Reading the movies

I am a certified movie freak. A cineaste. Huge film buff. Master of movie minutiae. A cinephile.

It’s difficult to attempt to pinpoint just when this happened. But cinematic art has dominated my life since I was a young boy. Some of the best experiences of my life involve seeing a film opening weekend in the theaters with people I love. I’ll go see a movie alone just as often as I will with friends. I’m the guy who can name a movie if you give me a starring actor, or tell you the director and year of release of a film being discussed. I’m overflowing with useless trivia about films that really affected me. I read the trivia section of imdb.com for fun. I quote films all the time in regular conversation. I’m honestly not as clever or quirky as my friends think I am, I’m just quoting obscure movies all the time. I can list off every Sam Peckinpah film in chronological order including the year of release. I wish I could somehow monetize this collection of cinematic data that lives in my brain. I could retire tomorrow if that were possible. My fiancée says that in a certain scenario where aliens land and can only communicate through movie references and trivia, I could legitimately save the world. Or, in a more real-life example, I can win some pitchers of beer at movie trivia nights.

I am also an avid reader. A book nerd. Word geek. A collector of paperbacks and first edition hardbacks. I attend author readings at bookstores.

I read everything, all the time. I always have. My parents said I learned to read very young, and I haven’t stopped. I read comic books as a kid. I read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment at age 14 for fun, not for a school assignment. As an adult I collect graphic novels of all genres. In college I devoured textbooks by day, and then read pulp horror novels at night. I also played drums in a band in college, and would garner inspiration by reading music biographies of all kinds. I read books about Jim Morrison, and I read poetry books written by Jim Morrison. I read Henry Rollins poetry books and other titles from his publishing company, 2.13.61. Jimi Hendrix biographies. Newspapers, blogs, obscure authors, feminist authors, mainstream authors, unknown new authors, and all the science fiction I can find. Gimmie that book, I’ll read it. Sylvia Plath, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack London, Bret Easton Ellis, Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft, Mario Puzo, Charles Bukowski, Dan Simmons, Tolkien. Going to Powell’s Books here in Portland, as I have been since I was a teenager, is a religious experience for me. Before I lived in Portland, I would drive up from Eugene to visit Powell’s and return with bags full of used paperbacks. My home always is dominated by bookshelves, and moving into a new house is mainly boxing up my books and carrying those heavy loads into my new library.

So naturally, combining my two great loves of movies and books is perfection. Books about movies. Movies based on books. Memoirs from the set of a film. Screenplays. Books about the behind the scenes making of the film. Art books examining the matte paintings, costume design, and model-making involved. If I’ve read the source material for a film, I have all that extra information with me as I watch the movie. This definitely increases my enjoyment of the film. And when I’m reading the printed version of the movie, I obviously have all the visual imagery in my mind as I read. Both experiences are greatly improved.

As a pre-teen I would watch a movie and then track down the novelization of it to read. Anything to further immerse myself in the world of the movie. Often the film novelization would be written by a known author looking to make an easy buck. Other times it was written by a nobody, and occasionally it was written by the screenwriter or even the director. I was always looking for explanations of confusing or abstract concepts in the film. Or just trying to find out exactly what happened to certain characters whose demise in the movie was off-screen, implied, or edited out so they could show it on television. I read Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of ALIEN for this very reason. There were sometimes scenes that were not in the movie, characters who weren’t in the movie, and even added prologues and epilogues. Often it was like reading the extended director’s cut with an added hour of reintegrated footage. If the book was written first and the film was just ‘based on’ the book, it might be nothing like the movie at all. Philip K. Dick’s book “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” is so dissimilar to BLADE RUNNER that the only commonality between the two is that there are artificial humans called replicants.

I also tracked down the novelization of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. It was written by Curtis Richards, which is a pseudonym for author Dennis Etchison. There’s probably not a very large audience for a novelization of a slasher movie. But I was happily surprised to read several chapters that actually explained the concept of evil that travels from person to person and is literally unstoppable. There were flashbacks to ancient Samhain rituals that (incorrectly) involved human sacrifices. This was fascinating to me as a teenager. For those people who didn’t buy how Michael Myers could suffer those injuries and just keep on attacking Laurie Strode, the book gave the back story in a very satisfying way, making me enjoy the movie even more. It was pure evil that traveled over centuries through different hosts.

