Film novelisations have been circulating in substantial numbers for well over a century. To say they have been underrepresented in critical studies of the relationship between films and books is to put it mildly. While there are numerous studies (both general and specific) of the process and results of adapting books into films, far fewer words have been expended on the other side of the coin. There’s a particular dearth of English-language books on the subject and, with the exception of Randall D. Larson’s Films into Books (1995), the existing handful mainly take the form of bibliographies or collectors’ guides. In recent years, some very good analytical articles have appeared in film, adaptation, and cultural studies journals, but for anyone lacking access to an institutional library subscription these are often hidden behind prohibitively priced pay walls. Light into Ink therefore comes as a welcome intervention.
Before launching into his case studies (which are loosely grouped but can be read in any order), Guariento devotes most of his first 50 large, double-column pages to an in-depth introduction. The bulk of this is occupied by a chronological history of the form, which he traces from its theatrical-novelisation antecedents through silent-movie-era magazine fictionalisations and Photoplay editions, the rise of low-cost paperbacks, the 1970s and 1980s heyday, and, finally, the contracted but still-thriving market of the video/DVD/streaming era. This introductory chapter also includes valuable material about the novelisation’s typical production process, including its business aspects, and some of the different approaches authors have taken to novelising screenplays. Guariento also touches on related forms of fiction including movie spin-off novels, “‘orphaned’ novelizations (i.e. books derived from the scripts of unmade films)” (pp. 34, 39) and rare instances where novel and film were developed in tandem (p. 51). In addition, he outlines many of the key critical issues he will explore in his 50 case studies. This chapter therefore serves as a useful stand-alone primer – a helpful summary for newcomers to the field that is also packed with interest to stimulate existing enthusiasts.
Each case study begins with a short, spoiler-free synopsis, after which space is apportioned fairly equally to the movies and the books they spawned. Each chapter typically includes information about the film’s production history and some of its key creative personnel (directors and screenwriters, especially) as well as the novelisation’s author. Guariento does a sterling job of identifying many pseudonymous writers and supplying information about their careers. While, in these career overviews, he sometimes risks straying a step too far from the ostensible topic of the case study, the tangential material is invariably interesting and he always manages to pull back round in the nick of time. Each chapter is rounded off with the publication details of various editions and, in many cases, comments about the book’s desirability and affordability for the collector.
A substantial exercise in compare-and-contrast forms the centrepiece of each case study. Since novelisations are nearly always based on early screenplay drafts rather than completed films (which makes his book title a trifle misleading) Guariento draws from them some fascinating insights into the films’ developmental processes. These comparisons often highlight significant plot divergences, as well as differences in characterisation or in the general tone of the text. A reduction of violence in the final cut of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (J. Lee Thompson, 1972), for instance, is countered by ramped-up gore in its novelisation (p. 133). The fruit of such analysis reaches beyond the specific case studies to say a lot about the general nature of the different media.
Many rich elucidative threads can be extracted from Guariento’s series of case studies. However, the curious way he has opted to assemble them into eight book sections (none of which are topped and tailed by a commentary with which to crystallise any conclusions we might draw from their combined contents) does little to facilitate such efforts. He groups three of his sections according to (sub-) genre or tenuous narrative themes: thus, “Of Changelings, Antichrists and Devils (Incarnate)” brings together such unlikely bedfellows as Bedazzled (Stanley Donen, 1967) and Holocaust 2000 (Alberto De Martino, 1977) while “Dangerous Visions” ranges from Performance (Nicolas Roeg, 1970) to Zardoz (John Boorman, 1974). A further section centres on “Italian Genre Cinema” and two more on novelisations of films directed by John Carpenter and David Cronenberg respectively. Guariento is, I should note, completely up-front about the fact his case studies do not constitute an unbiased sample, but over-represent horror and sci-fi, having been “guided by nothing more scientific than my own remedial tastes” (p. 4).
In discussing his motivation for writing this book, Guariento points to the potential for a novelisation to “be much more than the simple replication of a film: it can be a reinvention, inviting us to read the same events in a different way” (p. 4). It is therefore ironic that the way he has organised his case studies would seem to reinforce a traditional bias that tends, when analysing these different forms of screenplay adaptation alongside one another, to uphold the primacy of filmmaking over novelisation. Only two book sections are motivated by any common feature of the novelisations themselves. Of these, “Better than the Film” damns its novelisations by faint praise, as the author makes it clear that he holds the three science-fiction films it encompasses in low esteem. This leaves the book’s final section “Ne plus ultra; or, That’s How it’s Done” as the only one to really cohere through a critical exploration of common features of the novelisations under discussion. Each book featured here has been carefully crafted to succeed as a novel in its own right. The approaches adopted by their various authors are dazzlingly different from one another – both in terms of the novels’ characteristics as stand-alone works and in their relationships to the films whose origins they share – which makes for a fascinating and fruitful juxtaposition.
