Columns > Published on March 10th, 2023

Movie Novelizations Are Back!

header image via Pixabay

With Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Jeff Strand is putting out a novelization of a movie that’s more than 40 years old. The new trilogy of Halloween movies had novelizations. Vinegar Syndrome just announced that they’re set to start novelizing some of their properties (Sidekicks? The Incredible Melting Man? Invisible Maniac?).

What is going on with novelizations? Are they back? Did they ever leave? Anyone got a copy of Demolition Man: The Novel I can borrow?

What’s a Novelization?

This might be my old man moment: I think I might have to explain what a movie novelization is.

Let me just fetch up my suspenders printed to look like rulers, even though elastic rulers are about the most useless thing ever conceived…

A movie novelization is not to be confused with a book that was turned into a movie. It's also not a tie-in, which is a novel that takes place in the same fictional world as a movie, but tells a different story.

A movie novelization is a full-length novel, usually released as a mass market paperback, that follows (mostly, basically) the plot of a movie. It’s usually written by someone (Alan Dean Foster about 65% of the time) who gets a copy of the script, fills in some dialogue, character motivations, other business, and then the novel hits bookstore shelves JUST before the movie comes out.

All so you can READ the movies!

Wait...why the hell would anyone want to do that?

Grandpa Strikes Back

They’re seen as a lesser version of the movies they re-create, but…why?

Let’s say you went to see Empire Strikes Back in 1980, thought it was fucking awesome, and you wanted to see it again.

Well, tough shit. Because VCRs were still a ways off from being common, and even if you could get one, it’d run you the 1980 equivalent of $500 bucks.

And do you know when Empire came out on VHS? If you guessed November 1984, FOUR LONG YEARS after it was released in theaters, you're either a great guesser or a Star Wars dork that I can respect.

Novelizations used to be a way to have a sort of, kind of, rerun of the movie. They were cheaper, they was easier to sell (no device was required to “play” it), and you could pick them up at the grocery store.

The Empire Strikes Back: The Novel, came out about a week before the movie, and when it was all over with, it sold 3 million copies. It stayed on the New York Times' Bestseller List for 6 months.

What can I say, our options were limited, and 80s kids were used to doing a lot more with a lot less. Ask anyone who puberty-ed pre-internet about the sorts of things they masturbated to, you'll hear some creative stuff. Disturbing at times, but damn resourceful.

So Why Did Novelizations Die?

These days, a month is a long time between a movie showing up in theaters and showing up for rental at home. You don’t have that long wait pushing people into the desperate act of reading in order to get their movie fix.

Damn near everyone has some sort of device that can play a movie. This is no longer a luxury item. 

And now there are so many other ways to engage with movies that you love. You can watch people talk about them online, read articles, read reviews. You can buy t-shirts at Target. You can touch the story again without getting down in the mud with [shudder] books.

Did Novelizations Die All The Way?

No, not all the way.

Big franchise shit, like Independence Day movies, kept getting novelizations. Aliens movies got consistent novelizations.

My guess? It's mostly a matter of "Why not?"

Because novelizations are cheap to make, they don’t have to sell all that many copies to make a modest profit. You might not be able to fill an entire bath tub with hundos after your novelization profits roll in, but if it buys your production company coffee for a few months, why not?

And one of the bigger expenses with movies (and with any entertainment product) is the marketing. For novelizations? The same marketing that sells the movie sells the book. You get a second use out of the already-spent movie marketing dollars. Again, why not?

What Started Bringing Novelizations Back?

Okay, so we got to the place where novelizations couldn't stand in for movies. What was the next move?

Some novelizations told the stories of movies that were never made. Or, at least, not exactly made.

The Star Wars, based on George Lucas’ original script, was released as a comic. Nerds could see what Star Wars might have been with Ol’ George having carte blanche. Yikes, by the way. Yikes. I don’t know who talked George out of that one, but that person deserves an EGOT. Just give them all the awards.

Other novelizations addressed Hollywood's fuck-ups.

Hellraiser Bloodline got the novelization treatment decades after its release, and the book showed fans what could have been. It’s a 4 out of 5 on Goodreads, where the movie is a 2.4 out of 5 on Letterboxd.

A William Gibson script for Alien 3, which was never used, was turned into a movie novelization.

Making movies is hard. It’s expensive. You have to convince the right people. And nobody’s going to take another run at Alien 3.

With novelizations, we can look into alternate Earths where these movies didn’t suck. Or, where they REALLY sucked.

"Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" And Vinegar Syndrome

When Jeff Strand announced his novelization of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes was up for preorder, I damn near broke my phone smashing the Add To Cart button so hard. My apologies to Encyclopocalypse Press, if your shopping cart system broke, that was me, I rocked it too hard.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is a whole ‘nother beast. It takes the basic plot of the movie and uses it as a scaffolding to hang all new jokes. It's beautiful, it's hilarious. I’m declaring it the best book of the year. It's March, and I'm throwing out all the other books I was set to read this year because fuck it, nothing else is going to be that much fun.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes breathes new life into something from the past, and this might be the new path for novelizations.

Vinegar Syndrome, makers of incredible HD transfers and gorgeous artwork for movies that, er, have a wildly varying relationship with ideas of quality, have announced they’re opening a publishing wing, and they plan to bring out novelizations of some of their properties.

Vinegar Syndrome owns a ton of licenses for things that might not have worked out on film, but they often have a core to them, a germ of an idea that could really sing with the right person at the wheel. 

Vinegar Syndrome, if you’re reading this, will you please, PLEASE get DuVay Knox to do novelization of Petey Wheatstraw?

Novelizations Are Legit

Walk away from this column with this: Movie novelizations are legit.

They’re seen as a lesser version of the movies they re-create, but…why? Just because they’re the second version? That’s silly. We don’t treat other remakes that way.

Alan Dean Foster:

It’s always amusing to me, you take a book, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, throw away three quarters of it and win an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay...But if you take a screenplay and add three quarters of original material to it––which is a much, much more difficult piece of writing––well, that’s by definition ‘hackwork.’ And it’s much harder, having done both, to take a screenplay and make a book out of it than [to] take a terrific book and make a screenplay out of it.

Vinegar Syndrome Publishing, for real, I’d be happy to write novelizations of whatever you’re willing to give me. Alien Private Eye, Hell Comes to Frogtown, XTRO! Or maybe you need someone to handle your smut. Summer Camp Girls. Taxi Girls. Sorority Sweethearts. I am willing to do the research. CALL ME!

Get Attack of the Killer Tomatoes by Jeff Strand at Bookshop or Amazon

Get Alien 3: The Unproduced Screenplay by William Gibson and Pat Cadigan at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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