What Does the Future Look Like for Movie Novelizations?
Peter David’s work is often top-secret. As the author of several blockbuster movie novelizations, including the first three Spider-Man movies, both Incredible Hulk films, and the first Iron Man, he regularly signs nondisclosure agreements and, like a superhero protecting his identity, keeps the details of his work to himself. But five years ago, when he was asked to write the novel version of Iron Man 2, things got really cloak-and-dagger.
David was told he could not get a copy of the script — they were worried about plot leaks. Instead, he would have to come to the publisher’s office to look at the screenplay for a limited amount of time, and then write down notes that he could not — under any circumstances — save to his computer. “I had to handwrite everything,” recalls David. “At which point I said, ‘That’s not happening because that will take me a week.’”
David, who also writes comics and original novels, turned down the gig. And though he would take on subsequent novelization projects, including Transformers: Dark of the Moon and After Earth, the Iron Man 2 experience symbolized how challenging it has become to translate motion pictures into compelling fiction while typing — or handwriting — in the shadow of Hollywood’s spoiler paranoia. “It would not surprise me in the least if, in the next 5 to 10 years, there are no more novelizations, purely based on that,” he says.
This isn’t the first time someone has sounded the death knell for the novelization, an art form meets movie marketing publishing format that has existed practically as long as cinema itself. Once upon a time, studios and publishers joined forces to adapt all kinds of movies into popular fiction. What Happened to Mary, often cited as the first novelization, debuted in 1912, during the silent film era. Over the decades that followed, films ranging from the original King Kong to My Fair Lady to Young Frankenstein to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were turned into novels. In the years before home video and on-demand viewing, those books served as the most satisfying, immediate way for fans to re-experience their favorite films from the comfort of their own sofas. For publishers, the novelization could generate brisk sales earned simply by hopping on the coattails of a Hollywood success. For the movie studios, the novelization provided yet another way to market their releases, with every book jacket functioning as a mini movie poster. But as the business’s bull’s-eye shifted to blockbuster fare, novelizations in one particular category began to dominate.
"Sci-fi and fantasy: That is the only genre where people consistently buy novelizations," says Alan Dean Foster, the prolific author and ghostwriter of the 1976 Star Wars novelization Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, a release that essentially made him the Obi-Wan of the sci-fi movie adaptation. “The fact that these days, a lot of those types of films happen to be the studio’s big tent-pole films is just a fortuitous coincidence for those of us who write science-fiction and fantasy.”
As the novelization focus has narrowed, the overall number of adaptations has diminished. Scott Shannon, the senior vice president and publisher of Del Rey Books, says that less than a decade ago, the Random House imprint was issuing at least a half-dozen movie novelizations per year. Not counting tie-in books — original works based on existing pop culture universes, like the many Star Wars novels that tell stories not covered in the films — Shannon says Del Rey won’t publish any novelizations this year.