The Big Idea: James Swallow
As the proprietor of The Big Idea, every once in a while I get to pull rank and pop up a book that’s of personal interest to me, and here’s one that is: Air, by James Swallow, which is an adaptation and novelization of the first three episodes of Stargate: Universe, which is, of course, the TV show I am the Creative Consultant on.
Science fiction writers and readers have varying opinions on novelizations and what they mean in the genre, but leaving aside that discussion, I think one thing that’s often overlooked in the discussion is the professionalism of the people doing the novelizations: Here are folks who have to take a script, bump it up to novel length, get it done usually in a short amount of time — and get it right. Yes, that’s work.
In the case of Air, it was brought to my attention when James contacted me during his writing, asking me questions about the show so that what ends up in the TV series is also what ends up in the novel — basically, doing the behind-the-scenes legwork and research that often gets taken for granted by readers (and sometimes, other writers).
I was happy to help him then, and right now, I’m happy to give him the floor to tell you a little more about what it takes to adapt and expand a script into novel form.
“I guess it’s not like you had to do a lot of work, really,” said the guy at the bookseller’s table, with a sniff. ‘I mean, it was pretty much all done for you already, yeah?”
No, not at all, actually. See, when I was hired on by Fandemonium Books to adapt ‘Air’, the first three episodes of the new television series Stargate Universe, what they asked me to deliver was a novel. That’s why they call it a novelization. Your standard sixty minute teleplay script? You’re looking at under ten thousand words, right there. I had three of ‘em, and I had to turn that into a book that deserved an eight buck cover price. I had to take what I had and, at the very least, expand it to three times its size. And not in the whipped butter kind of way, where they froth it up and pump air into it. No. I had to do it with words and prose and narrative, pitch and moment and drama – and all without breaking the story that had already been created.
I had to fill Air with, well, stuff that wasn’t just air. This is a bit about how I did it.
Air wasn’t my first novelization – I adapted The Butterfly Effect a few years back, getting to put back a lot of the stuff that had been cut in order to get Ashton Kutchner on screen as early as possible. That was a fun experience for me, memorable as it not only introduced my writing to a whole new demographic – teenage high school girls – but because it also got me more fan mail than anything I’d written before. A lot of it was from people asking me how I felt about the movie they had made of my novel.
The way I made Butterfly Effect and now Air work for me was linked to the way that I write. I see my stories unfold in my head like a feature film, and when I’m making notes I use script shorthand to set scenes; I try to write the prose equivalent of whip pans or contra-zooms, wide shots and medium shots. In short, I’m directing it in my head. I took this approach with Air, imagining myself doing the job that episode director Andy Mikita did in the real world – which is a lot more than just adding ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ to the end of Brad Wright’s and Robert C. Cooper’s dialogue.
In some ways I lucked out, because SGU’s producer Joe Mallozzi had a blog full of images from the show in production and of the actors they had cast, so I knew how Air was going to look and what the voices of the people in it would be. But then I was also up against the knowledge that I didn’t know everything about these characters, so I couldn’t lay in nuances and subtle clues that would pay off down the line, and anything new I brought to the party ran the risk of being utterly contradicted by the ongoing show.
And I didn’t have was any opportunity to see the finished cut and edit of the episodes until several weeks after the manuscript had been delivered. While I worked from the three episodic scripts that made up the pilot, I was a good way through the writing before I discovered the drafts I had were months old, with key details that differed from the final versions; it was only thanks to the help of a certain creative consultant that got solved (thanks, John)… The challenge was to paint inside the lines but still deliver something with originality.
So what did all this leave me with? In the end, Air the novel isn’t ‘Air’ the TV episodes, and I’m happy that it isn’t. After all, what would be the point of reading a book that slavishly follows every tiny element of the TV stories? What the novelization brings is what made me read novelizations as a kid – an internal viewpoint for the characters that explores them in a way that TV just can’t do, a seamless story experience that broadens out the scope of the narrative, and a chance to see the bits of plot that were cut for time.
The latter is the kind of thing that DVD extras bring us now, and in no small part I imagine that’s why then novelization is something of a dying art; but back in the day the book of the film was the only place where you saw that kinda thing, like, say, Alan Dean Foster’s tense adaptation of Alien with the chilling cocoon scene still in place. So I put back in Rush’s monologue about the origins of the starship Destiny and the confrontation between him and Jack O’Neill; but I also added new stuff and expanded out what was already there, lengthening scenes and deepening motivations.
There’s a perception that tie-ins are bereft of originality, that they’re a straight-jacket for creativity, and a haunt of lazy writers, but that kind of commentary largely comes from people who don’t read them; generally, from sniffy lit-snobs who complain that tie-ins are stealing all the shelf space in stores and think that all other media are barren artistic wastelands.
In a larger sense, writing a tie-in is no different from the work of TV scriptwriters working on a series that they didn’t create; and when you think about it, writers who adapt a book into a movie are eligible for an Academy Award, while writers who adapt a movie into a book (which requires considerably more writing) are often labeled as hacks.
But the fact is, a great part of telling a tale in one of these fictional worlds is that a writer actually has to work harder under these constraints, and that challenge can inspire you not only tell a tale that fits the texture of the world you’re writing in, but also to bring your own unique authorial voice to bear on it. Plus, you get to play with cool stuff, like Stargates.