Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2003
By James Verini
On Friday, Tom Cruise’s latest film, “The Last Samurai,” will be released in theaters. The requisite massive marketing blitz for this period piece about a Civil War general who learns the ways of the Samurai warriors of Japan has already been underway for months. Part of that blitz was supposed to include “The Last Samurai” novelization — the book based on the movie — which was to have hit shelves in late November.
No longer. Just as the book was to have gone to print, someone put the kibosh on it. A source close to the situation at the publisher, Penguin Group in New York, said it was not clear who made the decision — Cruise’s production company, Cruise/Wagner, or the studio, Warner Bros. Pictures.
Representatives at Warner Bros., however, said halting publication was a “joint decision” by both companies and the filmmakers. They said that the quality of the novelization didn’t measure up to their expectations. That, coupled with marketing concerns — including the revelation of certain plot twists — killed the book.
Meanwhile, the book’s author, Dewey Gram, describes himself as “dismayed. I want to see it printed because it’s the best novelization I’ve written,” said Gram, who does not stand to lose out financially even if the book is never released. It usually doesn’t end this badly, although there is a history of tension between those who make films and those who novelize them. Even if “The Last Samurai” never goes to press, Gram will probably still keep the unlikely distinction of being the most sought-after film novelizer in town.
He has been novelizing movies for 25 years, having written 15 of them, including “Sneakers,” “A Perfect World,” “Gladiator,” “Ocean’s Eleven” and, most recently, “The Life of David Gale.” His books have been translated into French, German and Japanese, and one, “The Ghost and the Darkness,” into Hebrew. His best seller to date is “Gladiator,” which has shipped in the high hundreds of thousands of copies, according to Penguin.
Not quite a novel
The novelization is a strange species. The studios that sell their rights call them “media tie-ins.” The publishing companies that print them sometimes place “a novel” on the cover — but only sometimes.
They are more widely read than you may think. A recent sampling of the paperback section at a bookstore — not an airport bookstore or the Rite Aid paperback section but a Barnes & Noble — turned up novelizations of seven recent films and four television series, their cheap, glossy poster covers peeking out from among the “real” books like shiny pennies.
But what of the people who write them?
“It’s a bastardized form, certainly,” said Gram. “I don’t call myself a novelist.” Gram doesn’t call himself a novelizer, either. He just calls himself a writer. Still, he admits: “I’m amazed every day that I’m doing this.”
Despite situations such as the one he finds himself in now, he said: “It’s a great gig. You start with great material, and you don’t have enough time to go through the agony that most authors do.” He is usually required to research and write his books in about two months.
Gram, who says he is “50-ish,” is not a pallid, trollish sort in a “Star Trek” shirt, as one might expect a film novelizer to be. A graduate of preppy Hamilton College in upstate New York, he looks and acts more like an English literature professor (he has a master’s degree in it) than an adjunct in the culture trade.
Short and stocky, with short gray-white hair, he has an amiably nervous air about him. He is the kind of person who, learning his latest book won’t see the light of day, would describe himself, calmly, as “dismayed.”
Gram began his writing career as a news reporter for Newsweek and the Times of London. He works now from an overgrown little corner in Van Nuys, where he lives with his wife and twin daughters.
“I guess people buy them to have a fuller meal,” Gram said, asked why moviegoers read novelizations.
As for himself, he said: “With screenwriting, or writing a book, you can never tell if what you want is what they want — 98% of scripts that are sold don’t get made. With this you’re guaranteed publication and a paycheck at the end.”
Gram, who said he’s never met another novelizer, is hired to write only once a film’s production is well underway or done and the percentages have been worked out. All that’s left for him to do is research and write — and fast.
He is provided with the shooting script, told the cast, shown stills from the set and, if the studio is feeling especially generous, given rough cuts of footage. On rare occasion he will talk to a screenwriter. He is usually given about two months. (His record is 28 days — that’s 2,200 words a day.)
Gram’s ultimate goal is to approximate what he believes the end product will be as closely as possible and, reading his books, one finds he is remarkably adept at this. Screenplays usually give only the faintest idea of how a movie will look, but Gram’s books manage to capture the look and feel of the movies on which they’re based. The first Hollywood novelization on record is the 1963 adaptation of “Fantastic Voyage,” written by Isaac Asimov. Arthur C. Clarke wrote a novelization of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” based on his original short story and Stanley Kubrick’s movie.
The novelization of today, the media tie-in, is a product of the 1970s, when merchandising followed fast on the heels of “Star Wars” and “Jaws” to become an industry catchword de rigueur. “E.T.” is generally agreed to be the bestselling novelization of all time, selling millions of copies.
‘A real writer’
But Gram, whose favorite novelists are Albert Camus and F. Scott Fitzgerald, is interested strictly in earthly drama. He will not write sci-fi.
When he’s on, his dialogue and descriptions have the hum of Chandler or Hammett. When he’s not, his characters sound like disgruntled stagehands.
“One of the misconceptions people have about novelizations,” he said, “is that they’re just the screenplay plus padding. And some of them read that way. But everything I add is enriching and deepening the themes of the script.”
“He’s a real writer,” said Nicholas Kazan, son of the late Elia Kazan, who wrote the “Fallen” screenplay. “There are a lot of people writing in this business who aren’t.”
Gram did not come to Los Angeles with the intention of becoming a novelizer. He came, in the mid-1970s, as a correspondent for Newsweek. After covering, among other stories, the Hillside Strangler case, he left to try to write a novel. “I got a hundred pages in and realized it was just execrable,” he said. “I didn’t have the craft.”
He was approached in 1979 to write the novelization of “Boulevard Nights,” a drama about lowriders in East L.A. He’d never heard the word “novelization” before, but he needed the money, which was not very good — it still isn’t, he says — and took the job. To his surprise, he enjoyed it.
Gram speaks fondly about some of the films he’s novelized, not so fondly of others. He is bored by “Ocean’s Eleven.” He still smarts from a paragraph cut from the climax of “Gladiator,” in which he made it clear that the sister of the lecherous emperor Commodus submits to incest in order to save the Roman empire.
How do the screenwriters whose work he adapts feel?
“Reading a novelization of your own screenplay is like watching someone else kiss your girlfriend,” said Kazan.
“It’s great that the book went out there and had a life of its own,” said David Franzoni, the screenwriter of “Gladiator.” “I made a lot of money from that.”
“In a perfect world I’d prefer that people not read novelizations unless they’re written by the screenwriter,” said Charles Randolph, who wrote the screenplay for the death-penalty drama “The Life of David Gale.” “But in the end it’s hard to muster any strong feelings about it, since you’ve already watched your work get interpreted by so many people.”
“David Gale” presents an interesting argument for novelizations. Randolph’s original script, about a philosophy professor in Texas on death row for murder, did not take a position flatly against the death penalty; it presented moral ambiguities. The movie that came out played like anti-death penalty agitprop, and Gale’s flaws are toned down. “The ideology changed from the script to the movie,” Randolph said. Gram’s novelization reads much more like the script — dark and morally ambiguous.
Even when his books sell well, the people who buy his novelizations don’t buy a Dewey Gram novel; they just buy the book of the movie.
“I’m amazed every day that I’m doing this, of course,” he said. “But what was it that Jack London said — ‘Writers write’?”