If you can’t get enough of the new “Star Wars” movie, Obi-Wan Kenobi is not your only hope. Use the Force — of a book.
Alan Dean Foster has dozens of novels to his credit, as well as a formidable number of media tie-in works for major franchises such as “Star Trek” and “Alien.” Foster penned the first “Star Wars” novelization (credited to George Lucas), as well as “Star Wars” expanded-universe novels. Now he has written the novelization for “The Force Awakens,” which just broke the U.S. box-office opening weekend record with $248 million in ticket sales. I loved J.J. Abrams’s movie, and Foster’s book does it proud: It’s fast-moving, atmospheric and raises goose bumps at just the right moments.
Novelizers typically don’t see the film before they write the book. They’re given a screenplay and some still photos, and they work from that. So it’s a testament to Foster’s skill and professionalism that he not only evokes entire onscreen worlds but that he also gives us glimpses of an even more vast, unseen universe that has arisen from his impressive imagination.
“Hmm! Adventure. Hmmpf! Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things,” Yoda advised Luke Skywalker. But “Star Wars” fans do. Thank the Force that Foster delivers. (The e-book was released Dec. 18; the hardback version will arrive Jan. 5.)
Snobs may dismiss such books as an attack of the clones, but for as long as humans have had media, we’ve had media tie-ins. Our ancestors no doubt provided narrative accompaniment to the cave paintings in Lascaux, France. Flash-forward 17,000 years to the dawn of the motion picture industry. Novelizations — books based on screenplays and illustrated with photo stills from films — became popular with such classics as “The Perils of Pauline,” “The Ten Commandments” and “Metropolis,” as well as movies now lost or forgotten. In 1918, even Jack London penned one based on a romance called “Hearts of Three.”
Since then, myriad well-known authors have adapted their work or that of others. The very long list includes H.G. Wells, Louis L’Amour, John Steinbeck, Orson Welles, Graham Greene, Arthur Miller, Pearl S. Buck and —Zut alors! — Jean-Paul Sartre. Although novelizations are often regarded as a phantom menace, most of the authors just named were working writers and, I suspect, disinclined to turn down a paying gig. As Samuel Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
My introduction to novelizations came in 1995, when my agent asked whether I would be interested in adapting the screenplay for Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys,” a flick inspired by one of my favorite films, Chris Marker’s sublime 1962 short “La Jetée.” Gilliam’s screenplay was by David and Janet Peoples; David had co-written the screenplay for “Blade Runner,” another of my favorite movies.
I am not a blockhead. I said, “Yes!”
But I had no idea how to adapt a 110-page screenplay into a 213-page novel. I had no still photos, no set designs, no information about the cast, other than that it starred Bruce Willis and a relative newcomer named Brad Pitt. So I called my friend Terry Bisson, a Hugo and Nebula Award-winning writer who had done novelizations for “Virtuosity” and “Johnny Mnemonic.” His advice, rendered in a thick Kentucky drawl:
“This is all you need to know: If the script says the character ‘sits in a chair,’ he doesn’t ‘sit in a chair.’ He ‘ambles thoughtfully across the thick oriental carpets that covered the wooden floor of his expansive, tastefully furnished living room, and settles slowly and with a prolonged sigh into a large, overstuffed, red-velvet armchair.’ ”
Lesson learned. After I turned in my manuscript, David and Janet Peoples called to say I had done a great job.
I had two small children to support, and I write my own “serious” fiction very slowly. But this novelization work was fast and fun, and good money for the amount of time it took. I went on to do a half-dozen tie-ins, including one based on Chris Carter’s “X-Files” movie, “Fight the Future,” and the pilot for his TV series “Millennium,” which I had to write in five days.
A few years later, Bisson provided my entry to more media work, this time in the “Star Wars” universe. He had done two “Star Wars” young adult novels starring the 10-year-old Boba Fett and wanted to know whether I would like to carry on with the series. I loved “Star Wars,” and my 10-year-old son was a huge fan. He had a Boba Fett helmet! How could I say no?
Those books were a delight to write. David Levithan, my editor at Scholastic and himself a successful Y.A. writer, introduced me to Lucasfilm’s Jonathan Rinzler. They both offered encouragement and very little in the way of restrictions. With each story, I was given a title and a character or place that had to come into play: Aurra Sing; Jabba the Hutt; Mace Windu; the planet Aargau (which existed in the “Star Wars” universe only as a name, so I got to create an entire planet’s history, ecology and culture).
Otherwise, I pretty much had free rein to create the plot, characters and young Boba’s own sensibility. Boba Fett grows up to be a bounty hunter, the nemesis of Han Solo, but as a mom, I felt I had a responsibility to show him as a resourceful, sensitive, sometimes frightened orphan who overcame his fears and even made a few friends his own age.
The best part of writing those stories was the fan mail I received from young boys, some of whom confessed to having read few other books. One shy third-grader named Evan asked whether he could do a phone interview with me for a school project. Afterward, his mother got on the phone and told me that the assignment was a report on a famous American. I was Evan’s first choice. His second? Thomas Jefferson.
THE FORCE AWAKENS
By Alan Dean Foster
LucasBooks. 272 pp. $28
Originally posted on WashingtonPost.com.