My partner’s cousin lived his adult life at the intersection of the New York literary, gay and bohemian scenes. He was a professor at Fordham University and a regular contributor to the Village Voice. For a while he was an editor at the Voice’s literary supplement. He wrote a substantial, scholarly volume on 200 years of horror fiction and a history of pornography. He compiled a collection of literary letters. I did not meet him – he died shortly before I arrived in the US – but I went to his memorial service, where the main speaker was the editor of the New York Times Book Review.
The oeuvre of this gifted, cerebral man includes one distinct oddity. It is a 1978 novelization of a TV movie called A Fire in the Sky, starring Richard Crenna. Published as a paperback original, this is ‘based upon a story by Paul Gallico,’ so it is an adaptation of an adaptation. On the cover a comet plummets towards a populous city. Above the title are these words: ‘Seven days for creation… Twelve minutes for annihilation!’ On the back, even more breathlessly, ‘A Terrifying Novel of Cosmic Destruction!’
The book is a decent example of the TV novelization. The writing is efficient, plain, a bit characterless. Three sentences picked at random:
The city of Phoenix lay sprawled across the desert, wide open to the sky. They were all distinguished men, the most powerful men in the state, and none of them knew why Governor Ritchie had asked them to come there. Paula put a hand on each of Tom’s wiry arms and made him look in her eyes.
Those of us who are familiar with this strange, ignored genre have read similar sentences ten thousand times.
I am curious as to how this professional academic, a rather forbidding personality I’m told, came to write a TV novelization. He never wrote another. I suppose, in 1978, he was newly arrived in the city and needed the money, though I can’t imagine there was much of an advance. Did he meet an editor at a party? Or did an agent propose him for the job? Did he have to compete for it? These questions will have to remain unanswered.
The book now has that distinctive fragrance of all aging American paperbacks. The pages are browning and brittle. I wonder how many copies were sold? I can’t imagine it was in shops for very long. It was scarcely less disposable than a newspaper.
It led to me to wonder when the genre of the ‘novelization’ first came about. Of course, one way or another adaptation has been the lifeblood of the arts forever. Greek plays were variations on other Greek plays. Shakespeare’s plays were adapted from numerous text sources, both fictional and non-fictional, old poems, stories, even other plays. And I don’t know what Verdi’s Otello is if it is not an ‘operaization’ of the play.
In the nineteenth century, when the novel was king, the stream flowed to other media. Theatre producers staged unauthorized productions of Dickens’ serials, complete with happy endings, long before the serial had concluded, long before, in fact, Dickens had decided his characters’ fates. And if you could not afford the high price of a shilling for each monthly part of Nicholas Nickleby by the real Charles ‘Boz’ Dickens, there was a low-grade rip-off called The Adventures of Nicholas Nickleberry by ‘Bos’, obtainable for only a penny or two per episode. It was damn near to being a novelization of a novel!
But I think the first real ‘novelization’, the making of a book out of a success from another medium, must have been J M Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy, which appeared in 1911, seven years after Peter Pan, the Boy Who Never Grew Up, had first been staged as a play.
Then came film. From the silent era well into the forties there were regular ‘photoplay editions’, usually reprints of old novels accompanied by photos from the film version, but sometimes novelizations. The novel of Metropolis was an adaptation by Fritz Lang’s wife. I have a copy from my mother’s library of the photoplay edition of A Matter of Life and Death, one of Powell and Pressburger’s masterpieces, and this too is an adaptation. Graham Greene wrote what might be considered ‘reverse novelizations.’ Commissioned to write a screenplay, he produced a novella first, essentially a detailed outline, setting out the situation, the characters, the atmosphere, some of the dialogue. The Third Man is the most famous example. The literary version was never meant for publication, though it eventually appeared as ‘the book of the film’. Greene’s 1948 novella for an unmade film project, The Tenth Man, was discovered in the nineteen eighties in a vault at MGM and published with a great deal of fanfare. (Rightly, it’s great.)
Even in the age of home video and DVDs, there have continued to be adaptations of films, though fewer. I recently saw a novelization of a new Godzilla film. No-one who has ever read a novelization can afford to be snobbish, but I do wonder who will read this.
