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What's so special about film-to-book adaptations?

What's so special about film-to-book adaptations?

We're all familiar with film adaptations of books, but what about book adaptations of films? George Chrysostomou explores how these can enrich the worlds created on film

Adaptations are the current currency of the movie industry. It’s not uncommon to see that the latest blockbuster or thrilling drama is inspired by a novel, video game, comic book or perhaps even a podcast. There are countless stories being retold again and again in new and slightly different ways. The journey of the page being adapted to the screen has been covered ad nauseam. But rarely is the process spoken about in reverse.

There are plenty of compelling reads out there that actually originated from the screen. Book adaptations of films aren’t that common, but it’s a medium that certainly requires additional attention and takes real skill to master.

Classic novelisations 

The most well-known version of a film making its way into the publishing industry is via the classic novelisation. Movie novelisations went through a boom period before the internet existed and during the time where it took longer for a film to receive home distribution. Fans wanted to keep learning more about the fictional worlds they had stepped into and needed to experience the story again in a new way.

They couldn’t simply google it, nor could they immediately purchase the production on tape. Thus, the novelisation was a great solution. Novelisations were usually written by authors who were not involved in the movie-making process. Instead, they would receive the most complete version of the screenplay to hand and would begin to write their adaptation based on that document.

The Goonies. Image: Rex Features

The Goonies (1985) is just one of many films that got the novel treatment. Image: Warner Bros.

Although changes could be made, there were times where a novelisation didn’t actually reflect what happened on the screen because of late-stage script adjustments that never made it to print. Scenes could be cut or altered and the novelisations were left outdated. 

"The novelisations were a small piece of movie-making history in their own right"

But there’s also a charm to this. The novelisations were a small piece of movie-making history in their own right. Massive films like Star Wars, ET, Back To The Future, The Goonies, Alien, and even The Terminator all received their own page adaptation. It was a completely unique cinematic experience which occasionally became accessible before the films were even available to watch.

It wasn’t uncommon to be able to find out the plot of the film via these books before even heading to the cinema. Novelisations in this form are a dying art now that the internet retells the story in a million ways and the releases arrive on streaming almost immediately. But for a time, they were everything for cinema lovers. 


Strangely, the screen to page process has also opened up the possibility of sequels. Perhaps there simply wasn’t the audience or financial investment to create a follow-up to a cult classic. Maybe a sequel idea simply felt more appropriate for a novel. Regardless, some terrific films have been expanded upon thanks to this change of medium.

In recent years for example, Heat, which was released in 1995 and was directed and written by Michael Mann, has received its own novel. Heat 2 explores ideas that Mann wanted to dive into further, and with the help of author Meg Gardiner he has made his dream into a New York Times best-selling reality.

"These novel sequels provide a creative outlet for new concepts to be developed"

ET: The Book of the Green Planetby comparison, shockingly continued the extra terrestrial’s journey after the completion of the film’s narrative. Written by William Kotzwinkle, the bizarre book was supposedly inspired by a story from director Stephen Spielberg himself.

Regardless of the influences on the tales, these novel sequels provide a creative outlet for new concepts to be developed. That’s a wonderful idea, that should be encouraged for those movies that never got a chance to continue on their path. 

The benefits of these books

But whether it’s a sequel, novelisation or perhaps even a prequel, what are the benefits of reading a novel as opposed to waiting for the big screen version? Heat 2for example, is heading into production, so surely film buffs could just wait for that instead? 

Well, the answer is all about character and world-building. A novel can take its reader deeper into the mind of the characters at the heart of these stories. It can convey their thoughts and feelings throughout iconic moments that the films had to represent in a more visual way. Novels don’t rely on dialogue or the blocking of a scene. They provide insights that simply aren’t possible in the cinematic medium.

Heat Warner Bros

Heat (1995) got a sequel in the form of Heat 2 by Meg Gardiner and Michael Mann. Image: Warner Bros.

Setting descriptions can pack in more detail too. Although a film might show a fantastical backdrop, zoom in on a prop or feature a specific costume choice, it doesn’t always tell the audience why those things are important. Novelisations and sequels have managed to take that extra step and actually shine a light on some of those movie-making choices that might not have been obvious in their original form. 

Novelisations and sequels obviously won’t ever replace cinema, and there’s no need to choose one or the other. But these two mediums are incredibly complementary. The books truly elevate the movie viewing experience and provide the creative minds behind those hits with another avenue to explore their characters and worlds. 

Cover image: Lucasfilm

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