Well, I thought that I’d talk about a somewhat overlooked segment of horror literature today. I am, of course, talking about novelisations of horror films and games. This is mostly because I recently re-read S.D.Perry’s novelisation of “Resident Evil 2” and because I’m currently re-reading George A. Romero & Susanna Sparrow’s novelisation of “Dawn Of The Dead”.
But, I should probably talk briefly about the history of novelisations before I talk about some of the advantages that they have over the source material. Even though I’ve only done some brief reading about the history, novelisations seem to have emerged as a literary genre thanks to the lack of home video in the past. In short, once a film ended it’s run in the cinema, the only way to re-experience it at home in the past was to read a novel based on it.
In addition to this, although novelisations are less common today, one reason why they are still written is because they are apparently relatively cheap to commission (and therefore can be profitable even if they sell a relatively small number of copies). But, although they are apparently written more quickly than original novels, they still have a number of interesting advantages over the source material that they are adapting, especially in the horror genre:
1) Depth: Because even the shortest novels can cover more ground than a 1-2 hour horror movie and can do things that videogames can’t, novelisations will provide a much richer and deeper experience than the source material. They can get inside of the heads of the characters, they can use language to set the scene/mood in interesting ways, they don’t have to worry about a “special effects” budget, they instantly have ultra-realistic “graphics” etc….
So, you’ll usually get an experience that is more atmospheric, peopled with better characters and more spectacular than the source material. This is useful in the horror genre for the simple reason that these things also improve the horror elements too.
For example, in the original 1998 “Resident Evil 2” videogame, the horrifying zombies and monsters were blocky, pixellated 3D models. In S.D.Perry’s 1999 novelisation, they are the kind of gruesome, realistic walking corpses and inhuman beasts that you might expect to see in a trailer for the 2019 remake of the videogame. Yes, the novel was 20 years ahead of the games in this regard!
Likewise, the characters in the original 1998 videogame had a few cheesy lines of dialogue and a few short CGI movies to tell you who they are. On the other hand, the novelisation gives even some of the background characters (who only appear a couple of times in the game) a lot more personality and backstory. This means that the reader cares more about the characters, which means that the scenes of horror have more of an impact than they did in the source material.
So, horror movie/game novelisations will often tell a deeper and more dramatic version of the source material’s storyline.
2) Alterations: This one can be a bit hit-and-miss but, when it works, it works! In short, in order to adapt a film or game into a book, the author usually has to make some alterations. These can result in all sorts of really creative changes which can really add a lot to the source material.
Going back to S.D.Perry’s novelisation of “Resident Evil 2”, one of the major changes from the game is to the pacing. The original 1998 videogame is a surprisingly slow-paced thing that involves lots of exploration and puzzle-solving. On the other hand, Perry’s novelisation is much more of a streamlined, fast-paced thriller. This turns the game’s story into something much more intense, gripping, suspenseful and dramatic than you might expect.
Yes, sometimes, alterations don’t always work perfectly (compare Keith R. A. DeCandido’s novelisation to the first “Resident Evil” movie for an example), but they’re also really fascinating because they provide something new for people who have already read/played the source material.
A good example of this is David Bischoff’s novelisation of the early 1990s comedy horror movie “Gremlins 2“. In the film, there is a fourth-wall breaking scene where the gremlins insert themselves into various other films playing in a cinema. The novelisation adapts in this in a really clever way by replacing it with a scene where the gremlins break into the author’s study and try to write part of the book.
So, yes, novelisations can be really interesting “alternate versions” of the source material. So, if you’ve seen a horror movie or played a horror game, you can’t be entirely certain of what to expect when you read a novelisation. Which adds to the horror 🙂
3) No censorship: This was much more of an issue in the past than it is today, but one advantage that horror novelisations traditionally had was the fact that that they didn’t have to get the approval of a censorship board before they were released. Anyone who has read anything about the history of British film censorship will know that it is only relatively recently that the censors have stopped routinely hacking horror movies to shreds.
A good example of this is Romero & Sparrow’s 1978 novelisation of “Dawn Of The Dead”. Although it has been about a decade and a half since I saw the film (so I can’t make much of a comparison), one of the cool things about the novel is that it is even more gruesome than you might expect.
Yes, it’s slightly less gory than the splatterpunk fiction of the 1980s, but it still has a level of intense grisly horror that would have probably been heavily trimmed by the film censors of the day. So, novelisations were historically a way to bypass censorship.
4) No barriers to entry: One of the really cool things about novelisations is that they are a more open format than films or games can be.
For example, unlike their source material, videogame novelisations don’t have system requirements. This is why, although I didn’t have any technology modern enough to play the game on, I was still able to enjoy Rick Burroughs’ novelisation of “Alan Wake”. It didn’t bar my entry to the story with a list of expensive tech I had to buy beforehand, it just welcomed me with open arms.
Likewise, going back to film censorship, I both read and watched “Dawn Of The Dead” for the first time during my mid-teens. With the book, it was just a simple matter of spotting it in a charity shop/second-hand bookshop and then buying it (for just 40p, according to the price written in the inside cover. I miss early-mid 2000s book pricing). I really enjoyed the novel back then and, along with numerous other vintage horror novels, it was something that fostered a long-lasting interest in both reading and writing.
On the other hand, when I saw the film back then, I had to wait for it to appear on TV and then set up my VCR. After all, thanks to over-zealous film censors (who were obviously never teenagers), I couldn’t exactly walk into a shop and buy a VHS or DVD copy of it because I didn’t look close enough to eighteen. The film didn’t deprave or corrupt me (it didn’t even frighten me, if I remember rightly) but, thanks to some people in an office in London, I had a much more difficult time finding and enjoying this cool movie than I probably should have.
So, one awesome thing about horror novelisations is the fact that they don’t have a load of deliberate barriers (like system requirements, film certificates etc..) that get between the audience and the story 🙂
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