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Do Not Attempt to Adjust Your Book

It’s all pulp in the end

“I don’t like books, they have too many notions. Why should I fork over real legal tender to be told what to think, when I can imagine things myself for free? And what’s with all of these descriptions of flowers and clothes? My problem with books is that they’re a one-way street. They definitely aren’t interactive. I want possibility, multiplicity, not dry prose about anemones. Made-up ideas are a load of crap, a murderer of time, and say nothing to me about my life, unless of course they are mine.”

So, it’s not for everyone, the realm of literary fiction. Oscar Wilde’s criterion for art was that it should aspire to uselessness, making the novel a hard sell in a world of facility and self-interest; they are, after all, just perishable sheafs of paper, printed by strangers for obscure malcontents, in numbers that seldom vex the purveyors of films, or record executives, or live-in gourmets. But to assign value, much less virtue, in either direction, to what amounts to a mere cultural preference is a mistake born of a misapprehension. When someone tells you that they do not read, they do not speak of some allergy to language, but that they do not read what you read—there are simply too many books for two lives to have the same ones in common—and that you’re coming off like some nineteenth-century connoisseur of high foppery who just heard that try-outs for the middle class are closed and insists on consoling their wounded pride with melancholy solipsists.

This is “That Essence Rare,” a column about the paraliterary: a catch-all for what people actually read and a living, evolving, pervasive rejoinder to the prejudice that literature is a province requiring a degree and a lofty attitude. It contends that there is another country: a country of newsprint, message boards, newsletters, chyrons, magazines, fan fiction, recipes, legal briefs, board games, academic papers, makeup tutorials, and Alcoholics Anonymous. Reading is thinking defined, and it is for everyone. The worlds lurking just one notch removed from the literary mainstream are aspects of the one we share, governed by their own economics, conventions, and star-making apparatus. What it doesn’t have is a firm body of criticism, just as writing programs tend not to cater to corollaries of fine art, like screenwriters, sportswriters, or advice columnists. Are they unfairly locked out of cultural exegesis? Probably not, but there’s no competition when you are a reviewer of arcane monster magazines, Choose Your Own Adventure books, and film novelizations. There must be more to life than this.

—J.W. McCormack


The writer’s journey typically begins in imitation before their own métier emerges—but it’s faster and more lucrative to quit while you’re ahead, yoke yourself to some cultural juggernaut, and put your pen in service to the bourgeoisie. As H.B. Gilmour puts it in the novelization of Pretty in Pink, “Even the lowliest zoid had a unique sense of style.” The derivative merchandise known as the novelization—cheapo paperbacks churned out ahead of a film’s release to juice the hype machine and flash-freeze a blockbuster in the epoch before home recording and streaming—came to be in 1912, when the Edison Company began running promotional prose renditions of its serial What Happened to Mary in Ladies’ World a week after each installment’s onscreen debut. Then came The Perils of Pauline, photoplay albums of books by George Eliot and Joseph Conrad, and a regularization of the print-premiere cycle throughout the age of the silents—including perverse retreads of adaptations of Moby-Dick and Faust that have increasingly little hereditary from the source material. The dawning of sound gave novelizations their first classic with King Kong by Delos W. Lovelace.

Kong has been reissued by Modern Library, adding to the popular misconception that the 1933 film was based on a novel—an error novelizations have never been in a hurry to a correct; often emblazoned with the legend “Now a Major Picture,” they are only based on novels in the sense that snow cones are based on the general idea of precipitation. Farmed out to freelance writers or hastily scribbled in-studio, there is nonetheless a collision of media-brains that makes for more-than-serviceable sensationalism, as when, in Kong, the monstrous primate emerges from the jungle to claim Fay Wray his bride:

The beast-god they sought was lumbering toward them from the center of the asphalt field. Monstrous beyond conception, as hairy as any of the simian creatures of an African jungle whom he resembled in all but size, the fact that he picked his way with a slow, almost human caution, made him all the more incredible.

We subsequently enter the monster’s mind, a close-third improvisation on an unknowable stop-motion mega-mammal to whom the public had not yet been introduced. Even at this early stage, there’s a strange alchemy at work in the translation of screen-to-page; monkey see, monkey do.

