July 2024
Alan Dean Foster

Backward and Forward

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

As opposed to extracting a screenplay from a novel, writing a novelization involves turning a screenplay into a full-length novel. Over the years I’ve ended up doing quite a number of these. Star Wars, four of the five Alien films, The Thing, The Force Awakens, and so on. Each time I’m given a copy of the script to work from in addition to whatever stills, artwork, actors’ photos and such that I can wrangle out of the studio or producers.

But till now I’d never done one that required me to extract a novel from a screenplay that hadn’t been made into a movie, or at least was actively in production. Further, the script in question turned out to be a bit different from my usual work. Although I’ve done stories with contemporary settings, I’m most comfortable writing about the future or more or less traditional fantasy.

So when I was asked to make a novel out of a charming, light, contemporary illusion that was also largely about modern relationships, I was initially a bit hesitant. Reading the actual screenplay alleviated that concern. Never having had the opportunity to write something that was entirely current freed me from the need to invent other worlds, futuristic technology, alien societies or environments, and so much more. To put it another way, I could let my imagination relax a bit. It also helped that the tail (sorry, quick pun there) is set in Southern California. Orange County, to be exact, an area with which I am quite familiar. My sister lives there and I grew up a bit to the north, in the San Fernando Valley, later moving myself to Santa Monica.

This freed me to focus on the story and the characters. For someone who has written a fair amount of straight fantasy, that some of the principal actors happen to be dogs was never an issue. What did intrigue me and contributed so much to the story was that I had the chance to write internal dialogue for them from a canine point of view. At one point my wife and I cared for six dogs, with nine cats (and yes, there are cats in the story too).

What made writing this particular novelization so different was that, as you may by now have surmised, I had nothing to go on or work with except the screenplay. While the assorted dog breeds were easy enough to describe, since the film itself is not yet in production I had to largely imagine what the human characters would look like, how they would move and act, what their specific environments might be like (homes, a city park, a pet salon, etc.). On the one hand this requires a lot more work than simply setting down in prose what one sees in stills from an actual film set, or production art, or even photos of the actors. On the other, it offers a fair amount of freedom, while also bearing in mind that the authors of the screenplay are always looking over your shoulder, because they have specific ideas of how every person and place should look.

Still, I essentially get to cast (with the exception of the canine characters) the movie, build the sets, design the costumes, invent special effects, and add my own personal touches to the story. When doing a standard novelization, most if not all of these specifics are already in place. I then elaborate on them, add my own new material, and the result is an expanded version of a film to come. Doing a novelization just from the script gives me leeway to inject whatever I feel fits a particular situation.

Example: One sequence in the story takes place in an antique store. Since the film hasn’t been shot, in the story I get to describe whatever antique store setting suits my fancy. For a writer that’s incredibly liberating. I had a great deal of fun inventing the “look” of the film-to-be. It may all be very different in the actual film, but for the moment the book is the only version.

It was a very different way to approach something I’ve been doing for many years, and a fascinating (if often more difficult) change of pace, writing-wise. I probably should mention the story’s name; Stuart. The book is available now from your usual sources. I can’t wait to see how it both accords with and differs from the film version to come.

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.