Novelizations of movies and television shows are among the most intriguing subspecies of commercial fiction. I say subspecies because they obviously cannot be spoken of in the same breath as The Magic Mountain or Portrait of a Lady; indeed, even commercial novelists look down their noses at novelizations as possessing not a shred of redeeming social value, as the literary equivalent of painting by numbers. On the spectrum of the written word, tie-ins are as close to merchandise as they are to literature.
Tie-ins are kin to souvenirs, and in some ways are not vastly different from the dolls, toys, games, calendars, clothes, and other paraphernalia generated by successful motion pictures and television shows. Those who write them usually dismiss them with embarrassment or contempt, or brag about how much money they made for so little work. Yet, when pressed they will speak with pride about the skill and craftsmanship that went into the books and assure you that the work is deceptively easy. And if you press them yet further, many will puff out their chests and boast that tie-in writers constitute a select inner circle of artisans capable of getting an extremely demanding job done promptly, reliably, and effectively, a kind of typewriter-armed S.W.A.T. team whose motto is, “My book is better than the movie.”
How are tie-ins created? Their birthplace of course is the original screenplay. The Writers Guild of America Basic Agreement entitles the screenwriter to ownership of literary rights to his screenplay. When he sells his screenplay he may retain the novelization rights or include them, at terms to be negotiated, in the screenplay deal. Most of the time the screenwriter sells his novelization rights to the buyer—the film’s producer or a studio. The new owner of these rights now tries to line up a publication deal for the tie-in. He contacts paperback publishers and pitches the forthcoming film.
If the film has a big budget, terrific story, bankable actors, unique special effects, or other highly promotable features that promise a hit, publishers will bid for the publication rights, (In the case of television tie-ins, the producers almost always wait till a series is a hit before arranging for tie-ins. And one-shot movies of the week seldom trigger novelizations because of the brief period—one evening—in which they are exposed to the public.) A deal is then struck, the publisher paying an advance against royalties to the producer or studio.
The publisher then engages a writer to adapt the screenplay. It should be readily apparent that if the movie is indeed shaping up to be a hit, or the television show is already a hit, the publisher will be forced to pay such a high advance and royalty to the producer or studio that little will be left for the writer. That’s why novelizations are generally low-paying affairs, with modest advances and nominal royalties of 1 or 2 percent. Flat fees are by no means unheard of. And, because the competition among writers for novelizations is intense, few writers are in any position to bargain. But if the pay scale is so miserable, why do authors seek novelization assignments so ardently? Because they think it’s easy money. Sometimes it is. But it’s not like falling off a log, as we shall soon see.
Publishers are nowhere near as enamored of movie tie-ins as authors are, and they weigh the profit potential of such books as critically as they do that of the thousands of other manuscripts submitted to them annually. They know that most movies do not translate well into books. There are also technical and timing problems with tie-ins that are daunting to publishers. For instance, the screenplay may undergo alterations, some of them radical, right up to or even during the shooting of the film. By the time filming is complete there is insufficient time before the release of the movie for a writer to write the novel and the publisher to publish it.
A notable instance of the timing problem occurred in the filming of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Director Stanley Kubrick insisted on complete control over the writing and publication scheduling of the novelization. The author of that novelization was a chap named Arthur C. Clarke, and since Kubrick kept changing the script as he went along, particularly the wild and mystical ending, Clarke had to keep changing the novel. His publishers bit their fingernails to the quick as the days rolled inexorably toward the release date of the movie. Worst of all, the book tie-in deal was for publication of a hardcover first, then paperback. It had been assumed that the hardcover would be brought out before the movie was released, then the paperback would be issued to coincide with the release of the film. But because of the delays there was no lead time whatsoever for the hardcover. The publisher wanted to drop the hardcover and go straight into paperback, but Kubrick insisted on hardcover. Thus we had a case, unprecedented in anyone’s experience, of a hardcover novelization. The publisher did get his paperback edition out soon thereafter, but the situation was a mess and the book didn’t do anywhere as well as it might have if the timing had been better.
