The Way of the Word

15. December 2009

Adaptation By…

Filed under: books,general,movies,TV — jensaltmann @ 11:02
Tags: , , , , ,

By now, you may have an inkling that I’m kind of old. Truth is, I’m old enough to remember black-and-white TV. I’m old enough to remember a time without computers, cellphones, or even VCRs. I remember a time when the only way to re-experience a favorite movie or TV show was by waiting for the rerun on TV…

… or by getting the novelization.

A good novelization does more than just recount the screen story. A good novelization fills in the blanks, it plugs plotholes (which can be a problem if the movie discovers the same plothole and plugs it differently) and casts a light on characters’ motivations by getting into their heads. In other words, by using the opportunities the different medium of prose offers to the max.

A very good example for how to do this right are Alan Dean Foster’s adaptations of Star Trek: The Animated Series. Foster took those 20 minute episodes and spun entire novels around them. It made the Star Trek Logs, as the adaptations were called, a very satisfying reading experience. Unlike James Blish’s Star Trek TV adaptations. Blish just made a short story out of each episode. But we loved it, because it was all we had.

Back then, a paperback novel was cheaper than a movie ticket. The result was that I would sometimes buy the novelization to find out if I would like the movie. I would never have watched Star Wars (horrible solicitation: “a fairy tale in space” — I was a teenager at the time, I didn’t do fairy tales, those were for children) if the cover to the novelization hadn’t appealed to me. I bought it, read it, and went to see the movie on opening day. The same thing goes for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I still have a lot of movie and TV novels on my bookshelf. I have the complete set of Battlestar Galactica novels, for example. The original 14.

Movie and TV-tie-ins were more than just re-experiencing a favorite screen story. Through them, I also discovered new writers. New as in, I wasn’t reading them before. I wouldn’t have picked up Alan Dean Foster’s original work if I hadn’t liked his adaptations. I wouldn’t be rerading John Maddox Roberts’ SPQR novels if I hadn’t liked his Conan novels.

It also works the other way around. I discovered Craig Shaw Gardner through his Batman adaptations. I liked them enough to buy his original work. Because of that, when he wrote a Buffy the Vampire Slayer tie-in, I bought it, and so discovered the TV show. I hadn’t paid attention to Buffy before that, because I had seen the horrible movie the show was based on. I liked the novel, though, so I bought more Buffy tie-ins and started watching the show.

In this day and age of the DVD, where re-watching something I liked is only a click on the remote control away, I’ve phased out of buying novelizations. I’ve a limited budget, and each novelization I buy is one original novel I can’t afford. I do, however, still buy the occasional tie-in novel. So long as it is an original story that sounds interesting.

For example, I used to buy Lee Goldberg’s Monk novels. Until I felt that they were getting tedious, going from funny to silly. I still get his brother Todd Goldberg’s Burn Notice novels. What can I say? I like Burn Notice. I want more Michael Weston. The funny thing is, while I don’t like the TV show 24 at all, I enjoy the tie-in novels.

One of the more original ideas in the field is Heat Wave, bylined by Richard Castle. In case you don’t know, Castle is a TV series about a mystery writer in NYC who hangs around with a police detective. Very funny, you need to watch it. Seriously. Heat Wave is presented as the novel he wrote from his experiences. I’ll get a copy once it’s out in paperback. (I don’t buy hardcovers — not when I can get two or three paperbacks for the price of one hardcover. On a budget, remember?)

So, what do I want out of a tie-in novel? It’s really fairly easy.

  • I want an original story. If I want to re-experience a movie or episode, I get the DVD. It happens too rarely that a novelization of a script adds enough to the experience to make the extra expense and effort worthwhile.
  • I don’t buy hardcovers. Clearly, enough readers buy a hardcover tie-in to make publishing them worthwhile. However, I don’t feel that tie-ins and hardcovers are a good match. It’s not even elitism, or literature snobbishness. It’s more of the sense that a tie-in is merchandise, something that is supposed to increase a franchise’s profit, and therefore it should be more affordable than a hardcover is.
  • A good tie-in is a stand-alone story. You can read it and enjoy it even if you don’t know the franchise on which it is based. If you know the franchise, you get more out of reading it. But if you need to pass a trivia test, the tie-in has failed.
  • In other words, each tie-in novel needs to be accessible for the new reader.

Two examples to illustrate this: Star Wars and Star Trek. I used to buy the tie-ins to both. Then Star Wars decided to continue their epic saga with a new war, the Yuuzhan Vong storyline. Some novels were published in hardcover (which, you might remember, I don’t buy), some in paperback. You needed to read them all to understand what was going on. I had some problems getting the order right, because I waited for the paperbacks (and had a major problem with being forced to pay attention to a scorecard to keep track), but I also felt the novels weren’t well enough written. So I dropped this. Without that overarching storyline, I might have kept buying at least some Star Wars novels, getting those stories that sounded interesting and following some writers I liked. As it was, by the time the (supposedly) stand-alone Prequel novels started to come out, I had lost all interest in buying Star Wars novels.

Another example is Star Trek. I used to buy them religiously. TOS, TNG, DS9, even the occasional Voyager. As time passed and the number of novels increased to the point where I could no longer afford them all, I switched to buying only a few select writers and promising stories. I dropped out of the Star Trek novel universe when they started to get too heavy into continuity. Each novel was suddenly a part of a larger, cohesive whole. You had to get all parts of multi-volume crossovers, series within series. Here, I dropped out not only because I could no longer afford them all, but because I didn’t like the marketing concept that tried to force me to buy them all. Plus, the writing had gotten very bad. I hear the writing has improved considerably in the years since, but the continuity has become so convoluted that I feel discouraged to give it another try. (When people tell me that a novel was worth the build-up of the previous two or three novels in the series, that’s a turn-off.)

When Paramount announced new Star Trek novels based on the new Star Trek movie’s universe, some people whined that those novels, because they aren’t part of the canon, will be “generic science fiction.” I wonder what’s wrong with that. Startide Rising is generic science fiction. The War of the Worlds is generic science fiction. Anything by Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Alistair Reynolds or Isaac Asimov qualifies as generic science fiction. I guess in their, shall we call it elitist snobbery?, these Star Trek fans forget that generic science fiction has produced some damn good stories. And that even Star Trek started out as generic science fiction.

What they also forget is that these stand-alone novels might bring new readers to the Star Trek universes. Readers who are probably scared off by the continuity-heavy regular series. I think, however, that it makes more sense to Star Trek editorial to cater to their existing fanbase, rather than try and attract new readers. Except perhaps by proxy of new movies or DVD re-releases.

  • A tie-in offers a chance that the movie or TV show on which it is based doesn’t: a chance to spotlight the supporting case. Simply by virtue of providing more space to develop the story.
  • For the writer, a tie-in is a chance to increase their reader base. As I mentioned above, I’ve discovered several writers through their tie-ins. As a writer, if you get the chance, and you bring your A-game instead of just hacking it out for the paycheck, it’s a chance. I know I’d grab such an opportunity, if someone offered it to me, with both hands.
  • For the franchise owner, tie-ins are not just a way to increase revenue. It’s also a way to remain in memory. Why are there no Burn Notice novels published in-between seasons of the show, for example?

As you can see, I’ve given this subject way too much thought. But then, I enjoy a well-written and entertaining tie-in novel. And, yeah, there are some franchises where I’d kill to get the chance to play in that sandbox.

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