On June 29, Quentin Tarantino will release his first book, a novelization of his 2019 film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
Movie novelizations were a particularly popular commodity in the 1970s through the 90s, with nearly every major Hollywood release getting one. These books were usually released as paper books in small batches and have long been out of print. A curious example is a child-friendly adaptation of “Spaceballs” by a pre-“Goosebumps” RL Stine under the alias Jovial Bob Stine.
The appeal of these books was likely due to the fact that, in the early to mid-1980s, home video was just beginning to catch on. VHS tapes were expensive and the theatrical release window for films was longer. If you wanted to immerse yourself more in a film, that meant repeatedly seeing it in theaters or reading the novelization. It was a way to deepen a film that you loved. Also, if you couldn’t see a movie, this was another way to access it.
Some of the most popular novelizations from this period now command high prices. The novelization of “Clue” from 1985 is currently $499. Beyond being a collector’s item, what would be the point of owning the book adaptation of the film version of a board game?
Traditionally, a novelization is written by someone unrelated to the film production. In the case of “Clue,” it was Michael McDowell, a gothic horror writer who would later pen the movie “Beetlejuice.”
This hitman receives the script and is told to write a novel. These deals were often made before or while the film was still in production so that the book could be released to coincide with the film’s opening.
Because of this process, the writer usually receives a first draft or shooting script that often differs from the final product. This means that novelizations may include deleted scenes, alternate endings, or tones that differ from the final product.
“Clue” was released theatrically with three different possible endings, but there was actually a fourth ending that was written and shot but never saw the light of day. It only exists in the novelization.
Writers are allowed certain creative liberties to flesh out the details of a film as long as it doesn’t stray too far from the final product. This could include adding backstories for the characters, as was the case with the adaptation of Richard Mueller’s ‘Ghostbusters’, which was thankfully reprinted last year and is available for a reasonable price of 9.99. $. Original copies cost between $60 and $90.
Mueller, who became a writer for the animated series “The Real Ghostbusters,” delved into each of the Ghostbusters’ childhoods. Bill Murray’s Peter Vankman was born in a circus and worked as a carnival barker, Dan Aykroyd’s Ray Stantz was a simple farm boy, and Harold Ramis’ Egon Spengler a sheltered child who struggled to understand basic human interactions.
Mueller also zoomed in on a few minor interactions — Peter giving Egon a candy bar as a reward for a good job and Egon eating a Twinkie — to get Egon into a junk food habit. It’s a fun character detail.
Similar to “Clue”, the “Ghostbusters” novelization removed material. A deleted scene available on the DVD and Blu-ray releases focuses on Murray and Akyroyd playing homeless people in the middle of a debate. It’s a fun scene. Mueller recognized this and sprinkled these characters throughout his adaptation.
Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a different situation in that he’s doing the adaptation himself. As the originator of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, the characters played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, he has a detailed understanding of their stories and motivations which he explores through the novel.
“I told the story in novel form,” Tarantino said on an episode of the Pure Cinema podcast. “So it’s not like, ‘Oh, okay, well, he obviously had a few scenes left, so he just took the script and romanced it and added a few more scenes.’ It was a complete overhaul of the whole story.
Tarantino spent five years writing the movie “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and as such there was a lot of material that was explored but not included in the script.
“It was uplifting, it made me understand the characters, it made me learn things about them,” Tarantino said on the Pure Cinema podcast.
Tarantino describes Pitt’s Cliff Booth as an enigma in the film, but the novel contains entire chapters devoted to filling in the blanks.
“Each isolated chapter that’s pretty much about Cliff’s past is like a weird little novel by itself starring Cliff,” Tarantino said.
While novelizations are seen a lot less these days, you still see them occasionally.
In addition to Tarantino’s recent foray into revamping one of his films, the comedy “Bad Moms” received a new treatment last year, four years after its initial release. Nora McInerny’s adaptation features the tagline “More chaos. More rebellion. More fun.”
Fantasy and horror films regularly get novelizations because the genres have long been staples of pulp paperbacks. More recently, fantasy writer Greg Keyes did a novelization of “Godzilla Vs. Kong” and has already written one for “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” From the same film franchise, horror/fantasy writer Tim Lebbon made an adaptation for “Kong: Skull Island.” Since this film series does a lot of the world-building, it makes sense that novels would be commissioned to expand on them further.
I’m not opposed to novelizations coming back into popularity, especially if it’s in the vein of what Tarantino is doing. There are many cinematic universes that could be expanded upon and the books can do that in a way the movies can’t, so bring it on.