Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Famous Authors, Cheap Paperbacks

This blog is usually devoted to the fine books. The important books.

The kind of books we discovered in libraries as kids and checked out over and over.


But it's sometimes fun to acknowledge the less fine books. The less important books.

The kind of books we discovered on a rack in the drugstore that spun around and around.


Those titles are all paperbacks based on TV series of the 1970s -- specifically HAPPY DAYS, ROOM 222, and WELCOME BACK, KOTTER.

I've always been fascinated by the whole concept of movies and television shows being "novelized" into paperback books. I guess I can understand the motivation for publishing them: it's another way for a movie or TV studio to make subsidiary money from their product -- similar to bundling BATMAN or SHREK toys with Happy Meals. But I'm most intrigued by the consumer angle. Who, exactly, is the audience for these books? Certainly no one is drawn by their overall quality; almost invariably they are cheaply manufactured paperbacks with stock photos on their covers. The writing is usually adequate at best. They seem to be created with unsophisticated readers -- even nonreaders -- in mind. But what's wrong with that? At the risk of sounding patronizing, there's something kind of touching about a nonreader liking a movie or TV show so much that they want to keep savoring it, understand it better, and have a piece of it for their own, so that -- perhaps for the first time in their lives -- they reach for a BOOK to achieve those things.

I've been thinking about paperback novelizations ever since I wrote a blog entry about young-adult author Hila Colman this weekend. Listed among her many books was the title THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE. At first I thought she may have written a novel that inspired the 1967 Julie Andrews musical. Instead I discovered that she'd made her only foray into movie novelizations with a paperback adaptation of THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE. As a rule, novelizations are written by generally unknown authors; some appear to be issued under pseudonyms. But doing a bit of research this week, I discovered that a surprising number of well-known children's authors have published TV and film tie-ins over the years.

Norma Klein had already published MOM, THE WOLFMAN AND ME and several other children's books before doing a novelization of the 1973 disease-of-the-week TV movie SUNSHINE, a bestseller that remained in print for years and years.

Another Norma -- Norma Fox Mazer -- had already been a National Book Award finalist when she wrote a novelization of the (flop) movie SUPERGIRL in 1984.

Patricia C. Wrede had written many successful fantasies before joining the STAR WARS franchise with children's novelizations of the THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999), ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002) and REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005.)

YA fantasy writer Garth Nix wrote one book in the X-FILES franchise, THE CALUSARI (1997) before deciding that this type of writing-for-hire "really did not suit me." Other children's authors who wrote paperbacks based on TV series are Colleen O’Shaughnessy McKenna, who produced a couple volumes about "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, who did one for the teen comedy SQUARE PEGS.

Other novelizing novelists include Stephanie Calmenson (THE ADDAMS FAMILY, 1991), Patricia Hermes (MY GIRL, 1991), and William Kotzwinkle who put ET : THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL IN HIS ADVENTURE ON EARTH (1982) and SUPERMAN III (1983) between paperback covers.

Two novelizations that perplex me are Sherwood Smith's THE BORROWERS (1997) and Laurie Lawlor's LITTLE WOMEN (1994.) Why novelize movies based on well-known and still-in-print children's books?

Todd Strasser is probably the King of Novelizations. After starting his career with such well-received YA novels as ANGEL DUST BLUES and FRIENDS TILL THE END, he began alternating original fiction with paperback adaptations of such hit movies as FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF (1986), HOME ALONE (1991), FREE WILLY (1993), and many more.

Incidentally, even classic writers have been known to dabble in novelizations. Before World War II, both Margaret Wise Brown and Rachel Field adapted Disney cartoons into children's books -- though they were hardcover volumes and not paperbacks. Beverly Clearly did a four-book series based on the TV sitcom LEAVE IT TO BEAVER. And in 1966 Isaac Asimov produced a paperback novelization of the science fiction flick THE FANTASTIC VOYAGE.

Looking at this long list of illustrious hardcover authors, I wonder what led them to write these TV and movie tie-ins. I have never heard any of these writers address the issue, so one can only surmise.