When discussing novelisations, it is hard to avoid engaging with questions of quality. As is widely noted in this book and elsewhere, the form has rarely been associated with either critical prestige or significant remuneration for its authors who, often working to very tight deadlines, have seldom sought to make the project in hand their magnum opus. Although Guariento’s mission to “assess [novelisations’] value not merely as literature, nor as analogues of the cinematic experience, but as exemplars of intermedia” (p. 2) bears its own rich fruit, his inclusion of a section that brings together a selection of titles with higher-than-average aspirations also offers other rewards.
Discussing his novelisation of Taxi Driver (1976), writer Richard Elman raised a pertinent point: “If what I did in Taxi Driver is going to be called a ‘novelization’, then what Martin Scorsese did should be called a ‘filmization’ or a ‘movieization’. We both worked from the same bare bones of a script.” (p. 435) Each of the novelisations Guariento analyses in this section reinvents its source material in ways that far exceed the usual parameters of deviation from the film version. Looking at them side by side creates space to consider more fully an issue that Guariento often touches on elsewhere but without mining in any depth, namely: what literary techniques might be substituted for filmic techniques in order to create a written work whose power matches or even exceeds that of a film?
Up until this point, Guariento’s comparisons between filmic and written language generally highlight instances in which the noveliser’s efforts fall far short of the director’s mastery of style and technique. For instance, he observes of Joe Millard’s novelised finale to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966): “Gone is the film’s triangular motif, the hyper-extension of time and suspense, the grandiose sense of a dual between titans. Granted, a seven-minute staring contest is tough to sustain in prose – but it might have been worth the attempt” (pp. 196-197). In his final section, by contrast, he describes some of the ways novelisers have (at the very least) held their own in enriching the screenplay’s atmosphere or themes (as opposed to simply fleshing out characters or plot elements).
Perhaps the most interesting example Guariento discusses is E.W. Hildick’s novelisation of Monte Carlo or Bust! (1969), which he hails as “a stunning masterclass in film-to-prose adaptation” and “a love-letter to language” (p. 428). Hildick’s incorporation of concrete poetry-inspired visual puns and other unorthodox typographic layouts (a mosaic, a keyhole, and so forth) certainly sets it aside from the crowd but, as Guariento persuasively demonstrates, many of these choices also embody bold and innovative efforts to find corollaries for cinematic technique.
The contrast between old and new – the deliberate archaism of the novel’s language, versus its avant-garde typographic tricks – creates a lively comic tension that is quite irresistible, neatly mirroring, in prose, the cinematic contrasts within the film itself: the undercranked antics of “old-fashioned” silent comedy, versus the more cutting-edge devices of modern cinema (anamorphic Panavision lensing, split-screen effects and so on). (p. 428)
Invigorated, perhaps, by the quality of the Hildick’s writing, this is one of Guariento’s own best chapters.
With a populist readership in mind at least as much as a scholarly one, Light into Ink is written with consistent humour and panache. Its author’s bitchy snipes at the more risible elements of some of the books and films over which he casts his critical eye make clear that providing entertainment was at least as much a goal as providing information. In assessing the movie Moon Zero Two (1969), for instance, he observes “fight choreography that would disgrace a school playground” (p. 88). At the same time, his inclusion of a sometimes-overwhelming volume of background trivia qualifies it (on one level at least) as a joyous geekfest.
The book’s popular appeal should not, of course, be allowed to occlude the impressive range and depth of Guariento’s research. Indeed, the extent to which he succeeds in juggling the needs of different readerships is one of its great strengths. For the scholar, it contains a lot of hard facts as well as valuable critical observations. For anyone wishing to follow up on his sources, a substantial number of footnotes and a selected bibliography are supplied. The referencing is quite decent, although not as thorough as some might wish. I, for one, would be particularly interested in locating the source of some publication statistics he gives for the genre distribution of novelisations in 1982 versus 2018 (pp. 40-41). My biggest disappointment was the absence of an index. (What’s labelled as an index is actually a table of contents, albeit a fuller one than given at the front.) The real pity of this is that the book contains a wealth of material about films, books, and writers beyond the specific case studies – information that will be virtually impossible to locate at will.
Light into Ink is completed by its lavish illustration. Images include jackets of all the novelisations under discussion (sometimes in more than one edition), photographs of many of their authors, cover artwork from some of those writers’ other publications, miscellaneous other film and television tie-in books, and numerous movie posters. I reviewed the “Midnight Edition”, which is printed with a black and white interior; a full-colour “Deluxe” edition is also available.
Packed with information and critical insight, and attractively priced, Light into Ink will undoubtedly appeal to a wide range of readers. While fans and collectors of novelisations would seem to be the core readership Guariento sets his sights on, his study also contains a great deal to interest enthusiasts of pulp and genre fiction more broadly. On top of that, there is plenty of material to hold the attention of readers interested in learning more about the films themselves and, despite his assertion that “this study is not an academic treatise” (p. 5), the book also contains much of value to scholars of adaptation studies, paratexts, and media consumption. Enjoyable and informative in equal measure, this is a book I can recommend without hesitation.
M. Guariento, Light into Ink: A Critical Survey of 50 Film Novelizations (Ideogram Press, 2019).