Novelisations and Capricorn One

How to Cite

Allison, D. (2007). Film/Print: Novelisations and Capricorn One. M/C Journal, 10(2).
Vol. 10 No. 2 (2007): 'adapt'
Published 2007-05-01


Based on the profusion of scholarly and populist analysis of the relationship between books and films one could easily be forgiven for thinking that the exchange between the two media was a decidedly one-way affair. Countless words have been expended upon the subject of literary adaptation, in which the process of transforming stories and novels into cinematic or televisual form has been examined in ways both general and particular. A relationship far less well-documented though is that between popular novels and the films that have spawned them. With the notable exception of Randall D. Larson’s valuable Films into Books, which is centred mainly on correspondence with prolific writers of “novelisations”, academic study of this extremely widespread phenomenon has been almost non-existent. Even Linda Hutcheon’s admirable recent publication, A Theory of Adaptation, makes scant mention of novelisations, in spite of her claim that this flourishing industry “cannot be ignored” (38).

Retelling film narratives in a written form is nothing new. Indeed, as Larson notes, “novelisations have existed almost as long as movies have” and can be found as far back as the 1920s, although it was not until the advent of mass-market paperbacks that they truly came into their own (3-4). The sixties and seventies were boom years for novelisations as they provided film lovers with a way to re-experience their favourite movies long after they had disappeared from cinema screens. It shouldn’t be forgotten that before the advent of home video and DVD books were, along with television broadcasts, the most widely accessible way in which people could do so. Even today they continue to appear in book shops. At the same time, the Internet age has fuelled the creation and dissemination of a vast array of “fan-fiction” that supplements the output of authorised writers. Despite the vast consumer appetite for novelisations, however, their critical reception has been noticeably cool.

Jonathan Coe’s caustic appraisal of novelisations as “that bastard, misshapen offspring of the cinema and the written word” represents the prevailing attitude toward them (45). The fact that many are genre novels—sci-fi, western and crime thrillers—and that the majority are decidedly low-brow has not helped to secure them critical plaudits. Other reasons though lie beyond these prejudices. For one thing, many are simply not very well written according to any conventional measure. When one considers the time constraints under which a lot of these books were produced this is hardly surprising. Based on his extensive correspondence with authors, Larson suggests four to six weeks as around the average writing time, with some adaptations, such as Michael Avallone’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes, spewed out in a single weekend (12).

The quality of the writing in many novelisations is certainly hard to defend, and yet one other widely held view of them holds considerably less water. This is the idea of novelisations as pale shadows of the movies deemed to be their source, in which only the most manifest content of characterisation and plot are reproduced. In this denuded form, it is implied, a great deal of value has been lost while only rarely has anything of significant value been added. This point of view is in strong contrast with the now customary acceptance that in the reverse process of adaptation—from book to film—while some elements may be necessarily or wilfully sacrificed, significant gains in emotional impact, characterisation or other dramatic features may often be made as a result of the different techniques available through the film medium.

If we think of films as the source of novelisations we slip into a great fallacy however. In the vast majority of cases the books are not based on films at all but on their screenplays. Unlike literary adaptations, film and book do not draw one from the other but instead each produces in a different medium an adaptation of a shared source. It has generally been considered desirable to have a novelisation available for public purchase by the time the movie reaches theatres and, since time must be allowed for printing and distribution, this has generally meant that the book must be completed before the filming wraps (Larson, 12-3). No wonder, then, that novelisations rarely attempt to describe a film’s mise-en-scène.

While the industrial process by which the books are produced can help to explain some features of their relationship to the films whose stories they share, the fact that they are seldom adaptations of these actual films is a point that their marketing has tended to suppress. It is normal for book covers to feature one or more images from the film. Names of stars often appear prominently, and a more detailed list of the film’s key cast and credits can generally be found in smaller print on the back of the book. Novelisations are not sold or consumed as alternative adaptations of a screenplay but through the implication of a much closer relationship to the film than many in fact possess. This discordance allows us to consider novelisations as a re-imagining of the film on two temporal levels.

On the one hand, the novelisation can be thought of as preceding the film. It is not unusual for such a book to adapt an older version of the script than the one that was actually shot, thus rendering a single definitive script source elusive if not downright illusory. It is fairly common to find whole scenes missing from the book or conversely to read extensive narrative episodes that never made their way into the finished picture. Dialogue is often a mere paraphrase, no matter how diligently the author has replicated the lines of the script. Such largely unintentional differences can provide fascinating insights into the film’s production history, revealing other paths that the film might well have taken. On the other hand, despite its being published simultaneously with (or even before) the film’s release, a novelisation will often be consumed after viewing the film, in order to help its readers re-experience the movie or to develop and augment that experience.

