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Film to Book Adaptations

The Terminator by Shaun HutsonThe book business calls them novelisations. That is the act of turning a film script into a novel. In truth they can turn out to be more like that old adage of trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

A ninety-page script arrives on your doormat and you are then left with the task of transforming it into a four hundred-page novel!  Screenplays work on the theory that one page equals one minute of screen time, so, how do you elongate these flimsy works into novels that not only work in their own right but that are still faithful to their source material?  I think that is the first and most important task when approaching a novelisation.  Forget about trying to ‘re-imagine’ the piece of work you’re adapting, don’t bother trying to write what you think the scriptwriter ‘meant’ to say (if he or she had meant to say that they would have done so in the original script!). Stay faithful to the structure of the script and film, keep the same characters and just do your best.  Having said that, there are no rules to say that you can’t add scenes and characters.  In fact you’ll probably just have to get the regulation number of words into the novel.

Stay faithful and add to the script

However, this branch of writing isn’t as restrictive as it might sound and if you’re lucky enough to get a novelisation of a film you like then you’re laughing.  When I did the novelisation of The Terminator no one had seen the film (mainly because it wasn’t finished yet!).  I had a third draft script to work from and that was it.  I didn’t even particularly like what I read but what the fuck did I know so I simply elaborated the scenes in the script, concentrating on the violence (my forte) to produce what turned out to be one of the biggest selling novelisations of the time.  I think it took me fifteen days to complete the book.  I wasn’t interested in the backstory, the lives of the characters outside the script and all that other stuff that writers who’ve done novelisations sometimes drone on about.  I wanted to be faithful to what was in front of me.

A different approach

Twins of Evil by Shaun HutsonIt was a different situation when it came to doing the novelisations of Twins of Evil and X The Unknown for Hammer.  The main difference was that I had always loved Hammer films so being asked to do these novelisations was great.  The other big difference was that they were old films (Twins of Evil was released in 1971 and X The Unknown in 1956) so people had seen and knew them.  But again my main objective was to stay faithful to the source material.  However, when I saw how thin the script for Twins of Evil was I realised that I was going to have to add a considerable amount of new dialogue and also new scenes and characters.  I thought I’d have a bit of fun by adding the names of Hammer characters from their other vampire movies just to see if real die-hard Hammer fans noticed.  I also wanted to write a ‘real’ vampire novel, to portray them how they should be and not the way they’ve become in the insipid Twilight series.  I wanted them to be powerful, ferocious and frightening, not fucking vegetarian!  But whatever else, I wanted to stay faithful to the script that Tudor Gates had written back in the 70s.

X The Unknown was slightly different.  The film is set in Scotland in 1956 and when I watched it I realised it wasn’t going to work unless it was transferred to a contemporary setting.  A lot of the dialogue didn’t work for audiences now, there was nothing current to attract readers who hadn’t seen the film and might be discovering the story for the first time but, even though I knew I’d have to change characters and ideas I still intended to remain faithful to the structure of the film and I think I have.  You can judge for yourselves when the book comes out in July.

The same thing is true of the next Hammer novelisation I’m working on which is The Revenge of Frankenstein.  Once again, it’s an old film (released in 1958) so people will have seen it.  I haven’t got too much room for manoeuvre but I’ll add scenes and characters just as I did in the other two books.

Restrictions on creativity

So novelisations offer restrictions that original novels don’t but they are also easier because all the plotting and characterisation has already been done for you and if you’re a lazy bastard like me then that’s fine!  As I said before, the main thing to consider is how faithful you’re going to be to the source material and I think that you should always bear that in mind.  Sometimes the source material is just so poor that there’s nothing you can do to improve it.  That was why I turned down the chance to do novelisations of Snakes on a Plane and Friday the Thirteenth Part VII!

There are novelisations I’d kill to do if asked.  If someone came to me and asked me to turn The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 Western masterpiece) into a novel then I’d think I’d died and gone to heaven.  However, the chances of that ever happening are remote in the extreme.  Knowing my luck I’m more likely to be asked to do the novelisation of Battleship!

It’s a strange market and I’ve often wondered what kind of people buy novelisations.  Fans of the films would seem to be the obvious answer and that’s why I always try and stay faithful to the source material.  If someone loves a particular film and wants the book as another memento of that movie then they don’t want to open it up and discover a storyline they’ve never encountered before.  I used to buy loads of the bloody things when I was a teenager if they were based on films I’d loved. That’s why the novelisations of Rocky and Network used to sit side by side on my bookshelf.  Ah, well, there’s no accounting for taste is there…?


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  1. Great to see how these things work, Shaun. I’ve been a big fan of you AND Hammer for longer than I can remember so I’m thrilled that you’re adapting them.

  2. Quite a fun article about a much-wondered about process. Fun to hear about the innards of a process.
    I’d be curious to know your thoughts on writing a novelization of a movie that’s based on a novel already. That’s got to be a weird cage to write from.

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