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What Does the Future Look Like for Movie Novelizations?

June 18, 2014

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.

Still, not everyone is ready to start mourning. Though novelizations may not be as coveted as they once were, there are still readers eager to plunge into films in printed form. “People have been predicting the demise of novelizations since the VHS era, the idea being that once people can buy the movie and experience it in their own homes, there’s no reason to buy the novelizations anymore,” says Greg Cox, author behind the novelizations of Man of Steel, The Dark Knight Rises, and this year’s Godzilla. “Things may have slowed down a little bit, but not as much as you think.”

Yahoo Movies took a deep dive into the adaptation business, and spoke to multiple authors and others in the book business about how the process of writing a movie novel has changed, how it’s stayed the same, and how — even in the world of softening book sales, spoiler paranoia, and technological disruptions — movie-inspired works of fiction still land on the best-seller list.

Writing the Movie

All of the writers we spoke to say they usually write their novels based on what’s in the screenplay (which can be maddeningly vague), photos provided by the studio, and whatever other details they can gather from IMDb and other sites. Foster says that when he wrote the novelization of 1979’s Alien — which, in a rare move, was reissued earlier this year, along with Foster’s Aliens and Alien 3 — he had no idea what the creatures in the movie looked like. That is not an uncommon conundrum. “Thank God for the Internet,” laughs Cox, “where you can now watch the trailer over and over and over again.”

It’s rare for an author to be able to screen the movie during the writing process, though that occasionally happens. When David co-wrote After Earth, he says he got to watch an early cut of the film. When Foster wrote last year’s Star Trek Into Darkness, he was sent digitized, securely encrypted portions of the movie that he could view on his Mac, and then delete when he was finished. “The security is probably better than the NSA. We’re talking Hollywood here. Edward Snowden would never have gotten out of Pico Boulevard alive,” he says.

As a general rule, the filmmakers don’t communicate with the authors, but there are always exceptions. Foster says he had extensive conversations with screenwriter Robert Orci when he worked on the novelizations for both Star Trek and Into Darkness. On After Earth, David says he and his co-authors worked closely with people at star Will Smith’s production company.

Susan Korman, who has been writing movie-related books for young audiences for nearly 15 years, had a similar experience when she wrote one of the two novelizations of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. (And yes: A book based on the Bible generated not one, but two novelizations.) Korman’s book — Noah: Ila’s Story — was a junior novel and focused entirely on Emma Watson’s character. Korman got some helpful feedback from the filmmakers, including Aronofsky. “There were notes passed along [from Darren] through the editor,” Korman says. “It was really nice: very encouraging, very trusting, and very understanding of the time constraints.”

Not every project involves delightful communication with Academy Award nominees. Most of the time, novelization writers are just trying to do their best to capture the essence of the films under demanding deadlines, which can vary from a few months to a few weeks. Every scribe has at least one last-minute horror story. Cox says he wasn’t allowed to see the last 15 pages of The Dark Knight Rises screenplay until shortly before the book went to press. “I had to make a separate trip to go out [to L.A.] and read the ending because it was so locked down,” he says. “I then had a week to write the ending, so I was basically locked up in a Best Western in Hollywood eating Subway sandwiches.” Foster can top that scramble: He says he rewrote nearly all of Terminator Salvation in 48 hours because “they changed basically the entire film at the last minute.”

While authors generally stick to the script, new scenes and deeper shades of character development do go on the page. Sometimes those moments that aren’t in the motion picture are included by design, but every once in a while, they make it to publication by accident. “There was a sex scene in the first Underworld that got cut out of the movie, but it’s still there in my novelization because no one told me it got cut,” says Cox. “Conversely, in Daredevil, they added a sex scene and no one told me, so it’s not in my novelization. It all balances out.”

Watching the Charts

The publishing industry is notoriously opaque when it comes to book sales. Anyone with a smartphone can find out how much money Maleficent has grossed at the box office, but it’s impossible to know how many copies of the Maleficent novel have sold. Even writers and editors often don’t know, and the only sure sign of success is a spot on the New York Times best-sellers list and a hefty royalty check.

In recent years, Cox’s Man of Steel and The Dark Knight Rises have made the best-seller list. David’s adaptation of the first Spider-Man movie did the same back in 2002. “If it’s a big film, the novelization will sell reasonably well to terrifically well,” Foster says bluntly. “If it’s a bad film, it doesn’t matter if it’s the best novelization that’s ever written: The book will die.” 

Even among those “big” films, the shelf life of a movie adaptation can be brief. Once the excitement about the film wanes, sales tend to drop. Shannon says Foster’s 1976 Star Wars novelization, which was published by Del Rey, is the “rare exception that still sells thousands and thousands” of copies every year. (By the way: No, Foster doesn’t know whether he’ll be asked to write the novelization of J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars sequel, and Shannon did not confirm that Del Rey — which publishes many Star Wars tie-in titles — has been tapped to release one.)

Hooking Future Readers

Novelizations used to be what Shannon calls a “serendipity purchase,” a book that a shopping mall consumer might buy because she saw it in the window of a Waldenbooks. Now, he says, “there’s less opportunity for that serendipity type of purchase to happen. When you’re shopping online, it’s a destination purchase.” That means a novelization, just like a multiplex-ready movie, is poised to do the best business when it has a built-in audience, like a Star Wars, a Star Trek, or a Man of Steel.

Still, even some of the most high-profile tent-pole releases don’t spawn 300-page books that are aimed at adult readers. For example, several of the recent Marvel superhero epics — Iron Man 3, both Captain America movies, and both of the Amazing Spider-Man films — have yielded junior novelizations instead of ones for grownups. “[Kid-oriented books] really just require a flavor of the overall movie to make a terrific product,” wrote David Gabriel, senior vice president for print, sales, and marketing at Marvel Publishing Worldwide, in a recent email. With a junior novel, there’s less reason to be concerned about spoilers, because they give away less plot.

It’s not surprising that junior novels could start to overtake the more mature ones, given the young-adult-dominated state of publishing in general. A look at the top 20 grossing movies of 2012, 2013, and 2014 (so far) reveals that most of the films that were turned into novels — not counting the ones that were based on pre-existing books and repackaged around the movie’s release — were sold as junior or young adult titles. The novelization that’s currently enjoying the most success? The junior iteration of Disney’s crazy-popular Frozen, which has stayed parked near the top of the Times's middle-grade best-sellers list for the past 27 weeks.

It’s for that reason alone that Korman — who has worked on the kiddie book versions of Kung Fu Panda and others— does not believe the novelization will be gone anytime soon. “I can’t imagine that there wouldn’t be these books for kids,” she says. And if the people most likely to continue buying novelizations as adults are the ones who started reading them as kids, then this trend could be the most solid argument so far for the movie novel’s future — maybe even one that lasts longer than the DVD that threatened to make it extinct.

Foster, who’s seen a galaxy of change since his paperback about a young Jedi stoked the imaginations of Star Wars fans, agrees that the novelization will live on. “I think [novelizations] will still be around as long as people are still reading,” he says. “And I think they will be.” In other words: There’s always a new hope.

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