Novelisations can thus be seen to give rise to three main areas of interest. As historical documents they can be of use when considering a film’s developmental process. They also provide alternative readings of the film script and may, by extension, help to enrich a viewer’s retrospective relationship with the film itself. Thirdly, they offer an avenue for exploring the differing narrational forms and capabilities of the two media. “Talk of adaptation,” Yvonne Tasker has argued, “often seems to take place in an abstract hierarchical mode—a hierarchy in which literature seems to emerge as almost by default ‘better’, more complex than film” (18). As we shall see, such a position is not always easy to support. In considering these aspects of the novelisation we now turn to two closely related examples. The film Capricorn One, released in the United States in 1978, was directed by Peter Hyams from his own screenplay. For our purposes it is most notable as one of several works that spawned two separate English language novelisations, each by different authors. One by Bernard L. Ross (a youthful pseudonym of the now popular novelist Ken Follett) was published in England, while Ron Goulart’s version was published in the United States.

The story of Capricorn One centres on a colossal fraud perpetrated by NASA in an attempt to conceal a catastrophic problem with its manned mission to Mars. Realising that a fault in the shuttle’s life support system means that the astronauts will not survive the journey, but that admission of failure will provide the government with the long-sought excuse to cut the program’s funding, a conspiracy is hatched to fake a successful mission by enacting the landing in a clandestine television studio. When the shuttle breaks up on re-entry, the three astronauts realise that their existence jeopardises this elaborate fraud and that they must go on the run for a chance at survival. Meanwhile, a journalist finds his own life in peril as he doggedly pursues a hunch that all is not as it should be with the Capricorn One mission.

Novelisations as Evidence of the Film’s Production History

Each book shows, in a range of ways, its fidelity to a shared source: the screenplay (or, at least, to the elements that remained unchanged through various screenplay drafts). That the screenplay comprised not only extensive dialogue but also some descriptive material becomes clear at a very early stage. Goulart opens with the following image: “The sun, an intense orange ball, began to rise over the Atlantic” (5). Several pages into his own book, Ross introduces the same narrative event with these words: “The morning sun rose like a big orange lollipop over the Atlantic Ocean” (10). The comparability of these visually evocative images with the equivalent moment in the finished film might suggest a fairly straightforward transposition of the screenplay into the three marketed texts. However, other sections belie any such assumption.

The books’ origin in the screenplay and not in the film itself, and the considerable evolution that has occurred between screenplay and finished film, are expressed in two main ways. The first is the presence of corresponding scenes in both books that do not occur in the film. Where a non-filmed scene occurs in one book only we can assume a high probability that it is an invention of the book’s author which is intended to develop the narrative or characterisation. When found in both books, though, we can only infer that a scene outlined in the screenplay was dropped during either the film’s production or editing phase. For instance, in all three versions of the narrative, an attempt is made on the life of reporter Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould) by tampering with his car. A high-speed action sequence culminates when car and driver plummet into a deep river. Whereas the film moves swiftly to the next scene without ever explaining how Caulfield managed to extricate himself from this perilous situation, each book extends the sequence with a description of how he disentangles his trouser leg from the door handle in order to pull himself through the open window and out of the sinking vehicle (Goulart, 96-7; Ross, 86). Indeed, the retention of this scene in the novelisations fills what is in the film an unsatisfying narrative ellipsis.

The second proof of an evolution between screenplay and film is perhaps even more interesting in understanding the production process. This is that narrative events do not all occur in the same order in each book. The differences between the two books, as well as between books and film, suggest that Goulart’s was based on a later version of the screenplay as it corresponds more closely with the film’s chronology of events. The narrational structure of each text consists of a number of alternating segments designed to maintain tension while following simultaneously occurring incidents in the adventures of each of the protagonists. This is especially the case in the last half of the story where the three astronauts—Col. Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), Lt. Col. Peter Willis (Sam Waterston) and Cmdr. John Walker (O. J. Simpson)—have escaped into the desert and split up to maximise the chance that one will survive to expose the swindle. Narrational segments follow their individual progress as well as that of Caulfield’s investigation and of NASA director James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook)’s attempts to manage the crisis of the astronauts’ escape. It is evident that during the film’s post-production some reshuffling of these sequences was undertaken in order to maximise suspense.

Further evidence that Ross’s book was based on an earlier screenplay than Goulart’s source emerges through its ending which, unlike Goulart’s, differs from the finished film. In every version of the story, Caulfield is able to rescue Brubaker and deliver him to his wife Kay (Brenda Vaccaro) in front of the watching media. Instead of doing so at a memorial service for the “dead” astronauts, however, Ross has this event take place at Bru’s home, after the service occurs without incident some pages earlier. This episode, more that any other in either book, is conspicuous in its variance from the film. Other discrepancies are based on addition, non-inclusion or reordering: different tellings of the same tale. Here, however, consumers of these texts are faced with two mutually exclusive finales that enforce a choice between the “right” and “wrong” version of the story.