The novelization is what happens when a parasite takes the wheel and rides the nervous system into oblivion.

Besides the inevitable expansions of perspective and backstory—these are writers asked to take a twenty-thousand-word screenplay book-length—the authors of novelizations tend to be working blind. So Alan Dean Foster doesn’t know what a xenomorph actually looks like in his book of Alien, and William Kotzwinkle describes E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial as “a large melon being dragged by a pair of duckbilled platypuses” because Kotzwinkle—a National Magazine Award-winning novelist with a sideline writing novelizations, horror movies, and a children’s book series about a farting dog—is doing his best with what he’s got. These books are written in a hurry from an early draft, before directors, movie stars, and cinematographers have definitively left their thumbprints on our imagination, so alternate endings and deleted scenes sneak through the verbiage. You may think you’ve seen the cocooned Captain Dallas beg Ripley for incineration aboard the Nostromo before an alien hatches from his bosom, or Poltergeist’s small-fry psychic Tangina best the evil spirit gHalâ by uttering its name after a long stint in the bug house, but neither of these made the theatrical cut. The best of such detours comes from Pretty in Pink, which retains John Hughes’ original last dance, wherein Andie Walsh winds up with fellow zoid Ducky at the prom while yuppie would-be suitor Blane watches from the bleachers and thinks about how much he respects women now. Good for them.

In The Remembered Film, Victor Burgin writes, “The same technology that has constructed the audio-visual machine has put the means of configuring its products into the hands of the audience. But when two-thirds of global copywrites are in the hands of six corporations, the capacity to rework one’s memories into the material symbolic form of individual testament and testimony is severely constrained.” For Burgin, we encounter a film through posters, blurbs, trailers, reviews, and memorabilia that are already considerably distended from the movie by the time that the image itself collides with our memories, dreams, and proclivities. To the likes of Orion Pictures, that’s not a bad thing: they want to be sure we remember things the right way. If you read Desperately Seeking Susan by Susan Dworkin and aren’t picturing Madonna Ciccone, you’re doing it wrong.

What if, however, the film being ensorcelled is one that nobody remembers? One of the major curios of the whole novelization imbroglio is the 1929 French book of Tod Browning’s London After Midnight by Lucien Boisyvon, a reconstruction of the most famous lost film, the last print of which was destroyed in an MGM vault fire in 1965. Now the usual line of descent between object and ephemera has been reversed, and we are engaged in an authentic literary mystery. The results are . . . unsatisfying. The novel doesn’t match the shooting script. The shooting script doesn’t match the stills. The one thing we know for sure about the plot of the film—that it concerns Lon Chaney as a detective who disguises himself as a vampire in a beaver hat to catch the conscience of a murderer who is scared of monsters—is relegated to a scene the length of a page. An exhaustive afterword by a retired librarian named Thomas Mann (more in the way of weird asynchronies) is dedicated to enumerating all these discrepancies. What’s more, the story insomuch as we have it is close to completely incoherent. Characters don’t remember events we saw them witness scant pages ago, the author seems to forget Chaney’s character was originally employed by Scotland Yard, there is a great deal of hypnotism to cover for the shoddy exposition, and nobody’s motivations or stratagems make any sense. Ignus fatuus of the scholastic variety, anamorphosis premised upon Fata Morgana. On the other hand, I may be overthinking this. It could just have been bad writing to begin with.

Still, it is tempting to imagine that these boilerplate, graven images act as incubators of secret genius. Now that Quentin Tarantino has written a cheeky faux-novelization of his film Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood and Michael Mannhas leveraged the form into a softcover sequel to 1995’s Heat (not to mention gray areas like Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, written concurrently with the Kubrick film; Joe Eszterhas of Flashdance and Showgirls fame netting record six-figure sums for novelizations of his early journeyman scripts; or Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men, adapted from his own unproduced screenplay), the field once derided as sacrilegious bastardization has a lot to offer media theorists. You might see ekphrastic superimposition in an artifact like Arthur Herzog’s frankly excellent book of Orca and not the pale imitation of a mediocre Jaws rip-off about killer whales consigned to several different dimensions of obscurity. We’re a long way from the days of Manhattan, in which Diane Keaton is mocked for squandering her talents on film novelizations by Woody Allen. Besides, when was the last time you took his word on anything?