Curiously, this kind of book almost wholly bypasses radio. There is no evidence that, for example, the millions of people who have tuned into The Archers for nigh on sixty years have any yearning to read novels about them. There were a few novels about the detective Paul Temple during his radio years, but many more during his TV years. In America, there were no Gunsmoke novels when it was the most popular radio drama of its day, but several when it moved to TV. In fact, there were Gunsmoke novels into the 21st century. For most of us the Western is moribund, but in pockets of the US it is still booming.
There is the unique figure of Julian MacLaren Ross, a notorious Fitzrovia drunk of the forties and fifties, who remains a legend to his small following and forgotten by everyone else. He wrote some brilliant books and stories and was tipped for literary stardom, but was so unreliable and, when drunk, so boring that his career fizzled. His last few books are hasty adaptations of his own radio thrillers. He must be the only writer tipped as a major literary talent to end his booze-sodden career doing novelizations.
By the fifties TV programmes had been drawn into this industry, though the first TV paperbacks that I am aware of, the original Quatermass trilogy, which came from the respectable imprint of Penguin books, were not novelizations at all, but printings of Nigel Kneale’s scripts. Even if you have the extant episodes on DVD, these are worth reading.
There is a bit of a blur between the novelization – a rendering of a script into book form – and an original novel ‘based on’ a series. The’ original novel’ was the more common approach. Generally, not always, books commissioned in America, even if drawn from British series like The Avengers, consisted of new material and books from London were renderings of scripts – Space:1999, (very well done by, among others, the impossibly prolific science fiction writer E C Tubb,) The Persuaders!, (by the man who wrote the war film 633 Squadron,) The Protectors, The New Avengers. Occasionally, a scriptwriter adapted his own script, which leant his book (to me, at least) an air of greater legitimacy: Kneale novelized the last of the Quatermass quartet. P J Hammond reworked his own Sapphire and Steel script. To The Manor Born was novelized by Peter Spence, complete with extra jokes.
Throughout the sixties and seventies, there were ‘original novels’ of Danger Man, Bonanza, Cannon, Hawaii Five-O, Land of the Giants and, incredibly, of The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. There was a long series based on The Man from UNCLE. (It is revealing than one of the men who wrote for UNCLE later wrote The Partridge Family.) There was a Columbo novel which said on the cover it was based on an episode, but it wasn’t.
In my teens I tried some of these ‘original novels’: one about Hawaii Five-O, God knows why, of which I only remember frequent mentions of women’s breasts and buttocks, which seemed pretty raunchy. This was the first time I had read a novel with the word ‘buttocks’ in it. A twelve-year-old boy, who could not get away with reading Playboy on the train, could happily read a Hawaii Five-O novel without anyone batting an eyelid, though buttocks swirled around the page. (Later, I knew a slightly staid fellow who was shocked that one of the first ‘original’ Doctor Who novels mentioned a woman’s “erect nipples”.) I tried several of The Avengers novels. I tried a Man from UNCLE novel, though I had never seen an episode and still haven’t.
These books seemed somewhat flat and lifeless to me. They tended not to get the tone of the programmes quite right, as if the writers had not watched them, but nor did they become interesting in themselves. One sensed these novelists were bored, and so was I. I never got to the end of a single one, not even the Hawaii Five-O one with the buttocks, though in my adult life I am a dedicated finisher of books.
But TV novels are 100% critic proof and this is a part of their charm. In the fifties, the American writer Gore Vidal turned temporarily to mystery fiction after the New York Times refused to review his serious novels on account of their gay content. As Vidal said, literary writers needed reviews to survive, genre writers, especially writers of paperback originals, whose books were found on spinners at railway stations and in supermarkets, didn’t. The TV novel, like low-grade erotica and Harlequin/Mills and Boon romances, neither needed nor wished for reviews. You bought them on an impulse because you liked the programme. Simple as that. You probably didn’t even read the puff on the back.
But there were other books from the telly, much much better books, which I was able to finish. Someone in a New York publishing house decided to grace the world with Star Trek novelizations, and someone in London decided… well… Next time.
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