Doctor Who, Star Wars, Alien … why do we love novelisations?
The death this week of Terrance Dicks, the prolific Dr Who writer who penned more than 60 novels extending the TV Time Lord’s adventures, made me realise something: I love novelisations.
The appeal of my stack of those old slim Target paperbacks, written by the likes of Dicks, Malcolm Hulke and others, was obvious in my childhood, growing up as I did at the tail end of the Jon Pertwee years. Tom Baker was “my” Doctor, so the chances of ever seeing the old William Hartnell or Patrick Troughton adventures were absolutely zero. In the days before endless repeats and on-demand viewing, paperbacks were the only way I could experience those stories.
When Star Wars came to my local cinema in early 1978, I immediately bought the novelisation, which was credited to director George Lucas. To my later chagrin, it was the “Special Young Readers’ Edition” with a yellow cover; I always wondered what I missed out on by not having the “proper” one. (I assume my parents insisted on the watered-down version for eight-year-old me, for fear of Barbarella-style space sexytimes lurking between its covers.)
Once I had seen Star Wars at the cinema, that was that. There was no way I’d be taken to see it again, home video was not a thing, so poring over the book, which I have still, was my only way of reliving this amazing, wondrous story. I later learned that although Lucas had the byline, the book – which hadn’t yet earned the title A New Hope – was actually written by Alan Dean Foster, the undisputed king of novelisations in the 70s and 80s. Dicks and Foster took up the most space on my childhood bookshelves, the latter writing book versions of a string of blockbusters: Alien, Terminator, The Black Hole, Clash of the Titans, The Last Starfighter, Star Trek: The Motion Picture … so when my daughter bought the novelisation of Star Wars: The Force Awakens three years ago, I had a weird frisson to see Foster’s name again.
Novelisations have traditionally served the geekier end of pop culture, where merchandise, collectibles and complete sets are more valued than among aficionados of, say, Pedro Almódovar. (There might be a novelisation of Volver out there.) But it is curious that they survived home video, never mind streaming. They’re strange beasts, anyway; we’ve seen the movie, we know how it ends, we know who lives or dies – so why bother putting it all on the page?
Because: the best novelisation writers add depth, backstory and extra dimensions to what we see on the screen, flesh out ideas and sub-plots that are wrapped up in a pithy one-liner in the movie, or end up on the cutting-room floor. They can enrich fictional universes – as with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, which began life on the radio, and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, written after the TV series.
Gaiman was one of many writers who credit Dicks’s Doctor Who adaptations with firing their own literary ambitions, saying he had decided at 11 that he would one day write a Who episode himself (he did) because Dicks had shown him how. Adam Christopher, author of a Stranger Things novel, has said novelisations “instilled a love and understanding of story in me". So there was no question about his future career: “I wanted to be a writer like Terrance Dicks.”
Novelisations are a springboard for both writers and readers – sometimes in surprising ways. Aged 12, I bought the novelisation of Blade Runner, not knowing that the book with Harrison Ford’s Deckard on the cover was actually Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I was confused because it bore little relation to the film I’d watched, but also intrigued. I’d never heard of Philip K Dick, but it led me to find out more. It turned out he wasn’t a relation to the Dicks already taking up so much space on my bookshelf, but I didn’t hold it against him.