Kubrick, incidentally, plays a role in one of the more bizarre movie tie-in stories I have ever heard. It seems that a novelist named Peter Bryan George wrote a nuclear apocalypse novel called Red Alert. It was acquired for the movies by a producer who couldn’t put a deal together, so he laid it off on Kubrick. Kubrick adapted it, and rather broadly to say the least. Red Alert was a very solemn book; the adaptation was blackly humorous. He called it Dr. Strangelove. In fact, so different was the movie from the book that the producers decided to hire somebody to write the novelization. They hired Peter Bryan George, the author of Red Alert. So George novelized the movie version of his own novel! His novel had been published by Ace under the name of Peter Bryant; his novelization was published by Bantam under the name Peter George.
Another problem for publishers is the greed that has set in at the studios. Originally, tie-ins were regarded as free publicity for movies, and publishers regarded them as little more than list-fillers. For a modest payment to the studio a publisher would get the screenplay, stills, cover photo, and promotional material, and everybody was happy. Then the studios began to smell profit, and arranging tie-ins became a little less complex than building a space shuttle.
The first big breakout tie-in was Last Tango in Paris, according to novelist and publishing columnist Leonore Fleischer, who has been dubbed Queen of the Paperback Novelizers for the fifty-odd tie-ins she has written. Last Tango was followed by a number of other hits (tie-inwise as well as box officewise) like The Omen and Star Wars. The bidding began to spiral, and the studios started charging publishers for all the material they’d formerly give away as part of the tie-in package.
The climax came with the bidding for a tie-in of F.I.S.T., the Sylvester Stallone film following Stallone’s smash hit, Rocky. Dell paid a $400,000 advance for the novelization rights, and, needless to say, took what is known in Spanish as El Batho. Soon afterward the tie-in market collapsed – “F.I.S.T was your ultimate South Sea Bubble,” Fleischer told me – and it never quite recovered. It has revived somewhat, principally in the area of special effects-type films such as Alien, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but publishers have become too cautious and sensible ever to get quite so hysterical again.
Anyone who thinks that tie-in writing is a mere matter of adding he-saids and she-saids to the screenplay dialogue has certainly never attempted such an adaptation. For one thing, most screenplays are too short to convert page for page into book manuscripts. Therefore, even if you are following the script scene by scene, you are required to amplify on character, action, and location descriptions. Any good novelist can translate a terse screenplay direction (“EXTERIOR, OLD MACDONALD’S FARM, A STORMY NIGHT”) into a few pages of descriptive prose (“A bitter, shrieking north wind lashed the trees and hurled sheet after sheet of icy rain against the clapboard siding of Old MacDonald’s farmhouse . . .” etc.). The problem is that when you analyze screenplays you realize that most of them don’t lend themselves comfortably to scene-for-scene conversion. In fact, many of them present nightmarish challenges.
The reason is that movies are seen with one lobe of the brain, and books read with another. If you’ll take the trouble to compare a novel with its film adaptation, you’ll immediately realize that whole chapters have been cut or reduced to takes that last a few seconds on the screen; or that, conversely, a sentence or paragraph has been dramatized into a full-dress scene that consumes five or ten minutes of movie time. This is because some material in books is distinctly more cinematic than other material. (It also explains why few novelists make good screenwriters, and most screenwriters are dreadful novelists.)
By the same token, owing to the demands of the book reader’s imagination, elaborate scenes in a movie may seem far too long to merit the same expansive treatment in a novelization; fast transitional scenes, flashbacks, establishing shots, short takes, and the like may require a novelizer to build them into whole chapters. Some years ago I was hired by Bantam to novelize John Carpenter’s horror film Halloween. The film had already been released and was showing at only a few small theaters around the country, but the Bantam editor felt the movie was a sleeper, and he was right; It became one of the most profitable independently made films of all time.
