I’ve never understood movie novelizations.
There’s some slight rationale when they’re aimed at children, since kids relish being told the same story over and over again. (Hence the Teletubbies forcing you to watch a forty-second clip of a boy playing basketball eight times in a row no matter how loudly you scream or how hard you punch the TV.) But adults seek novelty, generally speaking. Why would any self-respecting grown-up purchase a written description of a movie they’ve already seen?
The answer has less to do with closed-head injuries than you may expect. Setting aside the rabid fanboys who live only to spend their parents’ money on every single piece of 300 tie-in merchandise, functional human beings can derive some modicum of stimulation from licensed paperbacks because such novels are usually based on earlier versions of scripts. That means they contain scenes that were written out of subsequent drafts or left on the cutting room floor. Sometimes, this makes novelizations compelling.
More often, it makes them really shitty.
I’ve spent the past several weeks reading not one, not two, but ten movie novelizations. Join me as I recount, in a two-part post, the quirks, caprices, delights, and assaults on human intellect contained in the tie-in novels for Star Wars, Home Alone, and many more.
This week: Back to the Future, Jumanji, The Cat in the Hat, Night at the Museum, and Suicide Squad.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
I once read a book on screenwriting penned by a man who, at an earlier point in his career, had taught Bob Gale, screenwriter of Back to the Future. The man described Back to the Future as one of the tightest scripts he’d ever encountered, and he’s not wrong. Back to the Future is a scientifically perfect film—not a moment of it drags, and every word of dialogue counts.
Of course, no script springs from the mind of the writer fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. Even the tightest screenplay contains a few wrong turns and eccentricities, and it seems Back to the Future was no exception. To judge from the novelization, the story originally opened on Marty McFly painstakingly coating a matchstick in gum and flinging it at a sprinkler. He does this so he can reflect the sun’s rays onto the match and start a fire that will set off the sprinkler and force the school to be evacuated so he can get out of detention and go audition with his band, the Pinheads. By the way, he’s in detention because Doc called him at school and lied to the principal and said it was an emergency but the principal listened in on another line and found out it wasn’t an emergency, so he confronted Marty and then Marty tripped and his Walkman fell out of the book he had secretly hollowed out to store it and Walkmans are against school rules, and also the principal crushes Marty’s Walkman along with eight others in a shop vice.
In the movie, this is all accomplished by showing Marty just, you know, going to the audition. So yeah. “Tightest script” is clearly a relative term.
Apart from the opening chapters, the biggest difference between the novelization and the movie is what happens during Marty’s first day of school in the 1950s. In the movie, he spends the whole day tooling around the school and trying to convince George to ask Lorraine to the dance. In the book, he also does this—except Doc is there too.
Why a 35-year-old man decides to hang around a high school all day is almost as mysterious as why the teachers and staff let him. Doc later comments that maybe George was less responsive to Marty because there was “some old guy” lurking behind him.
Gee, Doc, you think?
Marty has some pretty specific reasons for not wanting to feel up his mom:
Yet the consequences of not feeling her up are even more dire:
You guys remember Jumanji, right? Two kids play a magic board game that sucked Robin Williams into a parallel jungle dimension 30 years previously, then Robin Williams gets poofed back out and reunites with his childhood sweetheart while fighting giant spiders? I went and saw it in when it first came out. My town’s crappy little theater didn’t have enough seats, but I cried so hard that they let me sit on the stairs.
Anyway, this is a quite competent novelization. I don’t have much to say about it except that it made me miss Robin Williams and now I’m sad.
The book sadly lacks the “Are you a postal worker?” line that used to slay me as a kid, but the big game hunter still gets zapped in the eyes with a price scanner…
…so I’m happy.
Also, things between Robin Williams and his lady friend get a little more heated than I remembered.
THE CAT IN THE HAT
When I was in high school, my best friend worked at the movie theater. One day, a man exited an afternoon showing of The Cat in the Hat, approached my friend, and told her: “I feel like a total f*ggot for watching that movie.”
First of all: whoa, cool it with the slurs, my guy. Second of all, The Cat in the Hat really is the worst movie ever. As for the novelization…what is this? What the fuck even is this? This is absolute forced wackiness of the most excruciating order. Its only saving grace is that it took about 25 minutes to read.
One of the only things I remembered about The Cat in the Hat from having seen it way back when is that it has a lot of “jokes for the parents.” In other words, it leans heavily on that unbearably awkward style of humor that’s too dirty for kids but too stupid and juvenile for adults. Case in point:
And one more:
Just about the only inappropriate joke the book doesn’t contain is the one I remember most vividly from the movie, which involves the Cat stepping on a gardening hoe and delivering this hilarious monologue:
By the way, the kids also ride their Taiwanese babysitter around the house at one point? After the Taiwanese babysitter falls asleep watching the Taiwanese parliament on C-SPAN?
Why does C-SPAN have such a prominent cameo in a story for kids? Why is C-SPAN showing legislative proceedings from Taiwan? Why won’t God grant me the sweet release of death?
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM
Critics didn’t love this movie (one reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes called it “Dark night of the soul“), but I thought it was fairly charming. Divorced father Larry, aka Ben Stiller, struggles to stabilize his life for the sake of his son and winds up taking a part-time job at a museum where all the exhibits come to life. Inoffensive stuff—plus I lost it every time Mickey Rooney yelled at people.
The book is largely the same as the movie, except the author really goes out of his way to emphasize how much of a loser the main character is. Seriously, Ben Stiller cannot catch a break.
In a way, it’s hard for me to give this book a fair shake. I began reading it not with low expectations, but with outright seething hostility. I knew that, by including this novelization in the blog post, I would have to watch the damn movie, and I was not remotely fucking excited about that. Plus the book is—are you ready for this?—400 god damn pages long. That’s three days of my life I’ll never get back, all dedicated to reading about the Joker being an embarrassing edgelord.
If Back to the Future was one of the tightest scripts of all time, Suicide Squad has to be one of the most pointless and bloated. To cite just one example, when the U.S. government rounds up their gang of incarcerated comic book baddies, they begin by negotiating with each baddie individually, offering them freedom or a bunch of guns depending on their preferences. After two such negotiations, the government evidently decides “fuck it” and hits all the baddies with tranquilizer darts, dragging them to a military base and recruiting them to the cause against their will. So the negotiation scenes—which are stupid and boring, by the way—serve absolutely no purpose. Those same descriptors apply to virtually every scene in Suicide Squad. And the book—by virtue of being based on an earlier, shittier version of the script—is even worse.
And then there’s the Joker and Harley Quinn. If all y’all 14-year-old nerds could stop romanticizing this stupid, stupid relationship, that would be fantastic. It’s not sweet or remotely appealing. It’s just gross.
I’m actually going to defer to the film version for this one. Because, while both the book and film feature antagonist Enchantress constructing a poorly-defined “machine” at the top of a Midway City skyscraper, only Film Enchantress wiggles incessantly while doing so.
I swear, the only direction the actress received must have been something like: “Wiggle. No, more. Keep wiggling, damn it!” At the height of her machine-induced wiggling frenzy, she name-drops her brother Incubus and—I kid you not—dabs in his direction.
And on that note, I’ll leave you. Catch me next week for more fun with the lowest common literary denominator!