When a movie was a big hit back in the day, a cheesy, quick, and poor-quality novelization was sure to follow. In this series, we’ll look at the tie-in books that were churned out in weeks based on the scripts and the author’s own demented mind.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Novelization by William Kotzwinkle, based on the screenplay by Melissa Mathison
Berkley 1982, 246 pages
You might think you know E.T., from watching the movie and all, but apparently William Kotzwinkle says otherwise. You’ve yet to truly experience how bone-soakingly weird E.T. can be when you translate his “Adventure On Earth” into novel form and then go bonkers from about page two in. I learned a LOT of things about E.T. that I never knew before, things I mostly wish I was still ignorant of.
Want an example? Well, it turns out that E.T., the “10,000 year-old” alien, develops some disturbing crush on Elliott’s mother and stalks her at every opportunity hoping to, I don‘t know, make disgusting alien love to her or something. Don’t believe me? Oh, while I don’t blame you, allow me to dispel any youthful innocence you might’ve once had by quoting the book on page 134:
[E.T.] crept on down the hall to Mary’s room, and peeked in. The willow-creature was asleep, and he watched her for a long time. She was a goddess, the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Her radiant hair, spread out upon the pillow, was the moonlight itself; her fine features, so understated in their loveliness, were all that was perfection in nature — her closed eyes like the sleeping butterflies upon the night-blooming narcissus, her lips the petals of the columbine. Mary, said his old heart. Then upon paddle feet, he tiptoed over to her bed and gazed more closely…
See? NOW you’re gonna have the nightmares, aren’t you? Isn’t that about the creepiest thing you’ve ever read?
This whole novelization is so laugh-out-loud bizarre that the only explanation I can come up with is that Mr. Kotzwinkle took his job of bringing more of an in-depth look into E.T.’s psyche very seriously and then had severe head trauma. The entire books plays out in this format, with creative descriptions barely masking horrible storytelling and inexplicable point-of-views. It keeps leaping from character to character, which unevens the story more than you’d think, particularly when we’re suddenly seeing things from the dog’s point of view, and even giving backstory to the government agent (whose distinct lack of story in the film made the “alien” nature of the government actions so clear).
E.T.’s segments are the silliest, as the author writes himself into a corner — having to view the whole world and plot through the eyes of a complete alien to our planet — and then just eschews logic by having E.T. understanding most things (but not everything) because his homeworld culture was somewhat similar. For instance, E.T. knows what a bicycle is perfectly, even though his legs couldn’t pedal one even if he wore platforms.
Since the book expounds upon E.T.’s role as an alien biologist (which is why they’re collecting plants in the beginning of the movie), Kotzwinkle goes the whole nine yards by not only having E.T. talk to plants at every opportunity, but having the plants talk back. You’d think plants wouldn’t be too smart, but when stuff like dandelions and ferns know what a pizza truck is, and are able to communicate that to E.T., you’d quickly find yourself blushing out of shame.
Other than the sheer acid-trip lunacy to it, the novelization isn’t all that great of a read. It’s interesting to see a couple of the plot changes (M&Ms; are used in the book instead of Reese’s Pieces, a change that the film company had to do when the Mars company declined to place their product in the movie), but the writing style is too much in love with “Word Of The Day” calendars and not really interested in giving us a smooth ride. The geeks among us will also be a bit miffed that while Kotzwinkle references roleplaying games and whatnot, he almost always misspells or misuses them (“elfin” instead of “elven” and “ork” instead of “orc”). The guy practically writes science fiction circa 1940, with about as much understanding of the genre.
