Consider the plight of the blockbuster film novelization writer: armed with little more than a draft of the script and whatever scattered specifics are available, unable to access the film as it will exist in its final cut, this brave soul must conjure a literary version of an as-yet-nonexistent film. It must be a hell of a challenge.
I’ve been considering this plight recently, more than I ever imagined I might. It’s all the fault of Pacific Rim, a big, loud, action-y summer blockbuster that captivated me in a way very few films ever have. It’s a classic story of mechs versus monsters; its expansive, franchisable world is packed tightly into two hours by master director Guillermo del Toro
Staring down the long months between theatrical and home release, spurred on by a growing online fan community, I tracked down a copy of the novelization. It was my chance, I thought, to dip into and out of the story and the world: the English major equivalent of fully poseable action figures.
But like the English major I was, I couldn’t leave my copy of the book alone and just enjoy it. Pretty soon, I was marking it up on nearly every page, scribbling hearts and frowny faces according to how I felt about novelization writer Alex Irvine’s adaptation choices. Who the hell annotates a novelization?
My notes, I’ve noticed, follow a pretty clear pattern: I heart character details, but I frown at the moments where those details contradict the film or my interpretation of it.
Peppered with scenes that couldn’t fit in the final cut of the film, the novelization is great for expanding the traits of secondary characters. Thus we learn that the Russian Jaeger pilots, the Kaidanovskys, love Ukranian hard house (heart).
But they bring their boombox with them everywhere, the same way the Wei triplets are always “accompanied by the syncopated thump of their ever-present basketball” — as though each team can only have one defining prop (frowny face).
The two scientists, Newton Geiszler and Hermann Gottlieb, bicker and glare “like an old married couple” (heart). Newton, played in the film by Charlie Day, speaks like a “Grade-A Imperious Nerd” (heart). But Hermann has “a cadence that started off German and got uptight from there” (frowny face), a description that completely loses actor Burn Gorman’s hilariously British rolled Rs. Newton describes his own actions as “balls-out crazy” (heart) and wants to “open himself up to the alien alpha waves of a nonhuman sentience” (“sexy,” I scribbled in the margin). But another character muses on the chip on Newton’s shoulder that matches that of the hunky white male protagonist, Raleigh (frowny face, man; it’s not like that at all).
Raleigh’s characterization suffers the most on the page. On-screen, he’s played by actor Charlie Hunnam like an excitable golden retriever; though he spends a small amount of time licking his wounds after losing his brother in a Kaiju fight, he’s pretty much over it the moment he’s introduced to his future Jaeger co-pilot, Mako Mori (played onscreen by Rinko Kikuchi).
But on the page, Raleigh is that kid with the chip on his shoulder — and a fairly inappropriate attitude toward the co-pilot he’s supposed to respect and value. Take, for example, the moment Raleigh meets Mako for the first time, outside the Hong Kong Shatterdome. On film, Raleigh and Mako share a look of “oh no, he/she’s hot” and a small respectful bow after Mako comments on him in Japanese that she doesn’t realize he can understand. In the novelization, on the other hand, Raleigh’s third-person limited perspective narration tells us, “Nobody did embarrassment like the Japanese. Mako blushed right to her hairline and bowed several times.” A moment later, book-version Raleigh brags about his Kaiju-fighting prowess before the narration tells us, “he glanced over at Mako. Who could get off a line like that and not check in on the closest pretty girl to see how it had registered?”
The novelization seems determined at moments like these to play Raleigh as your typical white loner hero and Mako as the background love interest. Gross. More than gross: boring.
Though the novelization’s chapters rotate between limited third-person perspectives, Mako herself gets, at most, half of one chapter as the POV character. Meanwhile, the “Kaiju Prayer” included to portray humanity’s most mistaken reaction to the apocalypse begins, “We are the sisters of the Kaiju.” FROWNY FACE.
