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Books: First day, first read

A book based on a movie is a commercial venture ? and one that Hollywood is at ease with. But despite Bollywood?s prolific output, the ?novelisation? is yet to see the light of day in India

india Updated: Jan 08, 2006 01:39 IST

There is something vaguely unnatural about movies being turned into books. It’s bad enough that the die is almost-forever loaded when it comes to answering that age-old question about movie adaptations of books: “So, was the film as good as the book?” If the book is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the answer should be yes. But who has the gumption to say so? But when it comes to the inverse question, “So, was the book as good as the movie?” show me an aye-sayer and I’ll show you V.S. Naipaul working away on the ‘novelisation’ of Men In Black III.

There are reasons why no one bothers to take a book based on a movie seriously. One, the book’s ancestry predates cinema and is therefore more susceptible to ‘serious’ criticism. Two, there’s less money at stake in a book than in a movie. So even when a Stanley Kubrick or a Satyajit Ray make films based on a Stephen King or a Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay novel respectively, it’s the book that is seen as giving the film the spark, no matter how brilliant the directorial ‘vision’ was. In any case, do you know William Kotzwinkle or Steven Spielberg, Patricia C. Wrede or George Lucas for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Star Wars: The Attack of the Clones? (Clue: Kotzwinkle and Wrede are the authors of the novelisations of the two movies.)

The ‘novelisation’ is always a commercial venture. As is the spanking new Modern Library Classics edition of King Kong, precision timed for publication simultaneously with Peter Jackson’s remake of the original movie. As the science fiction writer Greg Bear writes in the introduction, “This is probably the first and last time we will ever see the Modern Library issue a new edition of a seventy-plus-year-old movie novelisation.”

Apart from having a dig at the Modern Library’s editorial board (members include Salman Rushdie, A.S. Byatt, Maya Angelou, Gore Vidal and other popular culture vultures and postmodern junkies), Bear is making a less subtle point about the phenomenon of the ‘literary’ movie tie-in.

But beyond the jungle of cross-media sales-pitch of the latest King Kong, how is the book? For starters, it takes less time to read through the 153-page ‘novel’ than sit through the three-hour movie. Also, despite its Thirties noir feel — “Faces in murky doorways. Faces on street corners. Faces on park benches. Faces in bread lines… But never a face which would gleam, like a candle flame…”— it’s little else but an adventure story for teenagers, lacking the always refreshingly naive post-Freudian take on the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ story that’s resonant in the movie(s).

But hang on. The ‘new’ King Kong novel is really an old novelisation that came out only a few months before the 1933 Merian C. Cooper original movie. The authorship of King Kong, the book, however, is a classic model of confusion that the pedigree of all novelisations are. The director of the original movie, Cooper, and his producers had hired the bestselling English writer of the time, Edgar Wallace, to write the screenplay. Unfortunately, Wallace died of pneumonia after handing in the script, which was drastically changed by Cooper himself. It was only before the completion of the film that the producers decided to come out with a novel just before the film came out.

Newspaperman Delos W. Lovelace was hired to ‘novelise’ the final screenplay credited to James Creelman and Ruth Rose (90 per cent of the dialogue in the film was hers). But King Kong 2005-06 had to put in something in between book covers. So there’s novel-game-TV show writer Matthew Costello’s King Kong: The Island of the Skull: The Official Prequel Novel to the Universal Pictures Movie Event.

While anti-consumerists may oppose making quickie books out of movies, the trend didn’t exactly start with Star Trek or Star Wars paperbacks. Cineastes who toast Fritz Lang’s 1927 futuristic masterpiece Metropolis may find it a tad discomforting that a film judged as one of the best 100 movies ever was tied-in to a ‘novelisation’ written by the author of the screenplay, Thea von Harbou, Lang’s second wife.

Kubrick’s 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey may have been based on the short story, Sentinel, by Arthur C. Clarke. But Clarke did go on to ride the movie’s success by quickly writing the novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey — and a slew of sequels — based on Kubrick’s film that was based on his own short story.

On a less esoteric note, there are the obvious film tie-ins: Peter David’s Spiderman “based on the original screenplay by David Koepp, based on the Marvel Comics book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko”; Raymond Benson’s Ian Fleming’s James Bond in Die Another Day “based on the screenplay by Beak Purvis and Robert Wade”; Marc Cerasini’s Cinderella Man “based on the motion picture screenplay by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman”.

Despite the number of movies that come out of Bollywood, the ‘novelisation’ is yet to see the light of day in India. While two biographies of Mangal Pandey come out with the release of The Rising, no novel based on the film rose out of canny film promos or cannier publishing. Reissuing old novels with new covers depicting images from the just-released movies based on them — Devdas, Parineeta — is still standard practice. There’s only one desi exception to that rule: Bapsi Sidwa’s currently writing away her novel based on Deepa Mehta’s film Water, a project she gladly took on after the director asked her if she would like to return the favour (or be returned the favour?) of using the Pakistani writer’s novel Ice Candy Man for Mehta’s film, Earth.

But in case you’re waiting for a ‘novel’ version of Bluffmaster or Apaharan coming to a bookshop near you, don’t line up yet.

First Published: Jan 08, 2006 01:39 IST