Though originally conceived in a time when movies were less accessible to the general public, in the present super-saturated, celluloid-to-eyeballs screen space, irony, as usual, has taken ahold, with puckish recent novelizations of Plan 9 From Outer Space and Manos: The Hands of Fate. But, for all that they sort-of still exist, the intertextual novel it isn’t exactly a living format. It’s more D.O.A. So it figures that any project aiming to reanimate disposable, culturally moribund marginalia should turn to discussion of the undead.

The poet and autobiographer Paul Monette was thirty-seven when he won the 1992 National Book Award for his coming-out memoir Becoming a Man. Already famous for Borrowed Time, which chronicled his partner Roger Horwitz’s death from AIDS, he would go on to establish the Monette-Horwitz Trust to fund LGBTQ activism before his own death from the disease in 1995. But before that, he was a reliable author of novelizations like Nosferatu the Vampyre, Scarface, Midnight Run, and Predator. As Ander Monson notes in Predator: A Memoir, a Movie, an Obsession, Monette’s Predator is an implacable shapeshifter roughly analogous to a virus seen from the inside, “a lost soul searching for a form in which to flower.”

The tendency to posthumously frame hack juvenilia as a future artist’s confession-in-code seems like it could quickly become tasteless, so I’m reluctant to look too ponderously at Monette’s treatment of Jonathan Harker and Count Dracula’s essentially homosexual contretemps in his novelization of Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu, but it’s been there since Bram Stoker, who doth protest too much. What’s impossible to miss is the aura of longing and marginalization that—along with often-affecting-to-the-point-of-forlorn prose—keeps Monette’s trot through the story of Dracula from being totally redundant:

The polluted earth in his coffin was the holy ground of his dearest sanctuary. He knew his enemy very well. The light of day was the only shadow across his dream, and his only line of defense was narrow as a grave.

Lydia Deetz and The Crow snogging on the grave of Theda Bara while Edgar Allan Poe writes a poem about it in rose water is not nearly so goth.

By the time the novelization became big business in the 1980s, a regular feature of supermarket check-out lanes and an appendage of the promotional circuit, it had become its own creature.

The media theorist Friedrich Kittler couldn’t stop thinking about vampires either. In his classic Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, he conceives of Dracula as the story of how new mass-technologies—like the phonograph, sound recording, and the talking cure—triumphed over old-world analog. Kittler’s specialty was how “the splitting of discourse into white noise and imagination” after Edison, from radio waves and Alan Turing’s typing machines to military-industrial chronophotographics and the silicon chip, simulated individuality and then erased it altogether, doing away with “the phantasm of man as creator of media.” Clear-eyed about how ascendant “dumb” mechanics cannibalize their tweedy, old-fashioned forerunners on their way to becoming self-aware, he wrote about how silent films implement “what psychoanalysis can only think,” to give just one example of how the consensual, multitrack apparatus of motion pictures has exorcized the ghosts that once dwelled in books, which have only words to haunt. The novelization is what happens when a parasite takes the wheel and rides the nervous system into oblivion, like how a certain fungi of the tropics zombify their insect hosts. Or as Kittler puts it in his essay “A Story of Doubles,” about golems and Mallarmé: “Literature no longer even tried to compete with the wonders of the entertainment industry. It handed over its magic mirror to the machines.”

Speaking of machines, come with me if you want to live. Terminator 2: Judgment Day by Randall Frakes dramatizes the cyberized, polyalloy eye-on-the-prize efficiency it takes to write a book that encompasses the bullet points of a screenplay. Like the T-800 itself, it is a metal armature with a human sheath, its pretensions to mimesis something less than skin deep; efficacy, not engagement, is the goal. While it stops short of confirming my long-held contention that The Terminator is a story about a man traveling back in the past to have sex with his own mother and lead the remnants of mankind against the robots, it does include a parallel plot set in the apocalyptic future that Sarah Connor is trying to prevent. It’s a case of padding that winds up enhancing the story, since now we know precisely how John Connor and his guerilla myrmidons accessed the time-travel mechanism in the first place and managed to send the reprogrammed Terminator to 1995 with the liquid metal T-1000 in hot pursuit. In Sarah Connor’s waxing philosophical about the role of human agency in fate’s cosmic pattern, or how a “wafer-circuit” brain understands the experience of recognition, there is an intelligence at work, even if it is, in the end, artificial.

