even entering the best-seller lists.

Derided by author Jonathan Coe as a ‘bastard, misshapen offspring of the cinema and the written word’, novelisations have a history almost as long as movies themselves, having been recognised early on as a cheap and popular way to advertise and celebrate a screen work. Before home video, the novelisation was the only way a fan could revisit a favourite picture, relive classic scenes and savour choice dialogue. But, despite their enduring popularity, these novels have never managed to find favour with critics or tastemakers, remaining a niche interest confined to the bookshelves of movie geeks, memorabilia addicts and anyone unable to make it through a ‘proper’ novel.

But is such calumny warranted? Can these books really be so bad? For their authors, tie-in novelisations are a potentially lucrative way to fund a more respectable writing career. Australian sci-fi novelist Sean Williams has written stories in both the ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Doctor Who’ universes, and finds the process rewarding and enjoyable: ‘I regard this kind of work as another form of collaboration. Tie-in fiction gives me an opportunity to play in someone else’s playground, with toys that I love, and create something new for a guaranteed audience. What’s not to like about that?’

The most notable characteristic when diving into the world of the tie-in is how spectacularly overwritten they can be. Take this passage from Bantam Books’ recently re-released ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ by Campbell Black: ‘The upraised tower of flame… hung in the sky like the shadow of a deity, a burning, shifting shadow composed not of darkness but of light, pure light.’ The justification for such winningly ridiculous turns of phrase is simple: the author has to turn a 100 page script into a novel of some 50,000 words, and all they have to fill the blanks are some production sketches, pre-visualisation art and their imagination: who can blame them if that imagination tends to get a bit carried away?

As Williams notes, ‘People don’t buy tie-ins to get the same story again; that’s what DVD players are for. They want a whole new layer, and that is often a psychological or world-building one. And sometimes OTT is exactly what you want. How else is a writer to compete with a $200 million FX budget?’

One method, popular in the 1970s and early ’80s but frowned upon today, was to add a little spice to otherwise PG-rated proceedings: knowing full well that their primary audience consisted of teenage boys and lonely men, authors often threw a little surprise sauciness into the story, usually centring around totally gratuitous uses of the word ‘breasts’. In ‘Raiders’, we’re treated to an early scene following our hero’s arrival in Egypt, where Indy sits and pervs over a sleeping Marion: ‘The nightdress was transparent and her breasts were visible – firm breasts.’ Hot stuff.

In the days before DVD and deleted scenes, the most intriguing aspect of the novelisation was the way they included scripted scenes which were later cut from the released film. As a result, the ‘Raiders’ novel includes a scene where Indy seduces one of his students (to the disgust of Marcus Brody), ‘Star Wars’ features appearances by Luke’s drag-racing buddies Deak and Windy, and William Kotzwinkle’s ‘ET’ features lengthy sequences involving mercifully excised ‘bad seed’ Lance, the neighbourhood kid who rats Elliott and ET out to the authorities.

In the final analysis, the opprobrium heaped on these books seems unfair: they’re hardly great art, but they can be hugely, often unintentionally, entertaining, and undoubtedly popular. Perhaps it’s sheer critical snobbery that prevents them from gaining wider acceptance, but the fact remains: in almost a century of novelisations, some written by relatively well-regarded authors, not one has managed to break out of its geek ghetto.

‘The Adventures of Indiana Jones’ (Bantam, £7.99); ‘Iron Man’ (Titan, £6.99); Sean Williams’s ‘Star Wars: the Force Unleashed’ (Titan, £17.99); and ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ (Bantam £8.99) are available in all good bookshops.




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