From film to fiction: On novelization

Novalization

I first came to know such a thing as “novelization” in the early 1990s via Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was also the first English-language novel I read. After the book, I watched the movie on video and purchased the soundtrack on cassette tape. I have to say, to explore the same story in three different ways is indeed an interesting experience. (Note: A fourth way would be to watch a DVD because one can easily pick and review any of the passages, with or without the subtitles, director’­s comments, deleted scenes, alternative endings, etc.)

Wikipedia has some pretty good insights into novelization, mainly on how film and novel can benefit each other in terms of promoting THE STORY. I find it fascinating that novelization often serves as a “momento” to film, particularly “during the 1970s before home videos became available”. I imagine that since the birth of DVDs in 1995, the nature and significance of novelization would have changed considerably. Nowadays, it should do more than “re-telling the film in written words” in order to keep readers interested.

(Indeed, most of the reviewers online share the view that Spielberg should focus on making movies. They think his novelization of his own famous film reads very much like a screenplay.)

A recent novelization I came upon is Randy Alcorn’­s Courageous, which is based on the independent film of the same title, directed by Alex Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick and produced by Sherwood Pictures in 2011. It is a book about fatherhood — specifically, in a Christian context. Yet the view conveyed through the story, regarding how parents should willingly and bravely shoulder the responsibility of shaping their children into good citizens, is definitely a universal one.

What intrigues me about Courageous as a novelization of a successful film is Alcorn’s explanation in his “Author Note” that only 20 percent of the book derives directly from the film. In other words, 80 percent of the content is created by Alcorn, not only to complement the rich message already expressed in the film, but also to further explore the characters and provide THE STORY with extra dimension.

This is obviously a difficult task, but Alcorn, as a highly experienced author, has achieved it well. A rich variety of plots and characters are added to investigate the nature and significance of police work in contemporary America. Portrayals of the serving officers and their families — their hopes and fears, joy and sorrow, plenty of bitterness, disappointment, sacrifice and loss, but very few rewards and hardly any recognition — are splendidly detailed. Other issues, including immigration, unemployment, drug use, crime, gender equality, adoption, old age, divorce and parental negligence, are handled with ease.

My favorite character, Sargent Brad Bronson, is created in the novelization to reflect the “tough” side of police work. He shows no mercy towards either criminals or colleagues, believes in beating up perpetrators before asking questions (I particularly like his head-butts), and resents the “police information officer” whose job, in his view, is simply to make the police look nice and friendly in the eyes of the public. Sargent Bronson’s constant use of excessive force and subsequent confrontations with the PIO is an indicator of the fierce desire that all police officers have to protect themselves against any potential injustice, both out there on the street and deep within their own department. However, his being sensitive and passionate about the most loyal of all friends clearly exhibits the one true quality required to be a lifelong police officer — you simply have to care.

In short, Alcorn has done an excellent job re-presenting the Kendrick Brothers’ excellent film as a novel. In Courageous, he successfully highlights the numerous similarities between police work and fatherhood — both require a sense of honor, justice and responsibility, a desire for one to achieve one’s best, no matter how tough the road ahead is. Being a father is as much a lifelong process of self-sacrificing, monitoring and regulating as working as a police officer. Both are seldom promoted, however, which is ‘why this book is valuable.

And this is precisely how I feel about novalization — a novel itself is a piece of art work to be appreciated and explored, even though it may have derived from the same idea that has been presented, perhaps many times, in completely different ways. THE STORY remains, however, and it is this that makes art interesting and important.

Randy Alcorn’s Courageous was recently published as a Chinese ebook. More details can be found here.

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