Even in a micro-industry where the sun seldom shines, it is possible to cast a long shadow. The novelization has its own legends, legionnaires, and breakout stars, and any pantheon of its most storied factotums would have to begin with the big three: the aforementioned Frakes, involved to some extent in James Cameron’s films from his early art direction in Battle Beyond the Stars to the mainstream triumph of big-budget disaster porn in Titanic; James Kahn (Poltergeist, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Goonies); and Alan Dean Foster (the Star Wars, Star Trek, Aliens, and Transformers franchises).

Foster is as close as the novelization comes to having a poster boy, canny and prolific; he is game to ghostwrite when the studio wants George Lucas’s name on the cover, and has articulately ventured the odd defense of the genre as a legitimate form. When a focus-tested, studio-mandated, and frequently rewritten film, produced within an inch of its life, becomes the demesne of a single writer-contractor, you get something extra. For example, in his Star Wars sequel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, a failsafe farmed out to Foster in 1978 in the event that the first film was a box office disaster, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia get busy because George Lucas didn’t bother to tell him why it might be weird (the best thing that can happen to a commodity is becoming a collector’s item).

Kahn, meanwhile, brings depth and backstory to Temple of Doom’s offensively caricatured supporting cast, so we have Short Round contextualizing the action in terms of Chinese legend and 1930s radio plays—which, look, isn’t particularly sensitive or imaginative, but as products formed by immediacy and adjacency, these books rarely pretend to the timelessness of literature. So you better believe Asiatic stock villain Lao Che is described as having “heavily-lidded, reptilian” eyes. Sometimes the author is even called upon to fix a plot hole, like in the case of The Omen III: The Final Conflict, in which the Vatican’s astronomers identify the dawn of the Second Coming from the constellations, prompting the Antichrist to take control of the U.S. government and mastermind a cull of every child born on March 4, 1981; but we never find out why it doesn’t work. In the last pages of his novelization, Gordon McGill has a priest deliver the useful information that the reborn Christ turned out to be a gypsy, born without record. As ex machinas go, it’s pretty racist, but if what we want is a civil medium that treats its subjects and consumers like human beings instead of instruments of convenience then, as Indy has observed, we are digging in the wrong place.

By the time the novelization became big business in the 1980s, a regular feature of supermarket check-out lanes and an appendage of the promotional circuit, it had become its own creature. It’s worth considering a handful of standouts just to see what happens when the language of the novel-as-we-know-it is asked to operate on autopilot, given an absent photoplay. For example, denuded of light and magic, stripped of its star power by what mostly reads as stage directions, something like Harry and the Hendersons by Joyce Thompson is reduced to its base elements, coming across as deeply sad, too banal to even qualify as tragedy. Without an animatronic Sasquatch to bear the load of domestic anguish, it is the story of a failed artist and foiled paterfamilias scanning the tree line for the cryptid known as masculinity, when his real life consists of parent-teacher meetings, disappointed relatives, and delinquent children who would rather listen to Michael Jackson when all this heartsick breadwinner ever asked for was a captive audience that appreciates Randy Newman as much as he. Poor George Henderson now reads as the equivalent of the sad-sack Bigfoot hunters, antagonists in the movie unshucked by the less-forgiving medium of prose into husks of self-fooling desperados on a fool’s errand to find the world wondrous.

But there’s fun to be had too, as the slapdash urge to cover the cracks of adaptation makes for ad-hoc interpolations that would do the Oulipo proud. Take the memorable postmodern aside in Gremlins 2: The New Batch in which the overfed Mogwai gain control of the film until Hulk Hogan stands up in the audience and restores order via smackdown. So how does this purely cinematic gag work out in the book by David Bischoff? I’m so glad you asked:

There. The novelizer, Mr. David Bichoff, Esq., has been successfully waylaid and is now tied up in the bathroom of his Los Angeles apartment.
Do not attempt to adjust your book.
We have control of the programming.
Please excuse the rudeness. You have previously known me as the “Gremlin that drank the brain fluid”—or, as Bischoff quaintly called me, Mr. Glasses. Believe it or not, in the screenplay, I am referred to as BRAIN GREMLIN.
I want to take this opportunity to talk to you about our philosophy toward life, so that we will not be misunderstood and branded as “monsters.” . . . the past is merely prologue, introduction, forward, with some long footnotes thrown in.
Our time is now!

