When a movie is made based on a novel, the source material is given automatic and unquestioned respect, often bordering on reverential. But when the process is reversed—when a novel is written based on a movie and its original screenplay—it is a very different story.
Novelizations are sometimes derided as some sub-mutant form of literature—not real novels and a lowly form of writing. Well, anyone who holds this snobbish, elitist viewpoint has never written a novelization—and probably never read one either.
The ratio of good to suck among novelizations is the same as all fictional works; most are forgettable, some are terrible, many are good, and a small percentage are outstanding works of art. As far as the mechanics of writing are concerned, it is actually much harder to write a novelization than an original novel from scratch. Turning an original screenplay into a novel that remains faithful to the vision of the script writer and film-makers and yet adds something unique to the experience is a challenging craft to master. Here is a list of the best ten novelizations ever—books that succeed as a stand-alone literary experience on their own while still paying proper homage to the cinematic source material that spawned them.
“The Abyss” (1989)
Novelization by Orson Scott Card
Based on the screenplay by James Cameron
One of best novelizations you will ever read. But to call it a novelization would be a dis-service. It is a brilliant epic science fiction novel by a master writer in top form. It pulls off the seemingly impossible and manages to take the vision of one of the most gifted cinematic storytellers of all time and translate it to the novel form. I love Michael Crichton’s “Sphere”, but this is a far more imaginative take on the same premise with better execution.
Novelization by Dennis Etchison (writing as Jack Martin)
Based on the screenplay David Cronenberg
While it is impossible for a novelization to capture Cronenberg’s relentlessly harrowing atmosphere of paranoia, James Woods killer performance, and Debra Harry’s haunting presence—Dennis Etchison (writing as Jack Martin) comes about as close as possible in this crisp, fast-moving, very readable and mostly faithful adaption of a revolutionary piece of avant-garde cinema.
“Final Destination 3” (2006)
Novelization by Christa Faust
Based on the Screenplay by James Wong and Glen Morgan
Based on characters created by Jeffry Reddick
James Wong and Glen Morgan wrote some of the greatest “X-Files” and “Millenium” episodes and do a bang up job with this spooky, supernatural slasher film. But here is a case where the novelization does not just compliment the movie—it surpasses it—by a lot. And keep in mind I really like this movie.
Christa Faust’s adaption is full of rich characterizations, insightful narrative, revealing interior monologues, and even some really emotional scenes. Everything in this book just feels right and rings true. If this were separated from the movie and released and marketed by a major publishing company as a young adult horror novel, it would garner rave reviews and be a smash success.
“Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972)
Novelization by John Jakes
Based on the screenplay by Paul Dehn
Anybody who has ever read any of Jake’s popular historical fiction classics such as “The Bastard” or “North and South” knows what gifted and polished storyteller he is. He has a terrific readable style, good tight descriptions, and a great sense of pacing. Jakes really captures the dark, brooding Orwellian feel of the movie and does a great job getting us inside the mind of Caesar. A real page turner with exciting action sequences. The ending is based on an earlier version of the script and is even darker than what is the final theatrical cut.
“Basic Instinct” (1992)
Novelization by Richard Osborne
Based on the screenplay by Joe Eszterhas
There is a reason a Hollywood bidding war broke out for the rights to the “Basic Instinct” script. It is a fantastic screenplay with pristine structure, great characters, and knockout dialogue. This neo-noir classic was brought to life by director Paul Verhoeven. Richard Osborne adapts the screenplay with flawless execution, seamlessly blending his own words and style with Ezterhas’s, creating a fast-paced, titillating, addictive read.
Novelization by Alan Dean Foster
Based on the screenplay by James Cameron
Story by James Cameron, David Giler, Walter Hill
Based on characters created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett
This is can’t miss for two reasons. One—Alan Dean Foster is the all-time master of the novelization. Just about any of his adaptions are worth reading. Two—James Cameron films always make for great novels. Cameron is not just a control-obsessed visionary director. He is also one hell of writer and always creates realistic, memorable characters. Foster does a superb job in balancing character and action in this immensely entertaining novel.
“The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)
Novelization by Donald F. Glut
Based on the screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan
Based on the story by George Lucas
Maybe the greatest fantasy adventure story of all time, “The Empire Strikes Back” is just about universally considered to be the best “Star Wars” film, and it all starts with the marvelous screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Having such wonderful and rich source material to work with is a mixed blessing because it also raises the expectations of the reader. Donald F. Glut succeeds immensely really capturing the flavor of the movie. As with “The Abyss”, this book succeeds as a novel on its own. All three novelizations of the original trilogy are outstanding.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”
Novelization by Steven Spielberg
Based on the screenplay by Steven Spielberg
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was like a quasi-religious out of body experience for me on that Thanksgiving weekend back in 1977. I picked up this book the same weekend thinking it would be impossible to recreate the experience in fictional form, but this novelization—written by the man himself—comes pretty damn close. There is also great supplemental information, backstories, and some great insight into the Roy Neary and Lacombe characters. A well-done adaption of a powerful, classic film.
Here is a vintage interview with Spielberg done by RogerEbert in 1977 that provides evidence it was indeed the bearded one himself who wrote this novel and not a ghost writer. Of course he had no beard back then.
“The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)
Novelization by Greg Cox
Based on the screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Story by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan
Admittedly this book does not add much new material to the screenplay but Cox does a great job of capturing each character, delivering interior monologues, and pacing the epic action. A strong, workman-like adaption that is a must own for those who dug the film and for Batman fans in general.
“Dressed to Kill” (1980)
Novelization by Campbell Black
Based on the screenplay by Brian De Palma
This truly reads like a thriller novel. Campbell Black wisely stays away from trying to mimic De Palma’s visual poetry by simply describing what transpires on the screen and focuses on character development and motivation.
Editor's note: Since posting this I have read several novelizations worthy of consideration for this list including "Willow" by Wayland Drew, "Interstellar" by Greg Keyes, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" by Alex Irvine, and "Supergirl" by Norma Fox Mazor, and more. New article on the subject coming soon.