Acclaimed author Orson Scott Card, famous for the countless Ender’s Game books, wrote a novelization of the James Cameron underwater adventure THE ABYSS. Piers Anthony wrote a great novelization of TOTAL RECALL, even though that film was based on a short story by Philip K. Dick. Vonda N. McIntyre wrote several of the Star Trek movie novelizations, after creator Gene Roddenberry himself wrote the novelization of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. David Morrell wrote the amazing book First Blood in the 70’s. After the Stallone film was made of that book, he himself wrote the novelizations for both Rambo: First Blood part 2, and Rambo 3. Another horror movie novelization that I read repeatedly was THE OMEN by David Seltzer. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK even got a novelization by Campbell Black. Alan Dean Foster seemed to do exceptionally well with film novelizations. I had several written by him including ALIEN, ALIENS, PALE RIDER, OUTLAND, STAR WARS, and THE BLACK HOLE.

Here’s a quote from Alan Dean Foster about taking film novelization jobs:
“I took it for two reasons. First, because I was a young writer and I needed to make a living. And because, as [a fan], I got to make my own director’s cut. I got to fix the science mistakes, I got to enlarge on the characters, if there was a scene I particularly liked, I got to do more of it, and I had an unlimited budget. So it was fun.”

There were also movie tie-in books called FOTONOVELS. I got into them as a young kid collecting a series of these based on the original Star Trek series. These ‘books’ were literally just a collection of hundreds of color stills from the film in chronological order. The dialogue was written on each photo like comic book styled balloons. They are essentially storyboards of the entire movie, but with actual frames from the movie instead of charcoal or pencil sketches. The one I remember reading a lot was the FOTONOVEL of STAR TREK 2: THE WRATH OF KHAN. My copy actually had a significant mistake in it. A portion of the book was out-of-order. 20-30 pages of the story happened way before it occurs in the film. There were no page numbers in this book, but since I had seen the film in theaters twice when it came out in 1982, I knew the story well. The pages were put in the wrong order. I wonder if that book with that printing error would be worth money now. I probably should have hung onto that.

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There were Fotonovels of the first 12 episodes of Star Trek, then the first two Star Trek films. I also had the Fotonovel of the INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS remake and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. These were all paperback-sized books. Then there were some larger format ones called Movie Novels of the films ALIEN and OUTLAND. I pored over these photos, especially focusing on the special effects and gore shots. These two books were from violent rated R films, so I was riveted by the detailed photos. Sometimes a shot will only show for a second in the film, so it’s almost subliminal. But these books had bright color pics of the chestburster scene in ALIEN and the depressurized heads exploding in OUTLAND. The amazing set design and alien design by H.R. Giger in ALIEN was also on gorgeous display in the Movie Novel. Prior to the arrival of VHS players, this was really the only way we had of reliving and analyzing the films.

After watching the great Roman Polanski film CHINATOWN, I was moved to read all I could about it. It’s a confusing movie with shielded character motivations, and the political machinations of the water bureau and Noah Cross passed over my head as a pre-teen. This was a pretty adult movie for my little kid brain to absorb. This movie wasn’t based on a book. Robert Towne wrote the screenplay. It is commonly regarded as the greatest screenplay ever written, and is studied in film schools as such. This was long before you could just look up any screenplay on the internet. I tracked down a company that printed up screenplays and sent them a check for $30 for the script to Chinatown. It came in the mail and I stayed up all that night reading it. Hearing the actors speak the lines in my head. Singing the Jerry Goldsmith musical themes (that trumpet!). Visualizing the amazing actors bringing these words to life. The screenplay really was just a bound paper script like actors would use on set. I learned the art of the screenplay format from reading this repeatedly. The way you indent, center, and list character lines so the actors can easily find their parts. The way you set the scene with location, time of day/weather (INTERIOR. OFFICE – NIGHT.). The short descriptive sentences written to get the point across without the flowery over-descriptive paragraphs like in a book. The brief stage directions for dialogue like ‘mocking’, ‘sing-song voice’, ‘wounded and sad’. The screenplay reads as a simple detective story that gets more intricate and complicated as you go. The movie improved and expanded it to film noir. After devouring the screenplay I watched Chinatown again, armed with all the knowledge gleaned from reading it. I loved it even more, and I still regard it as one of the best films ever made.