Enriching Character and Plot through Alternative Readings of the Script

Although the examples above highlight some significant variations in the three versions of Capricorn One, none show evidence of intentional narrative difference. In some other respects, though, the authors of the novelisations did employ constituents of their own invention in order to transform the source material into the format expected by the readers of any novel. One key technique is shared by both authors. This is the fleshing-out of characters, a technique used more extensively by Ross than Goulart, and one which is largely responsible for his book’s greater length (an estimated 68,000 words, compared with Goulart’s 37,000). Goulart, for his part, largely confines this technique to the latter section of the story where the astronauts make their individual journeys across the desert. While his book is comprised, for the most part, of reported speech, the protagonists’ solitude in this part of the story leads him to recourse to descriptions of their thoughts in order to stretch out and enliven what would otherwise be an exceptionally brief and potentially dull account.

Ross embraces the task of elaborating characterisation with considerably greater fervour. As well as representing their thoughts, he regularly adds passages of back story. During a breakfast scene before the launch (present in both books but absent from the finished film) he describes how each astronaut came to be involved in the mission and their feelings about it. Similarly he describes childhood or youthful incidents in their lives and in those of Kelloway and Caulfield in order to explain and add believability to some of their later actions. Even the biography and thoughts of relatively minor characters, such as the whistleblowing NASA employee Elliot Whitter (Robert Walden), are routinely developed.

However, Ross does not stop here in elaborating the blueprint offered by the screenplay. New characters are added in order to develop a subplot glossed over in the film. These additions relate to an elderly European man, Mr. Julius, who is affiliated with a couple of Kelloway’s corporate accomplices and whose shady employees are responsible for both the attempts to assassinate Caulfield and for piloting the helicopters used to seek and destroy the escaped astronauts. In such ways, Ross succeeds in producing a rendition of the story that (barring its anomalous ending) enhances that of the film without conspicuously competing against what all the marketing points to as the “definitive” version.

The Differing Narrational Capabilities of Films and Books

While this section is indebted to the methods and findings of existing studies of novel-to-film adaptations, through close attention to the reverse process (or, more accurately, to screenplay-to-novel adaptations) we can observe another less recognised dynamic at work. This is the novelisers’ efforts to assimilate what are more traditionally cinematic devices into their writing. By way of illustration, our case study shows how it has led both Ross and Goulart to employ a writing style that sometimes contrasts with the norms of original mainstream novels.

My comments thus far have dwelt mainly on differences in the placement and inclusion of narrative events, although the description of how the novelisers have expanded characters’ back stories suggests one way in which the written word can lend itself more readily to the concise interspersion of such material than can the film medium. This is not to say that film is incapable of rendering such incidents; merely that the representation of back story requires either lengthy spoken exposition or the insertion of flashbacks (some of which would require younger actors doubling for the stars). Either technique is prone to be more disruptive of the narrative flow, and therefore justifiable only in rarer instances where such information proves crucial, rather than merely useful, to the main narrative thrust.

There are other ways, though, in which comparison of these three texts highlights the relative strengths of the different media in stimulating the response of their viewers or readers. One of these is the handling of audiovisual spectacle. It perhaps goes without saying that the film elicits a far more visceral response during its action scenes. This is especially true of a climactic sequence in which Caulfield and cropduster pilot Albain (Telly Savalas) do aerial battle with two helicopters as each strives to be the first to reach the fugitive Brubaker. Ross is far more successful than Goulart in conveying the excitement of this scene, although even his version pales in comparison with the movie.

A device on which the film regularly draws, both in order to heighten tension and so as to suggest dramatic or ironic parallels between different narrative strands, is that of cross-cutting. This technique is adapted by each of the novelisers, who use it in a diluted form. Each of the books subdivides its chapters into many segments, which are often much shorter than those found in conventional novels. Ross uses ninety such segments and Goulart sixty-seven. The shortest of these, by Ross, is a solitary sentence sitting amidst a sea of white space, in which he signals the cancellation of the plan to reunite the astronauts with their shuttle at the projected splashdown site: “High over the Pacific Ocean, the Falcon jet went into a tight banking turn and began to head back the way it had come” (116). Neither author, however, has the audacity to cut between locations with the speed that the film does. One of the movie’s most effective sequences is that in which rapid edits alternate between Kelloway solemnly announcing the fictive death of the astronauts to the press and the astronauts sitting in their hideaway imagining this very eulogy. Neither one of the novelisations succeeds in creating a sequence quite so biting in its satire.

In this case study we are able to observe some of the ways in which films and novelisations can relate to one another, each providing a reading of the film script (or scripts) that, through a mutual interlocking in the mind of the reader versed in these multiple versions of the tale, can contribute to an experience of the narrative that is richer than one text alone can produce. Robert Block, who has written both novelisations and original novels, alleges that “the usual rule seems to be that while films can widely and wildly deviate from previously-published-and-purchased novels, a novelisation cannot supersede a screenplay in terms of content” (Larson, 44). Whereas this assertion describes with reasonable accuracy the approach that Ron Goulart has taken to his version of Capricorn One, the more ambitious and detailed story told by Bernard Ross provides one clear exception to this rule. It thus offers firm evidence that novelisations are not, by their very nature, merely impoverished derivations of the cinema. Instead they constitute a medium capable of original and intrinsic value and which fully deserves more detailed critical appreciation than its current reputation suggests.

Author Biography

Deborah Allison