Dirt: Long live film novelizations

A tribute to books based off the movies

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André Larnyoh on the movie as a novel

Being an indecisive person, it's always a stressful excursion going into a bookstore. I’ve been known to buy a book and exchange it the following day because the vibe hasn’t been right. At no other season of the year is this more important than from the months of May through August. This isn’t a time to be grappling with questions of morality or wondering whether society will survive the next 20 years. No, summer is about escapism. Pulpy LA noirs, light British situational comedies and non-fiction about men who walk along the noose-like highway that encircles London known as the M25 (to know what this highway is all about in a nutshell, there is no better explanation than Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens).

So imagine my delight when I heard that Tarantino, of all people, was dropping a novelization of his 2019 film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. A film I consider to be one of his best, I knew that going back into his alternate late 1960’s Hollywood reality would be a hell of a ride and so far I haven’t been wrong. From the long paragraphs covering Cliff’s love of early Akira Kurosawa films, to the history behind Vilgot Sjöman’s I am Curious (Yellow) and numerous descriptions of bare feet walking on surfaces, he’s not only filling in a lot of backstory but also flexing his cultural knowledge of ‘60’s America and cinema. Tarantino’s clearly showing off, but you’ve got to love it. Very few novelizations get this kind of treatment, where a film's creator, someone who also has a nostalgic reverence for this kind of movie memorabilia, also pens its accompanying book.

Reading this book has sent me in a nostalgic tailspin back to my childhood, when movie novelizations were my favourite form of literary escapism. A storied marketing plot, they were the cheap paperbacks you’d find on supermarket racks, airport magazine kiosks or charity shops. Easy to pick up, read and throw away and always with attractive looking alternative cover art. Before the inevitable transfer to a streaming site, they were bought as gifts when you somehow missed a showing. Probably because your parents refused to take you or buy the VHS. As a result of both instances I ended up with a little collection of these, with everything from Terry Brooks Phantom Menace (a film I had admittedly already seen, but I was won over the by the menacing cover art) to the 2004 comedy New York Minute by Eliza Willard (The Olsen twins were my earliest crush you see). Perfectly pocketable little books that expanded on backstory and gave a certain attention to detail that a director just couldn’t cover in a 90 to 135 minute runtime. So enamored was I with reading novelizations that I even went out to buy a copy of Tolkien’s The Two Towers that had Viggo Mortensen on the cover, thinking that it would be written in a similar vein, completely unaware it was already its own literary masterpiece.  Most you see aren’t written that well — the work usually goes to writers who either want to make some extra cash or sometimes have some fun with a cool movie franchise — but that’s not the point. It’s about deepening the overall cinema going experience, which involves cheesy memorabilia.

I recently discovered that there’s a database run by a husband and wife team dedicated to documenting movie novelizations through the ages. Going through it, you marvel at how many movies had novels and wonder how these two find 1979's Meatballs written by Joe Claro, 1982’s Rocky III by Robert E. Hoban. I was even surprised that 2004’s adaptation of X-Men 2 was written by acclaimed comic writer Chris Claremont. This website has all the information one could ask for, along with images of dust jackets and blurb. Movie memorabilia stretches further than just getting the poster to hang up in your dorm room or getting a Funko Pop Head. It used to also mean going out and picking up the book for your shelf and enduring the stigma of looking either like an obsessive geek or that you’re broke as you read your copy on the bus.

There’s a classic Simpsons moment where Bart, after being forbidden from seeing Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie, is seen sitting on a bench reading a giant novelization written by Norman Mailer. “It’s just not the same” he laments. It never really was, but it was better than nothing. Though I do wish that I could’ve read a version of New York Minute by Norman Mailer. I feel like he would’ve really nailed the nihilism behind Eugene Levy’s Max Lomax.—André Larnyoh

The Dirt: Your favorite form of literary escapism.