Thursday, November 8, 2012

To novelize or not to novelize

Novelizations of movies are not uncommon. During the 1970s, they were very, very common. It seemed that just about every movie—regardless of its subject matter or genre—was novelized. Heck, I remember reading a novelization of Young Frankenstein.

Probably the oddest novelization was when John Carpenter remade The Thing in 1981. Alan Dean Foster wrote a novelization of that movie. DESPITE THE FACT THAT IT WAS BASED ON A SUPERB NOVELLA BY JOHN CAMPBELL!  Oh, well, Foster is an excellent writer and did a good job producing a book that was otherwise completely unnecessary.

But there were two movies from this era that were never novelized. The first two Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve never saw their plots turned into prose.

Why not? I’m not completely sure. I actually haven’t researched this as thoroughly as I’d like to (though I cleverly tricked some fellow members of a comic book forum into doing some research for me), but it seems that Godfather author Mario Puzo, who wrote the first version of the Superman film script, had a clause in his contract that stated his story couldn’t be adapted into any other format unless he did it himself. Though Puzo’s script was drastically changed by other writers before the film was produced, that clause was still in effect. He probably wanted to write (and thus get paid for) any novelizations himself, but this never happened.

So there never was a novelization (or a comic book adaptation) of either Superman or Superman II. (Keep in mind that I am not completely sure all this is true.)

Whatever the reason the films were never novelized, it was a good thing. Because though those two films are excellent, the lack of novelizations meant that veteran comic book writer Elliot S! Maggin was able to write two original Superman novels, which were published concurrent with each of the films.

The world is a richer place because of this. Maggin’s two novels—The Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday—are more fun than a barrel of red kryptonite.

(You can, by the way, read them HERE and HERE.)

Last Son, for instance, involves an alien master-villain who steals some newly discovered Einstein papers as part of a plan that eventually involves time travel, planetary-scale real estate swindles, and mass mind control. Interspersed within the main plot are flashbacks to Smallville, in which we get details of Clark’s career as Superboy and his early friendship with a pre-bald Lex Luthor. And it’s all written in a witty, entertaining prose style that brings me back to re-visit the novel every couple of years. I never get tired of reading it.

Maggin’s characterization of Luthor is notable as well. This Luthor is still the scientific criminal genius that he always SHOULD be, but he actually becomes kind of likable. He’s a crook, yes, but he’s got a snarky sense of humor and he never seems to actually endanger anyone except Superman. This makes the Smallville flashbacks all the more poignant—Lex’s descent into crime and his hatred of Superman is tragic because we can so clearly see that he could have been a good guy and he could have been Superman’s best friend. It also leaves hope for his eventually redemption—a theme that carries over into a wonderful plot twist in Miracle Monday.

All this makes one plot twist in The Last Son of Krypton, in which Lex and Superman are forced to team up for much of the novel, cool beyond words. Whereas the book itself clocks in at 9.7 on the Bogart/Karloff Coolness Scale, the team-up aspect reaches a perfect 10.

From page 189: Superman: “You’re a good man, Lex Luthor. Ever thought of going into the hero business?”

Lex: “Nah, you never get a chance to sleep late.”

Maggin also does a fantastic job of having Superman use his powers in clever ways. This is particularly notable in a couple of chapters of Last Son. In one chapter, Superman has ten seconds to stop ten mini-helicopters from using sonic waves to break into ten different banks. In a later chapter, Superman spends a night on global patrol, performing dozens of super-feats across the world in his efforts to save/help people.

Since the 1970s, superhero novels have become fairly common, but Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday are still two of the best.

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