When he wasn’t writing books set in the SeaQuest, Farscape, and Hackers universes, the late Bischoff wrote screwy sci-fi on his own terms like Bill, the Galactic Hero, The Tawdry Yellow Brick Road, and the loose trilogy Philip K. Dick High, The H.P. Lovecraft Institute, and J.R.R. Tolkien University. Even when they’re hired on the coattails of IP or pitched at a fanbase for whom syndication is not nearly enough, these guys are very likable.

The difference between distinguished and vulgar is a semantic accident of class and filthy lucre.

But if ever a writer has understood the task at hand with a fatalism that contends with Bushido, it is Ellis Weiner, who presumably woke up one morning in 1986 and discovered he had signed on to write the novelization of Howard the Duck, the legendary Lucas-produced bomb that now plays as ahead of its time, at least in the sense that Jeffrey Jones plays the bad guy. A National Lampoon-weaned humorist with credits in Spy, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review who would go on to write The Northern Exposure Cookbook and a sequel to Atlas Shrugged—and cowrite both a manual for raising a Jewish dog and a guide to feline faith called Cat-echisms—Weiner did the right thing and went big with Howard, beginning with an all-caps crawl that narrates the birth of the universe from the point of view of God and ends with the existential shrug: “So he was trapped in a world he never made. Who isn’t?”

I could go on about Weiner’s commitment to the bit, the virtuosity he brings to Howard’s earthbound estrangement, and the political asides that give way to meditations on Sharper Image-era reclining chairs and VCRs, but instead here is a partial list of duck puns that appear in the course of Howard’s journey toward acceptance: Bird Reynolds, Close Encounters of the Bird Kind, Duckminster Fuller, Wading for Godot, Kwakk’s Last Tape, “Fowl Fathom Five,” the Fowlharmonic Orchestra, Marcus Webfeet M.D., Rubeak’s Cube, Bad Day at Quack Rock, Fats Waddler, Dave Brubeak, Last Egg-Sit to Brooklyn, Tropic of Flapricorn, The Untouchabills, William F. Duckley Jr., Goosebusters, The Fountainhen, The Hatcher in the Rye, Duckter No, Hatch-22, Bird of the Rings, Antony y Cleopoultry, Roger Poultry and The Hoot, Michael Quackson, and A.D. (Accurate Ducktime). Orson Welles may have advised Ed Wood that “visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?” but if you’re going to do it anyway, go crackers.

The novel, for Mikhail Bakhtin, was an ink-and-vellum liability that “gets on poorly with other genres.” It parodies, exposes, squeezes, incorporates, formulates, and re-accentuates in the lost cause of peripheral phenomena and historical insignificance. It is a travesty, a fantasy, and, in ripping the word away from its object, is the root of disunity; a surplus composed of crude mimicry that demolishes hierarchy and humiliates the epic through overfamiliarization. Language exists to criticize itself and serves a future that must be found; its day will never come. Nothing could be more wrongheaded than to suppose that the Soviet literary critic could never have seen Clueless coming, since he had Don Quixote, Pushkin, and Aeschylus. He knew that labor, not genius, was ever the word’s engendering and that we were working from a copy of a copy from prehistory on:

It is our conviction that there never was a single strictly straightforward genre, no single type of direct discourse—artistic, rhetorical, philosophical, religious, ordinary everyday—that did not have its own parodying and travestying double, its own comic-ironic contre-partie. What is more, these parodic doubles and laughing reflections of the direct word were, in some cases, just as sanctioned by tradition and just as canonized as their elevated models.