I would also buy all of the Art of Star Wars books as a kid. The original three Star Wars films changed my life, cinema itself, and marketing/merchandising forever. I found everything I could related to these films from action figures to models to comics and books. Each film put out books about the special effects and set design. Then there were Star Wars sketchbooks. These had what appeared to be legitimate blueprints and sketches of all the ships and vehicles to scale. Even if a ship was only glimpsed for 5 seconds in the movie, it had a toy made of it and pages dedicated to showing its design and function. Later, when I went to college, I was an architecture major for a year. I wonder if my obsessions with the Star Wars schematics had anything to do with that choice. I also collected the screenplays. These were often accompanied by color photographs from the films, and black and white storyboards of the onscreen action. Again, this was really the only way for fans to relive the experience of the films since this was before the emergence of the VHS home video market. You couldn’t just go watch your favorite movie whenever you wanted to. You just had to wait for a rare theatrical re-release, or watch an edited TV version if and when it aired on a network.

There were some storyboards in the Empire Strikes Back illustrated screenplay that actually changed my memory of the movie. In the battle on Hoth with the Imperial Walkers there was, at one point, a scene where a snowspeeder pilot becomes wounded and intentionally flies his ship into the window of one of the AT-AT walkers. This kills the pilots, causes the entire head of the walker to explode, and takes down one more walker during that famous battle. I don’t think this scene was ever filmed, but there are storyboards of it in this book. That would’ve had the rebels taking out 3 of the 5 walkers, and been a great addition to that battle. The first walker is destroyed by using tow cables to trip it, and the second walker is destroyed by Luke throwing explosives inside. Because, “That armor’s too strong for blasters.” In any case, since I had read this screenplay and soaked in the storyboards of this snowspeeder suicide attack, I burned it into my memory a little too well. I convinced myself that this scene actually was in the movie. Or honestly, it could have been storyboards in that art book just as well as it could have been on a BBC radio production. I listened to those on the radio as well, and later bought the cassette tapes. Maybe it was in the novelization, or the comic books, or the Story of Empire, or some Starlog Magazine article. But this kamikaze snow speeder takedown of an Imperial Walker was definitely absorbed by me as a kid. It wasn’t until years later when I saw Empire again on VHS that I realized that scene wasn’t actually in the movie. (Or, George Lucas had tinkered with his movies even more and removed the scene.) Imagination paired with obsession can do strange things to a person’s memory.

I could keep writing about this topic, but I may need to take a break and actually watch a movie. Or read a book about a movie. We shall see.

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6 comments on “Reading the movies

  1. Good read. Seems there are many intersections between books & movies, should keep you busy for a long time.

  2. Shane Dix says:

    This is brilliant, Darren…! It takes me back to my own younger years and the movie novelisations that I brought, and there were times while reading this, that I thought it was written about my youth…! I had (probably still have, somewhere) the adaptations of the Dollars films, Planet of the Apes sequels, and the first three Dirty Harry outings…

    Being an avid Star Trek fan, as well as sci-fi in general, the name Alan Dean Foster also featured heavily on my bookshelf due to his many movie tie-in novels. And yes, I also own all the Trek photonovels, but my Wrath of Khan is printed in the right order….!

    Now, I don’t have a great deal of faith in the mystic art of Astrology, but have you noticed that we share the same Birthday, albeit separated by a few years. It might have something to do with our common interests, it may not. Throw a love of that noblest of all instruments, the drums, and you have an Astrologer’s field day…!

  3. Margaret Linder says:

    Outstanding, Darren!! I am having such fun reading the comments here and on Facebook. You are bringing back many memories to your readers!!

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