The State of the Movie Novelization in the Era of Spoiler Culture

By  · Published on October 23rd, 2015

One of the big things that’s different about Star Wars: The Force Awakens from the previous movies is its December release date. This will be the first live-action episode of the saga to not open in May. Less noticeable is another change in tradition: the novelization of The Force Awakens will be the first to not hit stores before the movie bows in theaters. The book, written by Alan Dean Foster, will be available in digital form day-and-date with the movie, on December 18th. The physical, hardcover edition won’t be in stores until January 5, 2016.

That’s a big change from the days of Star Wars novelizations giving fans an advance on the stories they so eagerly anticipated. Back in 1999, we could read The Phantom Menace about a month before we saw it (and it was arguably better that way). Same with Attack of the Clones in 2002 and Revenge of the Sith in 2005, the latter actually 46 whole days ahead. The original trilogy was similar. The Empire Strikes Back was seen on the page more than a month prior to the screen, while the Return of the Jedi book was published less than two weeks before the movie, yet that one went on to become the best-selling novel of 1983.

The novelization of the first movie – then titled “Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker” and also written by Foster, though credited to George Lucas — arrived a whopping six months early. But of course there wasn’t a level of excitement to find out what happens as soon as possible then, with a plot to a pulpy space opera that few foresaw being one of the biggest movies of all time. The novelizations of the first two sequels, however, would understandably be in huge demand in the time before you could find spoiler rumors all over the web and analyze movie trailers frame by frame in your own home.

This week, while the world celebrated the Back to the Future trilogy, I remembered that I read the novelizations of both the sequels. I was into reading books before their movie counterparts in general at the time, whether the property originated in literary form or not, but also I had long been looking forward to the continued time-travel adventures of Marty McFly, and the Back to the Future Part II novelization was in stores a few weeks before the movie’s release. I dove in and read as fast I could to finish in time for opening weekend. The book of the third installment was actually published a week after the movie opened, and it’s possible I waited to see it until I’d read it, just because that’s how I was back then.

Apparently I was different from most readers of novelizations, as they’re said to be more likely to read the book after the movie. Especially if the novelization is able to fill any holes in plot or character or just provide some extra exposition and context. Back in the days before home video, novelizations, which have been around since 1912, were read later because they were fans’ only way of revisiting the stories once they left the theater. Once sequels became a big deal, though, fans sought the novelizations out immediately. The book for Jaws 2, for instance, sold pretty well for its two months on shelves before the movie hit theaters, then sales dropped once the story was on the big screen.

Plenty of novelizations still arrive in advance. The “junior novelization” of Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur is now in stores ahead of the movie’s November 25th release. Kids could also read the texts for Cinderella, Inside Out, Hotel Transylvania 2 and The Peanuts Movie before they could see the actual movies. There was even a “junior novel” based on Avengers: Age of Ultron out a month before the movie version. That wasn’t the case for the “junior novelization” of Jurassic Park, however. That was published a few days after. Too bad for those of us who’d read Michael Crichton’s original novels “Jurassic Park” and “The Lost World” before seeing the movies and wanted to stick with tradition.

Not that this predominance of “junior” novelizations over books for adults is of interest to us anyway. Older readers actually seem to have very few options for novels based on movies these days. This year, aside from The Force Awakens, there’s the new Crimson Peak novelization, but I haven’t seen anything else. Next year, so far, there are only books based on Risen and Ghostbusters, the latter being another arriving weeks in advance, which is great for anyone who can’t wait to see what Paul Feig has done with the material for his “all-girl” reboot. Last year, by comparison, there were novelizations for Interstellar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Noah and many more. The one for Godzilla, published after the movie opened, even hit the bestseller list for a bit.

Given the success of the Godzilla book (and relatively recent bestseller-list charters like The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel), I’m surprised at how few adult-targeting novelizations there are this year, even from Titan Books, which tends to put out most of these tie-ins. If it’s a matter of the majority not selling well, never mind being bestsellers, I’m surprised that’s the case, that there’s not more of a demand for especially advance versions of hot movies in an era when people seem to seek out every bit of information they can on a movie before it comes out.

It could be more that Hollywood is less interested in catering to that demand, choosing the “junior” versions, if any, because those contain simplifications of the movie plots rather than the sort of extra material fans used to expect to find when they would read novelizations after seeing the movie. There’s no worry about leaks or the chance of a novelization being too different from the final cut of the movie or including deleted scenes or merely offering embellished details and subtext that make the screen version come off as incomplete.

There ought to be no reason the novelization of The Force Awakes can’t be published a month ahead. But today’s online culture has ruined the possibility for an advance publication because of the way so many media outlets seek to turn spoilers into traffic. The last three live-action movies came out in the age of the Internet, but somehow even with Ain’t It Cool News posting a review of the Phantom Menace script in early 1999, ahead of the movie’s debut, that kind of thing was still a niche interest. Most moviegoers weren’t even aware that sort of thing existed, and those who did were more respectful about keeping their discussion to fan forums.

Of course, with The Force Awakens there’s also the factor of its director, J.J. Abrams, being known for his “mystery box” secrecy. The nontraditional lateness of the novelization fits with the rumor that the movie also won’t screen in advance for the press. But there’s no way it’s only his doing. I don’t expect the novelizations of the future, non-Abrams-helmed installments to go back to normal. Will anyone mind? Probably not within the part of the Star Wars fanbase that likes to read everything put out linked to these movies.

As for the state of the rest of the novelization market, it’s unlikely that anyone will protest changes to and decrease in a literary form that isn’t taken very seriously. I don’t know why that is, given that there have been some quality tie-ins and also given that on a certain level, aside from the consideration of origin, a decent novelization isn’t any different than a so-so novel like “The Martian” or “The Girl on the Train” when it’s just being read by people looking to get a jump on an upcoming movie adaptation.

Titan Books appears to be increasing novelizations of TV shows while decreasing those based on books. If the movie novelization continues to fade away, perhaps we can finally see an evolution in the idea. I’ve always wondered why there can’t be publications adapted from movies the way movies are adapted from book, not as a piece of marketing-driven merchandising but out of an actual desire to creatively reinvent a cinematic story on the page.

Who wants to start by buying the novel rights to Jupiter Ascending? That story and its universe could find a whole new life in literary form.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.