Reading Room: Videodrome and the Lost Art of the Movie Novelization
It might not be an original observation, but it did all really used to be so different. There was a time when, after a film had finished its run at the cinema, you had to wait for months until it became available as a video rental to see it again and then even longer if you wanted to own a copy. Scenes that had been cut weren’t available as blu-ray or DVD extras. It wasn’t until the 90’s that it became commonly possible to see things like the director’s cut of Aliens or the less-frightening-but-also-less-stupid original ending to Fatal Attraction.
Filling the gap between the film and people’s access to it was the movie novelisation. These normally appeared at the same time as the cinema release, providing an opportunity to relive the experience of watching it or in some cases to pre-empt it. Kids in the 80’s might have had difficulties getting in to see the ’15’ rated Gremlins in the UK, but they could still read about all the mayhem in the book.
Some of these novelizations also served as an early form of director’s cut. Often they were written from early versions of the film, before certain sequences had been cut. So for example, many elements stripped from Alien 3 were still present in the book and it was possible to read about Han’s encounter with Jabba in Star Wars long before the Special Edition. Some of these adaptions became almost as beloved by fans as the originals.
So commonplace was the practice of novelisation that some unlikely titles appeared. Kenny Everett’s Bloodbath at the House of Death was one. Another was Videodrome.
A classic SF/Horror movie directed by David Cronenberg, the film described the disturbing, hallucinogenic experiences of TV station CEO Max Renn as he is drawn into the transformative power of Videodrome, a signal carried in violent imagery that causes physical change in the viewer. The film is full of Cronenberg’s trademark body horror; from a hand turned into a gun to scenes of sex with a living TV set (a scene still iconic enough to be referenced in a La Roux video). It’s one of his best films. But how does such a visual piece translate to prose?
Writer Jack Martin’s novelisation includes some cut scenes and back story but largely follows the same narrative path. His text is suitably visceral; almost cyberpunk at times. Striking though is that he makes us privy to Max’s thoughts throughout. This is very different to Cronenberg whose style tends towards detachment. This allows us not just to revisit the narrative but to experience it in a markedly different way. Perhaps inevitably, this change makes the story less unsettling. In some respects, the novelisation is almost a reversal of the director’s clinical adaptions of Crash and Naked Lunch.
A film so clearly not designed to be a crowd pleaser was a surprising choice for a novelisation. However, back in the 80’s, this book perhaps helped to keep the Videodrome signal transmitting.
Do any novelizations still hold fond memories for you?