Bakhtin may not have intended it, but he is describing Great Expectations by Deborah Chiel, based on the 1998 film by Alfonso Cuarón, based on the novel by Charles Dickens, based on the dissolution of Dickens’s marriage and the situation of disappointment in general. The novelization, like the film, relocates the action from the Kentish marshland and emulsified London to the modern-day Gulf Coast and yuppie New York City. Pip is Finn, the plot-device Australian escapee is Robert De Niro, and our hero is a budding artist—with paintings by Francesco Clemente playing the part of Ethan Hawke’s canvases—instead of an apprentice blacksmith. Nothing is different except for everything.

At the end of chapter thirty-one, Dickens stops short of getting Pip’s dreams on the page:

Miserably I went to bed after all, and miserably thought of Estella, and miserably dreamed that my expectations were all cancelled, and that I had to give my hand in marriage . . . or play Hamlet to Miss Havisham’s Ghost, before twenty thousand people, without knowing twenty words of it.

Chiel is not so shy in the more-or-less equivalent passage:

He was deep in sleep, dreaming of Estella. She was dancing with him on the beach at sunset. The sky was a cloudless palette of pinks and blues, and she was folded into his arms and his lips kept brushing her cheek. He couldn’t stop kissing her, and she didn’t seem to want him to stop.

It is, of course, an improvement, provided you are courting the mallrat cultural superego instead of the muse. Leaving aside the perspectival shift between from being to watching, it doesn’t repeat the same word thrice, half-name the book, or namecheck the melancholy Dane of Elsinore. In place of phantoms, 100 percent solid girl; in place of doubt, pastels; in place of the fear of commitment, infectum sonium. It is as though test audiences rewrote Dickens to play out more like Reality Bites, but chirpier. (I am reminded of Steve Martin’s advice to Gabriel García Márquez: “‘Love in the time of . . .’ is a great title, so far . . . Suddenly, the morbid Cholera appears. I was happy till then.”) The argument is, to put it mildly, lopsided since we know which of these pantomimes is made to last: there have been five Great Expectations flicks since 1998, plus an episode of South Park and a prequel Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are apparently developing for Netflix. But the sanctioned, canonized, laughing reflection of the Dickensian shorthand cums a deaths-head on good taste’s shabby frock. Even if one of these is a literary mainstay that at least pretends to reruns of Masterpiece Theater and the other lives on as mere opuscule, it’s all pulp in the end.

In his essay, “Adaptation, or the Cinema as Digest,” André Bazin rejected the need for fidelity to a source text, making of book, play, and movie a non-hierarchal three-sided pyramid with an unblinking eyeball at the center. Art is not what happens when you make your bones or make folks look up words like opuscule; it is what occurs when there is no alternative. The difference between distinguished and vulgar is a semantic accident of class and filthy lucre. It’s up to you to make it good. It’s up to you to make me care.

I’ve saved for the best for last. Since I didn’t make things easy for myself in my selection of research materials, I wanted to give myself a gift in the form of Gore Vidal’s Caligula by William Howard because I dimly recalled seeing a special feature in which screenwriter Vidal railed to the camera, with priceless indignation, against Tinto Brass and Bob Guccione’s profanation of his historical tragoida into porno chic goat song. I wanted to have a laugh at some obscurity’s attempt to adapt two and half hours of Penthouse Pets engaged in frottage. But the joke is on me because Howard—a pseudonym for a seasoned author of tie-in novels to Happy Days, The Brady Bunch, and Welcome Back, Kotter named William Johnston—wrote a real book without even trying. “I am interested only in writing entertaining stories and remaining as anonymous as possible” is as close as the author of nine Get Smart novelettes cared to come to posterity.

And yet Caligula is a beauty, the story of a Caesar who cannot understand why he is loved, finding nothing good and himself least of all, and chooses monstrousness. Faced with the absurdity of conquest, brutality, and tyranny, Johnston’s Howard’s Vidal’s Brass’s Guccione’s Caligula forks over his humanity in a doomed attempt to reinvent himself as a god when all he truly wants is one nice memory of childhood (it is also more than a little Nixony because this was the 1970s after all). Since nothing means anything, Gaius Julius embraces absurdity and loses his last chance at love, an inevitability that has nothing to do with the songs of sibyls and everything to do with making history explicable in light of man’s craving for apotheosis. How this plays out onscreen, and where the book departs from its lusty cavalcade of cinemaniac auteurs, I cannot say, having never seen the picture all the way through. But now I just have to look, having read the book.