Novelizations are screenplay-to-novel adaptations. Nowadays, they are usually rare artifacts reserved for the nerdiest in franchise fandom. When you just can’t enough of your favorite film you can dive back into that world via the novelization, which exists in order to produce another revenue stream for the studios. Milk that IP, baby. But hey, there are actually some surprisingly good novelizations of both classic and modern films.
Movies based on books? That’s an old story. What about books based on movies? Well, that’s an old story too, though one fewer people know about. There are so many films that have been turned into books it will make your head spin and very often the story behind how these pulpy artifacts came to be is better than the book itself.
1. The Third Man
The Third Man is arguably England’s most influential noir export. But did you know it was turned into a book and released a year after the film premiered? Yes, the film that reunited Citizen Kane stars Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles on-screen was later turned into a book based on the screenplay. Screenwriter Graham Greene novelized his own script about an American taking a job in post-war Vienna only to find out his new boss is “dead.” The man decides to take matters into his own hands and investigates the suspicious death. Noir gold ensues. The book advertised “bonus material” along with a copy of the script and behind-the-scenes goods from the film. Here’s an interesting side note: The Third Man was also later adapted as a radio play several times over the following decade.
2. A Fistful Of Dollars
Sergio Leone’s glorious Dollars Trilogy made Clint Eastwood and the term “spaghetti western” into household names. Then it spawned eight novelizations which came to be known as The Dollars Series. Terry Harknett, a British author of over two hundred pulp titles, wrote the first novelization in the series, A Fistfull Of Dollars under the pseudonym Frank Chandler. The rest were written by Joe Millard, except for number five in the series, A Dollar To Die.
3. Fantastic Voyage
How’s this for a logline? A submarine crew is shrunk to microscopic size and sent on a mission through a scientist’s body in order to repair his damaged brain. No, it’s not the prequel to Honey I Shrunk The Kids…(although, it could be). It’s the far-out ‘60s psych-fi film, Fantastic Voyage. Bantam Books bought the rights for a novelization and hired Isaac Asimov to adapt the screenplay into a book. However, this caused some confusion because the book version dropped six months before the film came out. Fantastic Voyage was a cinematic feat in its day and cleaned up all of the technical awards at the ‘67 Oscars. But everyone thought the film was adapted from Asimov’s book. However, it was just one of many ’60s film novelizations.
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Anyone who has seen 2001: A Space Odyssey knows this 1968 Kubrick masterpiece still holds up. And it’s probably the only retro sci-fi film to do so. Adapting this masterwork from screen to novel must have been a feat in and of itself. One can guess that the novel is really good. It was written by a British knight, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, and co-written by Kubrick, in parallel with the early development stages of the film. Clarke went on to write an entire 2001 series, six novelizations in total. The series spans our entire solar system and was published over the course of twenty years. The early books were widely read and well-received.
Clarke also has some wonderful quotes about the colonization of space and capitalism that are worthy of sharing. On the topic of any nation claiming sovereignty over space, Clarke said, “There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a vacuum.” Of capitalism, Clarke said, “The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play. That’s why we have to destroy the present politico-economic system.”
5. Star Wars
Speaking of Alan Dean Foster. The king of sci-fi franchise novelizations ghostwrote the first Star Wars novel, which when published, was credited solely to George Lucas. There are eleven Star Wars films total and each have accompanying novelizations. However, there are several prequel novels as well and a whole universe of other Star Wars books that weren’t based directly on the films. For example, there have been over forty Star Wars novels published since 2016. Yikes!
6. The Deer Hunter
This ‘70s cinema classic won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, as well as Christopher Walken for Supporting Actor. However, what doesn’t get talked about often is the controversy surrounding the scriptwriting process. Director Michael Cimino says that when he read scriptwriter Deric Washburn’s first draft, he said, “it was like it was written by somebody who was … mentally deranged.”
According to Washburn, he had one month to write the script and was pulling twenty-hour days. After he delivered his first draft, Cimino and associate producer Joan Carelli took him to a cheap dinner on Sunset Blvd. After dinner, Carelli said, “Well Deric, it’s fuck-off time.” Cimino took full scriptwriting credit and Washburn went back to being a carpenter in Manhattan. Then, a year later, a novelization of the Oscar-winning film hit shelves. The author? A mysterious writer named E.M. Corder with no other works to his name.
The book features a chilling epigraph from Hemingway about PTSD. “There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.”
The Alien franchise spawned many off-shoots, including countless comic books and several novelizations. The original novels based on the film were dubbed “The Canonical Alien Trilogy.” These included the novels Alien: Out of The Shadows, Alien: Sea of Sorrows, and Alien: River of Pain. There is also a short story collection called Aliens: Bug Hunt that purists insist must be lumped in with the original cannon. The original novelization of the first Alien film from 1979 was written by Alan Dean Foster, who is a titan of sci-fi novelizations. There are too many credits to his name to count, spanning a multiverse of sci-fi fandom. Since the ‘70s, Foster has published several novelizations based on the Star Trek, Star Wars, and Alien film franchises.