- The spaceship was another matter. Enormous Victorian Christmas tree ornaments don’t fall to the earth with great frequency. (p.2)
- Earth gravity would get to him, and the ground resistance twist his spine out of shape; his muscles would sag and he’d be found in a ditch somewhere with no more definition than a large bloated squash. What an end for an intergalactic botanist. (p.18)
- “Light,” he said to it in his own tongue, “you belong on the rear end of a bicycle.” (p.19)
- Hiding in the vegetable bed, he took counsel with the plants. Their advice, to go look in the kitchen window, was not welcome. (p.20)
- But they are only children, said a nearby cucumber. (p.21)
- There’s nothing to fear, said a tomato plant. It’s only the Pizza Wagon. (p.25)
- His path in life led nowhere, but if a place could be pointed to on a map of the soul, Elliott’s destination was mediocrity, miserliness, and melancholy; the sort of person who falls under a train. (p.39)
- Now he understood the meaning of Earth life: ten billion years of evolution to produce — the M&M. (p.47)
- She opened Gertie’s door. “Rise and shine…” The child sat up, blinking, then cheerfully put her legs over the side of the bed. “I was dreaming about the pervert, Mommy.” (p.53)
- I will have to eat him, thought Harvy [the dog], quietly. (p.78)
- [talking about the kinds of games Elliott likes to play with Gertie] For example, tickling her until she nearly had a nervous breakdown, a game he often enjoyed with his own sister. Or tying her to a tree and then tickling her. Or crashing into the bathroom with four or five guys while she was taking a bath, and then standing around laughing while she screamed. Those were the right games. (p.89)
- Your voice is purest gro-formula, Ancient Master, said the geranium. (p.93)
- They are Earth children, said the plant. Good, but slow. (p.118)
- “It’s okay,” he said. “We’ve lost him.” But they had not lost him. By shortcuts known only to nerds, Lance sped along through the night.” (p.148)
- He had a strange urge to eat Swiss cheese. Moo, said the cheese. (p.187)
Novelization by Richard Osborne, based on the screenplay by Joe Eszterhas
Signet 1992, 233 pages
If you picked up Basic Instinct: The Novel looking to be titillated and aroused, you better hope that the feel of paper turns you on, because nothing else in this book is anywhere near SexyVille:
He held her by the back of the neck, kissing back, his tongue slicing into her mouth. Their bodies pressed hard, as if sealed together. His hands were on her hard [butt] now, pulling her against him, their hips thrusting. His hands were under her skirt, hot on her bare skin. (p.150)
That, by the way, is not a sex scene; it’s merely a make-out session in a dance club, but it gives you a general idea of the intense, sweeping passion of this book’s writer. To wit, this whole novel is like reading some fairly poor internet fan fiction in which the author has decades of pent-up desires, but only a limited vocabulary of one-syllable words in which to express them. In fact, if you took out the glaringly crude dialogue and watered down the sex passages into hand-holding sessions, then this entire effort might have gotten a C+ if handed in to a sixth grade English teacher.
Out of all the novelizations I’ve tortured myself through to date, Basic Instinct was by far the most tedious. It just doesn’t flow well, words and tacky similes jarring against my inner nature with each new paragraph. To make matters worse, the only time I had to get through this was during my breakfast, when I’d go to a local diner and read while I ate. Of course, no one wants to sit within a three-table radius of an angry-looking Italian inexplicably reading BASIC INSTINCT, so I had to covertly read it, keeping the cover hidden at all times, feeling like I was peeking at a porn magazine on an airline or something.
I really have nothing more to say about this book. It’s poorly written with no supplemental imagination, and its key selling point — sex — lacks even a whiff of erotic aroma.
- Most of the time the only rule was that there were no rules. (p.8)
- In San Francisco, the nonsmoking capital of the world, there were militant nonsmokers who would not only have charged her with smoking, they would have cheerfully convicted her, and send her to the electric chair. (p.62)
- It tasted good. Too good. It tasted ever so faintly like danger. (p.77)
- Nick Curran followed, his eyes watching her taut, firm buttocks moving under her dress. (p.99)
- Nick was already skating on thin ice with the shooflies. Now he was sure to fall through and into the frigid waters of a section investigation. (p.112)
- He lunged for the phone as if it were a lifeline. The words he heard cut through the haze in his brain as if they were poisoned darts. Nick felt the pool of bourbon in his stomach slosh like the bilges on an old boat. (p.121)
- She writhed under him, lost in the pure brute carnality of the love they were making. (p.151)
Novelization by Richard Woodley, based on the screenplay by Jerome Armstrong and Billy Ray
Harper 1997, 210 pages
Already, I’m beginning to see a strange rule forming among the slew of novelization sludge I am scooping through. The success or failure of a particular film does not necessarily correlate to a terrific or a horrible read, respectively. Out of the books I read for this round, Volcano was the one I was dreading the most, and ended up liking the best. This isn’t to say this is anywhere near classical literature or even pulp crap like John Grisham, but for the limited disaster story given, this went down smooth like, well, anything you stick in a blender for more than five minutes. Pureé book.
