Why Movie Novelisations Exist

Well, I thought that I’d talk about movie novelisations again, since I happen to be reading one at the time of writing. I am, of course, talking about Neal Barrett Jr’s 1996 novelisation of a gloriously cheesy late-night B-movie called “Barb Wire”. Although I’ll probably review the novel tomorrow (when I’ve finished reading it), what I’ve read so far is better than I’d expected. And this made me think about why movie novelisations exist.

Of course, the original reason for movie novelisations was that they allowed people to enjoy a film at home before VHS, DVD etc… were invented. After all, up until about the 1980s or so, once a film left the cinemas, it was pretty much gone (unless it was re-released, shown in a cinema club, shown on TV etc..). So, movie novelisations were what existed before home video did. Yet, although they unfortunately aren’t as common as they were in the past, they still exist these days. Why?

Well, there are probably several reasons. The first is, as shown by the novelisation of “Barb Wire”, they can be better than the film. Although I only have vague memories of watching the film on TV during the early-mid 2000s, it was a rather cheesy – and somewhat sleazy – “so bad that it’s good” mid-budget action movie. Of course, since the novelisation can’t rely on special effects or celebrity (after all, it just uses words), it actually has to focus more on the characters and the story.

In other words, film novelisations have to rely on substance rather than style. The characters have to be good characters, everything has to be described well, the story has to be an actual story etc… In other words, film novelisations tend to feel a lot more well-made and consistent than films can sometimes do. After all, a good film novelisation still has to work as a novel. It has to be something that, theoretically, someone who has never seen the film can still enjoy.

Secondly, film novelisations tend to have more depth than their source material – which is good for fans of the film. Since films are a visual medium that can only show time in a linear fashion (eg: one second of film takes exactly one second), they can often only show the surface of a story. The written word, on the other hand, can do things like showing people’s thoughts, showing backstory, describing things in detail etc… Which result in a deeper and richer story when films are adapted to the page.

Not only that, the events of a 90-120 minute film probably won’t fill that many pages when translated directly to the page. So, an author will usually have to add extra stuff in order to write something longer than a novella. Although this can sometimes just result in filler content, it usually means that stuff from the film is more well-explained, there are interesting extra scenes, there’s more detailed backstory, there’s more characterisation etc… Which all result in a much deeper and more satisfying experience when compared to the film. So, fans of a film will usually get even more out of it by reading the novelisation.

Thirdly, film novelisations are a safe bet. Although books are unfortunately less popular than they were even two decades ago (thanks to smartphones, social media etc..), publishers and readers alike choose film novelisations for one simple reason. You know what you are getting. If a publisher wants a book that will sell, then choosing a popular film will make people interested. If a reader just wants to relax with a book or choose one quickly, then one based on a familiar film is usually a fairly good choice.

Fourthly, novelisations can be great for authors too. I mean, I can think of a few authors (eg: S.D.Perry, Keith R. A. DeCandido, Diane Carey etc..) who specialise in writing novelisations and spin-off novels. They usually have a fairly prolific body of work, regular publication etc… And they are good at writing these types of stories. So, if an author knows what they are doing, then they can have a fairly good writing career with novelisations.

Fifthly, they are good for reading and literature in general. Yes, they might not be the kind of “high brow” or “literary” fiction that people talk about when they lament the fact that people don’t read as much these days as they used to. But, they are a brilliant gateway into reading for people who might not otherwise choose to pick up a book. Because they tell a familiar story and are written to be entertaining, they’re more likely to tempt someone into reading a book (and, if they like it, maybe reading others) than a traditional novel.

Likewise, spin-off novels can do this too. When I was going through one of my “not reading much” phases in 2011/12, I ended up binge-watching various series of “Star Trek” on DVD. When I ran out of episodes, I vaguely remembered that there were spin-off novels. I ended up reading a few of these and really enjoyed them. In fact, when I got back into reading regularly a year or so ago, I was initially reluctant to read any “Star Trek” books because I considered them to be “what I read when I’m not reading”. Yet, I still ended up reading them occasionally again for the simple reason that they are just enjoyable, relaxing books.

So, in this age where books are less popular than they once were, novelisations and spin-off novels are absolutely great for showing people how much fun reading can be and for getting people to actually pick up a book.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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