It was most fortunate for me that the movie has already made, for in many cases the novelizer has only the screenplay to go by, or perhaps a rough cut of the film, and therefore has little visual material to aid him as he attempts to translate screenplay into book. After seeing the movie, however, I was troubled by some serious technical problems in adapting one medium into another. The movie opens with a five-year-old boy who, on Halloween, slashes his teenage sister to death with a long kitchen knife. We then jump some twenty years to show the little boy, now a grown man, escaping from a mental institution in which he has been confined, stealing a car, and returning to his hometown to go on another bloody rampage.
One of the great things about movies is that they move so fast, you don’t have time to think about logic. Novels are a more reflective medium, however; at any time you can put a book down and think about what you’ve read. And it worried me, for instance, that my readers would put my book down and wonder how the hell someone who’d been institutionalized since he was five would know how to drive a car. So I had to concoct a whole chapter describing the fellow’s stay in the asylum (which was okay, since I needed the five thousand words anyway) and showing that because he’d been a model inmate and trusty, he’d been taught to drive a truck and use it to run errands on the asylum grounds.
Even more serious was the fact that at the climax of the film, this malevolent individual is shot half a dozen times at point-blank range by a .357 magnum, yet steals way into the darkness leaving not a drop of blood where he fell to the ground, apparently dead; leaving, in fact, only the distinctive aroma of a sequel film. Now, all this is well and good for the moviegoer seeking a good scare, but for a book reader it raises some disturbing questions: Did the man who shot the guy from three feet away actually miss? Did he accidentally use blank cartridges? Did he simply graze him, or fail to hit any vital parts, or shoot him in such a way as to draw no blood? (Three fifty-seven magnums are so powerful they draw blood even when they miss!)
Or—was this maniac actually a supernatural entity invulnerable to high-calibre death-dealing sidearms?
There was no indication whatever in the movie that he was. Yet, in order to make sense out of it at all, I had to endow him with supernatural characteristics and invent a rationale, which went like this: ever since his execution during a Druid harvest ritual (whence Halloween is derived), this monster returned to earth every few years on Halloween to seek blood vengeance. My invention strained credulity to the limit, but at least it unified the book and brought me another seventy-five hundred badly needed words.
Every tie-in writer talking shop will tell you how he or she overcame such challenges, challenges complicated by the insistence of the producer on approval of the novel or a run-in with some middle-management studio exec who demanded that whatever was in the movie must go into the book, and whatever wasn’t in the movie must not go into the book. The fact that novelizations may take only a few weeks does not mean that many, many hours of thought and years of writing experience did not go into them. Novelizers earn every penny, and for all but the biggest books, pennies are what they make. Leonore Fleischer, one of the genre’s top authors, earned a total of some $45,000 in royalties for a labor of less than a week on the film tie-in of Annie, but that is exceptional. Joan Vinge, who wrote The Jedi Story Book, a juvenile tie-in to The Return of the Jedi, did it for a modest flat fee for Random House. The movie was a phenomenal success, and so was the book, but Vinge was not entitled to a penny of royalty. Only by the goodness of Random House’s heart, tinged perhaps with a dollop of guilt plus a healthy measure of pushing by her agent, was she awarded a $10,000 bonus.
The best advice I can give prospective tie-in writers is, if possible never write one for a flat fee, no matter how dumb the movie, no matter how quick and simple the job. Years ago, Ace hired me to write a tie-in for a perfectly dreadful and quite disgusting horror movie called Squirm, which portrayed in all its graphic revoltingness what happened when a small town was invaded by millions of bloodsucking earthworms. Ace offered me a flat fee of $2,500, and, seeing the prospect of earning $250 a day, I grabbed the deal. The movie came and, blessedly, went. But my book went through numerous editions for Ace, and was sold to English and other foreign publishers where it endured for years.
My book was better than the movie. Big deal! That and a good agent would have earned me a nice profit. Unfortunately, I don’t have an agent. I don’t trust them.
- Copyright 1996 by Richard Curtis, All Rights Reserved.