An Interview with Alan Dean Foster on the Art of Adapting Sci-Fi Movies into Books
Sep 21 2012
Even if you’ve never heard of the author Alan Dean Foster you definitely know the titles of his works: Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Transformers, Star Wars, The Thing, and many other novelizations of films. Over the past four decades, he has successfully reverse-engineered more than 30 movies based on original scripts into book form, making him the most prolific sci-fi novelizer of all time. And given the recent trend of studios forgoing the commission of novelizations, he may never have a successor.
While film novelization is often considered a base, mercenary source of income, devoid of literary merit and limited to the creation of cheap single-edition paperbacks with embossed covers, it has in fact been practiced by the most respected authors of science fiction. Orson Scott Card novelized The Abyss; Arthur C. Clarke wrote the novel 2001 at the same time he was hashing out the film’s screenplay with Kubrick; Isaac Asimov not only novelized Fantastic Voyage but followed it with a sequel, Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain; and Michael Moorcock novelized The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle, a book based on a movie based on the Sex Pistols, who were based on an impresario’s idea of something that sounded like “sexy young assassins.”
Novelizations have existed since at least the 1920s, commissioned by studios as a way for moviegoers to relive their favorite science-fiction and horror films after leaving the theater. The advent of laserdiscs, VHS tapes, and DVDs threatened their existence, yet they persevered, finding new audiences into the 80s and 90s. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, the market for novelizations began to dry up; even a spate of new video-game novelizations could not restore vigor to what had once been a great (if not respected) sector of the publishing industry. How will the science-fiction fans of tomorrow satisfy their appetite for transmedia literature? Will novelizations still exist? I called Alan to find out, and we ended up talking about a lot of other things, too.
VICE: I’ve wanted to talk to you about the Alien novelizations for a while, but I’m glad it didn’t happen until Prometheus had come out because I’ve been wondering what you think of it.
Alan Dean Foster: I haven’t seen it yet.
Really? Why not?
Well, it comes from living in a small town where the nearest theater of any consequence, or the nearest theater period, is a 20-minute drive away; and the fact that my wife can’t go to the movies anymore because she can’t sit up that long; and the fact that I don’t live someplace like LA or New York or Boston where there’s a like-minded group of people to whom I can say, “Hey, let’s go see Prometheus.”
I’m amazed you could resist the temptation. You spent so much of your professional career immersed in the Alien franchise. Aren’t you curious?
It’s kind of funny because everyone talks about tipping points, and I think we’re nearing the tipping point where people will no longer go to see movies. They’ll read the reviews, they’ll see all the clips on YouTube and on io9 and TV and that’ll be about 90 percent of a movie. The actual movie won’t even have to be made. They’ll simply talk about the movie that would have been made, and shoot all the good stuff for the clips online. The reviewers will review the clips—and the rest of the movie, you’ll kind of just fill in the blanks yourself. I’m afraid that’s the way we’re headed, and I’m only being half-sarcastic.
At first I wanted to know why you weren’t chosen to write the Prometheus novelization, but then I realized there is no Prometheus novelization.
Though I haven’t seen the film, I’ve been following its development very closely. I haven’t seen one word mentioned about a novelization, which is very unusual and kind of interesting. Obviously for the studio it’s just another promotion and another few bucks in their pockets, so they’d love to have one out, but I haven’t even seen any mention of a name or a publisher or anything. With the film already out it’s very unusual, and one wonders why.
Especially unusual in the case of Prometheus because the studio and filmmakers went to great lengths to produce an immense body of transmedia promotional material. The trend is to build an expanded universe in which to situate these types of films, and in that context it seems we are living in the best time in history for novelizations to flourish yet they have somehow become passé.
It’s very odd. I still think there’s a place for novelizations. You can take the novel anywhere and read it, and there are just certain things a novelization can do that a film can’t. The landscape of the novel is created with an unlimited budget. You can spend ten pages exploring the inner thoughts of a character, which you can’t do even in the director’s cut of a film unless you have a really powerful or indulgent director.
I wonder if them not wanting a novelization has something to do with maintaining total control over the film’s universe and intellectual property—not allowing anyone to contaminate the narrative bloodline with ideas that haven’t been approved by test audiences, market researchers, and statisticians. There is an inherent risk in novelization; the act of expansion necessitates the introduction of new material, unless you’re inclined to spend dozens of pages objectively describing the physical dimensions of Noomi Rapace’s body or whatever.
To some the job is simply to pad the screenplay enough to bring the novel up to 200-some odd pages, and that can be done with minimal effort, but I see a novelization as an opportunity to answer questions the film does not address. And yes, that does pose a threat of explaining things the director would prefer remain shrouded in mystery. When I wrote Aliens, I got to talk about the aliens’ actual biomechanical structure and how a particular joint might rotate, and how the whole telescoping mouth apparatus works—things that, as you’re watching the movie, you see and want to understand more about but move too quickly to be understood. Or what about the alien’s motivations; does the alien have motivations? That’s something you don’t have time to explore in the films, at least not in the first one. But I get to do that in the books.
Alien is Ridley Scott’s cinematization of an illustration from H.R. Giger’s Necronomicon, which in turn is Giger’s adaptation of imagery he envisioned while reading H.P. Lovecraft. So why the fear that novelizers will introduce unsanctioned material that becomes canon? Who can really claim the story as their own?