Perhaps they did it for income. Writing children's books doesn't always pay the rent, so perhaps a paperback publisher -- to borrow a line from both a book AND a movie -- made an offer they couldn't refuse.

Perhaps they just wanted to try something new or different with their writing.

Perhaps they were actually fans of the TV show or movie in question. ...I can envision Isaac Asimov enjoying FANTASTIC VOYAGE, can't you?

Perhaps they wanted to expand their own audience. A successful movie novelization can be a big bestseller. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that more people purchased Patricia Hermes' novelization of MY GIRL than bought her own novel WHAT IF THEY KNEW? I imagine SUNSHINE sold better than most of Norma Klein's original novels.

And who knows? Maybe every now and then some fan of SUNSHINE recognized the name "Norma Klein" on the cover of one of her original books and decided to give it a try. It's probably happened to Todd Strasser, Patricia Wrede, and all the others as well.

Imagine a kid going from a nonreader...to a reader of cheap paperback novelizations...to actually reaching for an original novel.

Talk about a happy ending right out of the movies.


Melissa (& Billy) said...

I have a collection of movie tie-in books; some are better than others, as you might well imagine ('The Mask' was rather flat in book form, but 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' was much more richly detailed than the movie). I even read the novelization for 'Top Gun' before I saw it--thanks to a close inspection of the movie poster in a store (since it detailed how Maverick almost drowned, the scene where Goose dies was much more gripping in the book than in the movie, IMO). I loved novelizations of my favorite TV shows (Beauty and the Beast, Witchblade), and I think the pride of my collection is the novel for "Upstairs, Downstairs." There are several more in the U/D collection but they are getting harder to find.

You know the saying that the book is better than the movie? Well sometimes that's the case even when the book is written AFTER the movie!

Bybee said...

Norma Klein hit a home run with Sunshine. That is my favorite novelization of all time.

Beth said...

I read SUNSHINE when I was a kid because Norma Klein wrote it, I didn't see the movie. That was an ongoing theme in the 70's--sweet young mother dies. There were some pop songs along the same theme around then.

I loved the Happy Days novelizations which I think were purchased from Scholastic's book club at school. To my 5th grade self, they were hilarious. I would also steal my uncle's MASH books, though those were based on the original book, not the TV series. Also funny if you were in 5th grade.

Thanks for the memories!

Anonymous said...

One of the other novelizations Strasser did was The Wave, which led to him picking up the pseudonym Morton Rhue


janeyolen@aol.com said...

When "Prince of Egypt" came out, I wrote the picture book, Lynn Reid Banks did the novelization. Or an accompanying novel. We took the money and ran. Neither book (or movie as far as I know) ever made its money back.

But I accomplished what I set out to do when I finally accepted it: elevating the language back to the Biblical language from the movie's Yo Mo, leaving out the car chase (well, the chariot chase) etc.


Brooke said...

Out of curiosity, I just spent time reading customer reviews of Sunshine on Amazon.com. The funny thing? Quite a few of the reviews contain comments along the lines of "I've never seen a movie that did such a good job of being just like the book!" In other words, those readers thought the book preceded the movie, and were astounded at how good the film adaptation was. How funny!

Liz B said...

My personal favorite is David Levithan did the novelization of 10 Things I Hate About You; and the screenwriter for that film is Kirsten Smith, who wrote a YA Book, Geography of Girlhood.

Carm said...

I was a kid who liked novelizations too... It's sort of sweet in a sad way! :)

I had The Wave by Todd Strasser, Ferris Bueller's Day Off by Strasser, Some Kind of Wonderful by David Bischoff, Annie by Leonore Fleischer, Benji by Allison Thomas Sooner or Later by Bruce and Carol Hart (but they also wrote the screenplay).

I'm guessing I probably had more of these. Tee hee. I was a movie junkie too, still am. I guess my loves run deep.

hschinske said...

I had no idea Sunshine *was* a novelization.

Beverly Cleary did a book version of _Leave it to Beaver_, too.

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