It might even be better than the film it’s based off of. Actually, forget the “might even” bit. Volcano the movie blows, but the snappy, quick-paced writing in this red tome is not to be disregarded.
Different authors have different specialties in their craft; some specialize in vastly descriptive settings, some showcase a talent in unusual storytelling techniques, and others might be masters of unique characterizations. I’d say that Woodley’s strength is in his dialogue — of which there is a lot of — and I admire that. I suck with dialogue, when writing fiction, as do many wanna-be authors. It’s a lot harder than you think to make conversation in books sound normal yet edited for the superfluous details, to read quickly while still covering the vital information, to really bring out a character’s personality while not confusing the reader about who is saying what about what.
I feel sorry for the above-the-cut authors of novelizations. Even if they give a damn and put some sincere effort into making a nicely readable package, the best they can hope for is that middle-aged supermarket shoppers will be somewhat entertained during the book’s one and most certainly only printing. That’s depressing.
Finding sentences to laugh at is the only high point of this article series, and Volcano sadly let me down. I really was only able to find four:
- It was inexorable, and inexorability to him suggested immortality, or the need at least to address the issue right away. (p.4)
- The cop pulled the zipper down. The man’s face was red and black. His clothes were in rags. His rubber boots were singed brown and melted around his feet, covering them like chocolate on an Eskimo pie. (p.44)
- The lava lapped over the curb and consumed the signpost advertising Pastor Lake’s next sermon: “Why Sin Seems Fun.” (p.159)
- “Okay. So rock beats scissors. Scissors beats paper.” “I’m lava,” Tommy said. “What beats that?” “My dad,” answered Kelly. “I hope.” (p.164)
Ghostbusters 2: The Junior Novelization
Novelization by B.B. Hiller, based on the screenplay by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd
Dell 1989, 87 pages
This slim, obviously-for-children novelization cost me only ten cents at the used bookstore. I consider it ten cents well spent, indeed, if nothing else than the terrific photos that litter this book. As an adult, I sincerely miss illustrations and photos in my books, darnit!
I mostly read this at the dentist during the second part of my root canal. The dental assistant was obviously impressed that I was reading at a first grade level, a fact she underscored by rolling her eyes at least three times.
Harsh criticisms of non-believers aside, I discovered that bad writing isn’t necessarily contained just to adult novelizations; Ghostbusters II begins with the dedication page reading, I swear, “This book is dedicated to the ghost who won’t be busted.”
After that, it’s really all downhill, isn’t it?
I got the full impression that this book is meant to be read to someone in a lilting, patronizing tone. It’s obviously hand-holding the youngsters, but not always; in some sections the author seems to forget that the book is geared toward kids, and uses some fairly grown-up words and phrases. No swearing though. Plus, the author seems to have an affinity for horribly bad puns — just check out a couple of the quotes below.
- It smashed into two parked cars. The passengers in the bus were tossed around like clothes in a dryer. But Oscar’s carriage was untouched. (p.5)
- Dana didn’t like him much more than she liked the painting he was working on. The difference was that the painting didn’t always ask her out on dates! (p.13)
- There was a blackout, and the Ghostbusters were in deep slime with the law. (p.26)
- Then there was the ghost who was doing his Christmas shopping in a jewelry store but he’d left his credit cards at home. They bagged him in a fourteen-karat operation. (p.34)
- Venkman might have gone on complaining except that Stantz hugged him. It made it hard to complain. (p.81)