In her book Hard Bodies, scholar Susan Jeffords argues that Hollywood blockbusters of the 1980s and ‘90s took major inspiration from the persona of president Ronald Reagan. Blockbusters are, she reminds us, inherently conservative: designed to appeal to and avoid offending the widest possible audience. In the wake of Reagan’s immense popularity at the polls, Hollywood churned out “spectacular narratives about characters who stand for individualism, liberty, militarism, and a mythic heroism.” These characters are always male, of course. Scrutinizing summer box office offerings of the past five years, I fear we’ve yet to truly move past this formula.
Take, for example, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, which features Superman and Zod battling to the death in the middle of Metropolis, unconcerned with the civilian collateral damage caused. (I have to admit here that I didn’t see the film. I meant to, but after reading Chris Sims’s compelling takedown at Comics Alliance, I couldn’t muster the energy to watch a Superman film that seemed determined to perform character assassination on its hero. To put it more bluntly, Superman doesn’t kill. That’s what makes him super.) Compared to the comics, it’s not a stretch to see Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer’s version as exactly the kind of conservative, individualistic narrative Jeffords describes — one so focused on its singular hero that it loses track of its own ethics.
I didn’t see Man of Steel, but at DragonCon this year, I was treated to a live reading of its novelization’s first chapter by Bill Corbett of RiffTrax fame. He pulled out the mass market paperback to the dutiful groans of 800 fellow geeks. Though Corbett’s performance — complete with voices, sound effects, and occasional riffing — added to the hilarity, it certainly wasn’t necessary. The joke was in the very idea that someone would treat a big-budget schlock-fest like literature.
Aside from its Reagan-esque trappings, Man of Steel is everything that’s wrong with blockbuster film franchise culture: needlessly dark, heavy of tone, taking itself far too seriously. In the midst of a summer string of such movies and their loner white dude heros, Pacific Rim was a breath of fresh air. It’s the anti-Man of Steel, the anti-Star Trek Into Darkness. As Sam Keeper eloquently argues in a blog post on “The Visual Intelligence of Pacific Rim”:
“What bothers me more is the critical attitude that reads a film like Dark Knight Rises as nuanced or complex due to its moral ambiguity… rather than, you know, a film that contradicts itself on literally every conceivable thematic level, to the point where the film is a giant grimdark mess of growling and posturing, sound and fury saying nothing. The flip side of that, of course, is that a film like Pacific Rim is treated as somehow naive or insignificant because it dares, gasp!, to have not just a unified message, but a quite positive, affirmative message, spoken not in the language of Lifetime movies or this year’s crop of Oscar-bait, but in the language of Metal, the language of force and bombast and people in giant fucking robots punching Godzilla in the face.”
But between the covers of the novelization, it feels a hell of a lot more The Dark Knight Rises than it actually was.
Keeper is smart to note that it’s Pacific Rim’s visual intelligence that lifts it above its summer blockbuster brethren. Alex Irvine, bless his heart, didn’t have access to del Toro’s masterful visuals; he couldn’t know that del Toro would use them at every step to subvert those Reagan-esque tropes. He couldn’t know that the first meeting between Mako and Raleigh stages a sly bait-and-switch, where the movie we thought we sat down to see, about some loner white dude hero, becomes the movie it actually is, about a strong, calm, and confident Asian heroine and her loyal puppy sidekick.
To return to that scene on film, then: Mako marches across the helipad, dead center in the shot, revealed and then framed by the black umbrella she carries. When Raleigh emerges from the helicopter, he is farther from the camera, shot from the side: suddenly much less important, watching the film’s hero march straight into the story.
It’s a gorgeous moment, and it’s completely lost in the novelization. The misreading is enough to make you wonder why films need novel versions at all.
Why do we? In the 1960s and ’70s, pre-DVD and pre-DVR, novelizations of television shows like Star Trek gave readers a chance to re-experience a show after it had aired. In the ’80s and ’90s, they helped fill that deep valley between theatrical run and home release. That gap is much shorter now than it was twenty years ago—even technically nonexistent if you don’t mind pirating a low-quality cam version of the film—but for passionate fans (myself included), it still rankles. Even now, books are more accessible to certain audiences: the cineplex-deprived, maybe even the sheltered, but more importantly, the sight-impaired.
In this case, though, I’d rather we pooled our money to buy audio description tracks for those who can’t see Pacific Rim. The novelization gets too much too wrong.