Well, Dan O’Bannon gets to claim the story. He wrote the original screenplay for Alien, and unfortunately Dan is no longer with us. When I came along I had to deal not just with Dan O’Bannon’s version but Ridley Scott’s and James Cameron’s and David Fincher’s versions too. It’s my job to make everything fit together as well as I possibly can, and it becomes extremely difficult at certain points. I only had three weeks to write the Alien novel. The main problem I had was that the studio was paranoid, as studios tend to be, and despite the fact this was a pre-internet time they refused to tell me anything about what the alien looked like, not even a written description, not a single photograph. So if you read the book version of Alien, there is no description of the alien, it is simply referred to as “the alien.” That’s the way I had to do it, and it was a difficult job. Sometimes the issue wasn’t that I diverged from the original film but rather that I didn’t diverge enough. I couldn’t stand when my Aliens novelization came out and the marines’ language had been bowdlerized.
The publisher censored your text without telling you?
I was just as shocked as you. I didn’t know about it until a fan wrote me and said, “Why did you do this? It looks silly, you’ve got all of these space marines walking around talking like sixth-graders.” I had no idea, so I picked up a copy of the book—I don’t reread my own books, I’d rather read somebody else’s book—and thought, Son of a bitch!, and that’s what I wrote to Warner Books and said—although my language was more colorful and extensive. They said that somebody had decided that they wanted to be able to reach a broader teenage audience, which is hilarious in itself, as teenagers never use any of the language the characters in Aliens used. So they changed it all arbitrarily and they, probably very sensibly, didn’t tell me they were going to do this until it was a fait accompli, or else I would have raised holy hell. Not for my own sake so much—it’s Cameron’s original language and it should have been preserved as it was written, which is what I did.
It’s weird they chose to be so conservative concerning a film that is essentially about a monster that consists of a giant erect penis with a telescoping vagina-dentata penis-mouth that reproduces via oral rape. Has James Cameron ever commented on your Aliens novelization?
Yes, I did have a brief discussion with him about one scene, which we resolved. At the end when the alien queen gets blown out of the airlock, and Ripley then climbs up the ladder and shuts the airlock door… it bothered me from a scientific standpoint because it wouldn’t work. You’d lose all of the air out of there almost instantly, plus the thrust would probably make it impossible for her to climb the ladder. I asked Cameron about this and he said, “I know that, but I wanted that shot.” And he’s usually very careful about his technical stuff. In Hollywood the scene always trumps the science—that’s been true since the silent days.
In Alien 3 I tried to correct some of the more glaring scientific mistakes from the film. For example, you have people sitting on a pile of used batteries trying to find some that are still good to put in their flashlights—this is hundreds of years in the future and these people are still using D cells? I’d never expect anyone to be scrutinizing the details of my novels 20 years on, but there were errors in those scripts I could not ignore. I disliked writing Alien 3 so much that I declined the offer for Alien: Resurrection.
I was amazed that you wrote most of these novels in less than a month, but then I read that Michael Avallone novelized Beneath the Planet of the Apes in three days. It seems that’s the industry standard. How is it possible to write so quickly?
The first thing is you don’t do much else, you just write. I’ve always been a fast writer, and it’s a blessing and a curse all at the same time because while I can write quickly I probably should take more time with certain things. I get bored with my own writing sometimes. I’m a visual writer; I learned how to read from comic books, primarily Uncle Scrooge. What I used to do, and what I did when I wrote Alien, was dictate my rough drafts. This is before the age of computers, and I could talk faster than I could type on a Smith Corona or an IBM typewriter. Then I would turn it over to a typist and she would transcribe it, and I would write the final draft from that. But then computers came along, and I found I was essentially getting an extra draft out of just typing it on the computer.
I’m curious how a life of novelization impacts your perception of the world, do you see potential for narrative expansion in all things? Is there anything that could not serve as a substrate for a novelization, for instance, could you novelize an inanimate object like a can opener or a pile of change?
I’m not sure about a can opener, but I have novelized a movie poster. In fact, it was the first novelization I ever did. In 1972, the modern era of film novelization was really just beginning and Ballantine Books had bought the rights to a really horrible Italian female-Tarzan film called Luana. Ballantine approached me and asked, “Can you turn this film into a book?” So I, being a young writer, said, “Sure!” When I asked for a copy of the script they said the only one they had was in Italian, which I didn’t speak. Ballantine said they would set up a private screening for me in Los Angeles, but the film was in Italian and without English subtitles. I’m sitting there thinking, Wait a minute, I have a serious problem here. In addition to its being in a foreign language, the film was so bad that I could hardly sit through it. Luckily, they had hired Frank Frazetta to do two paintings to promote the film, both of which have been reproduced many times in all the Frazetta art books, even though they’re not always presented as being publicity art for this horrible movie. They’re typical Frazetta paintings: There’s a spectacular, ferocious-looking female Tarzan with a lion and a panther. So I thought, well, I’d write my own female-Tarzan novel based on the poster, which is why the book is dedicated to Frazetta. The capper to the whole thing is someone from Disney picked up a copy of my Luana-poster novelization and contacted Ballantine Books to ask if the film rights were available.
The cinematization of a novelization of a posterization of a cinematization of a screenplay?
Apparently, that’s what they wanted. That was my first novelization and one of the more difficult ones at that. After that came the Star Trek and Star Wars books, which are still in print. That kind of changed everything novelization-wise, for me anyway. I became the go-to guy. But you don’t plan these things out in your life. I never asked to be the novelizer. I was writing my own original science-fiction books and stories, and I just kept getting asked, Will you do this, will you do that? And I like the challenge—to turn out a decent novel in a nonexistent period of time. I kind of got to do my own cut of the movie, when I wasn’t messed with, at least, and fix the scientific areas as best I could while expanding on the characters, plots, and backgrounds. And for a fan that’s kind of fun. I take pride in my novelizations.
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