8. Friday The 13th
The 1980 slasher film that brought us the famous hockey-masked killer Jason was novelized by author Simon Hawke, seven years after its original release. Who knew this quaint story (featuring a young Kevin Bacon) about a group of teenagers being violently murdered in the woods would spawn a series of twelve films and seven novelizations? Not to mention all of the other media off-shoots and merchandise like comics and action figures.
9. Blade Runner
Let’s go on a little journey down a rabbit hole of obscure literary and film knowledge, shall we?
Everyone knows that Blade Runner was based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? But the literary connections run much deeper. William S. Burroughs published a novella in 1979 called Blade Runner (a movie). This book had nothing to do with the later film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel. In fact, Burroughs’ novella is set in the 21st century and involves a mutated virus that causes “a medical-care apocalypse.” Sound familiar? But that’s not all. Burroughs originally intended the novella to be a screenplay adaptation of a rare sci-fi book by Alan E. Nourse called The Bladerunner.
Blade Runner (a movie)
Burroughs wound up switching gears and turning the script into a stream-of-consciousness novella that hardly sold and was out of print soon after. However, screenwriter Hampton Fancher had a copy of Burroughs’ book. Fancher borrowed the title for his script adaptation of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? because, well, it’s a catchier name. Ridley Scott dug it, so he purchased the name and used it for his film. So did Burroughs’ film ever get made? Yes, in fact, it did. In 1983, the author sold the rights to his Blade Runner to director Tom Huckabee for $100. (Less than $300 in today’s money.) Blade Runner: a movie found life on-screen as the obscure 1983 film Taking Tiger Mountain.
Ok, so what about the Blade Runner movie novelization? Turns out, studio execs pitched Philip K. Dicks’ own story back to him. The suits offered Dick half a mil to write the Blade Runner novelization, then dropped the caveat: it had to appeal to a twelve-year-old audience. Needless to say, Dick turned down the opportunity to bastardize his own work. Instead, author Les Martin stepped in to write a novel based on the movie adaptation, which owes its name to two other authors. Is your head spinning yet? But wait, it gets even more fractal. The Blade Runner series expanded into at least four other books based on the films.
10. Back To The Future
This towering pop-culture phenomenon has expanded into a world of its own. And that world includes a series of five novelizations by Back To The Future screenwriter Bob Gale. According to legend, Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis had a series of collaborative failures in the early ‘80s. Sources say this is the main reason the pair couldn’t sell the idea to Hollywood for almost a decade. But they certainly made up for lost time, didn’t they?
11. The Abyss
James Cameron has a thing for subs. In 2012, the filmmaker traveled to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean. Was he hoping to find aliens down there? Of course, he was! It all goes back to his 1989 film The Abyss about a crew of Navy SEALS sent deep under the sea to investigate a USO (unidentified submerged object). A couple of warheads later, Ed Harris is delivered safely to the ocean’s surface by a race of benevolent sea aliens. Orson Scott Card, the sci-fi author of Ender’s Game and others, wrote the novelization. Card used the screenplay as the basis for the book during pre-production. The author even wrote backstories for the main characters to help the actors define their roles. The novelization was released in ‘89 in conjunction with the film.
12. The Dark Knight
The film that sparked a worldwide Joker fetish also inspired a book. American comic book writer Dennis O’Neal wrote the novelization of the screenplay by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan.
13. V For Vendetta
Author Steve Moore wrote the original 1988 graphic novel that provided the basis for the political-dystopian smash hit V For Vendetta. The 2005 release of the film sparked renewed interest in the original graphic novels. This justified a novelization, which came out the following year. Now, in 2021, V For Vendetta references can be seen everywhere, in every major American city, usually in the form of some bad street art or a covid agitator ironically sporting a V mask. What a world!
14. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Tarantino’s retelling of the Manson family murders through the lens of a failing movie star and his stunt double side-kick is now available in paperback! Tarantino signed a deal with HarperCollins in November of last year for a Once Upon A Time… novel that came out in June. The novel picks up where the film left off, taking us through Rick Dalton’s revitalized career as a bit player on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The novel also builds out the back story of stunt man Cliff Booth and explores Charles Manson’s attempts at a music career. When the book came out Tarantino revealed he plans to write another off-shoot novel that explores Rick Dalton’s filmography. Tarantino selected a list of actual films and replaced the original stars with Rick Dalton as the lead. You can always count on the man for a good surprise.
Patrick Salway is a writer, musician, and actor living in Los Angeles. Follow him on social media @blone_noble and @veneer_publications. Listen to VENEER.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out 21 Short Films Based on Short Stories.
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