by Greg Carlson
When the publishing industry and the movie/home entertainment business simultaneously had their business models shaken up by the ascension of mobile/streaming/online pirating culture that continues to grow to this very minute, there was one lovechild of the two mediums that literally disappeared from the bookshelves: the official novelizations of movies. These promotional tie-ins, generally in paperback form, were created to whet the appetites of young movie-goers growing up during the Reagan Administration (like yours truly) who longed to experience a movie a few more times after it left theaters, but couldn’t wait for the then-typical six to nine month window for the video release and didn’t have the $50-$100 to fork over for a VHS tape.
In addition to transcribing the plot into non-intricate prose, these novelizations had a lot of goodies that are now staples of a DVD’s Special Features section: Reprints of photo stills, tucked conveniently in the middle of the book and occasionally in color, expository dialogue of characters’ physical appearances and fashion choices that could have been taken from the original script and/or production notes, and descriptions of scenes that didn’t make it into the final cut of the movie.
I have three distinct memories originating from the movie novelizations I owned as a child. The first was from my copy of E.T., where they used M&Ms instead of Reese’s Pieces as the candy that Elliot used to lure the lovable space alien into his house. At the time, I thought it was just lazy proofreading, but over time I learned about the legendary product placement gaffe. The second memory is purchasing the Howard the Duck novelization in 1986 because I secretly wanted to see the movie, but didn’t want to admit it to my friends or family. (I finally broke down and rented the VHS tape a few years later – not a good “bad movie experience,” I must say.) The third and most bizarre memory comes from the pages of The Goonies tie-in paperback, where a couple of paragraphs are devoted to a cut scene where Martha Plimpton’s character is attacked by an octopus, only to be saved by the rhythms of a Talking Heads song that Data plays on his boom box. Given the superfandom that exists around that film, I know I could track down the octopus scene with a few short clicks of my mouse and clarify how it exactly played out, but I like remembering it as I recounted it above, a hazy childhood fever dream embedded in my memory for (hopefully) many years to come.
Despite an occasional reference here and there, I had forgotten about the subculture of movie tie-in novels until the summer of 2014, when I was browsing the shelves at a used bookstore in Bellingham, Washington. While perusing the film section, I noticed a familiar logo on the spine of a small paperback: Midnight Run. I was intrigued by the concept of a tie-in paperback for this 1988 film, feeling that the mix of action, crime, and comedy would translate well onto the printed page, where–at best–the interpretation would flow and crackle like Elmore Leonard’s finest work, and at worst would feel like a cheap pulp noir from the ’50s. For $3.25, I had nothing to lose.
My gut instinct paid off. Author Paul Monette, who wrote several movie novelizations while tending to his own notable career as a writer, poet and gay-rights activist, adapts the screenplay into book form without creating a Xerox copy of the script, adding vivid descriptions of the seedy and small-town parts of ‘80s America that De Niro’s Jack Walsh criss-crosses while on his bounty-hunting excursion. Although De Niro did a great job on film creating multiple dimensions to the typical tough ex-lawman role, Monette enhances Walsh’s plight and loneliness via enhanced scenes in the novelization, and the reader can pick up early on Walsh’s world-weariness, that he’s haunted by decisions that may or may not have sealed his current fate.
As with most instances of reading the book after the movie, I could picture De Niro-as-Walsh speaking the dialogue and going through the book-only scenes without it coming off as inauthentic or off-script. The character of mob accountant Jonathan Mardukas is also translated well, and I could picture Charles Grodin as I turned the pages. With an actor like Grodin, you know you’re going to get his well-worn persona, and it works in his favor in the film. In the novelization, there’s more of a weasely con-man element to the character, and Monette creates a tone where you can tell that Mardukas is planning multiple back-up plans/escape plans via dialogue, mannerisms, etc. The one character from the film that didn’t get visualized properly while I read the novelization was bail bondsman Eddie Moscone, played by Joe Pantoliano. From the book: “‘Oh yeah right,’ Moscone replied, running a hand through his thick black hair, the pride of his Saracen forebears.” If there’s one adjective that you shouldn’t use to describe a character played by Joe Pantoliano, thick-haired would be it.
Although I could have easily picked up an inexpensive DVD /digital download of Midnight Run within 24 hours and without putting a dent in my savings account, I’m glad I experienced this “repeat viewing” the old-school way, via the printed page. In addition to revisiting the characters and story one more time (and greatly enjoying it), I didn’t even mind the fact that I had to use a bed lamp to illuminate the book, and that I had to use more than one finger to turn the pages.
About Greg Carlson: I’m a huge movie fan who frequents Scarecrow Video on a regular basis. My top three films are (in random order): “Time Bandits”, “Repo Man”, and “Taxi Driver.” In my spare time, I like to hunt for vinyl records and kitschy items old-school-style, via thrift stores and estate sales – eBay and Craigslist are not part of the strategery.