It’s funny. I’m doing a tie-in column but I’m not going to cover all that many novelizations here. You’d think that’d be my main area of focus as those are the dominant form of tie-in fiction. You’d also think I’m limiting myself unnecessarily. You’d be wrong.
Here’s my issue with novelizations. Almost without fail they’re just the script in prose form. Most novelization writers don’t really flesh the stories out beyond just telling them without any style. I feel like the perfect example of this is the novelizations by Alex Irvine. They’re good but his touch is to the point. * I can’t talk about that in a column.
So when I do cover a novelization, as I am today, it must stand out. Peter David does that a lot. So did Max Allan Collins when he wrote the Dick Tracy novel. And very soon we’ll cover a comic book novelization that outright dances with form. In all of these cases the writers had freedom to create unique works using the script as a starting point.
But how to get that freedom? Let’s discuss Black Flame Publishing, a company that by and large made their name with licensed books from 2000 AD and New Line Cinema’s horror titles. They gave us books based on Final Destination, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and even a few Twilight Zone novelizations. The company only had a short lifespan but the books they published were among the highest quality tie-ins ever released. Why?
For starters they hired superb writers such as cyberpunk legend Pat Cadigan, horror writer Nancy A. Collins, and multimedia writer James Swallow. They seemed to like their tie-ins bulky with the exception of Freddy vs Jason so word count tended to be surprisingly high. That meant writers could just go wild. And wow did they. I really hope I can hunt down some of their other work for this column because the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street novels do their films justice.
They also novelized a couple of borderline New Line horror films which meant by sheer luck they had the rights to the sentient meme Snakes on a Plane. Before I get into the book, let me quickly get my thoughts on the film out. I dig it. It’s a funny riff on b-movie tropes with A-movie production values. It’s incredibly shallow but that’s the point. It’s just a joke. So how did it leapfrog all of the Star Wars/Star Trek/Marvel novelizations to produce the best novelization I’ve ever read? This is entirely on writer Christa Faust, a talented writer who took the opportunity to really go full throttle and make this the ultimate disaster movie.
The book follows the plot as we saw it on screen. A surfer witnesses a mob hit. The mobster decides to kill him by unleashing snakes on an overseas flight. The novelization tells the basic story as we saw it onscreen with only one massive change affecting the plot, giving the mobster an actual (and deliciously dark) ending instead of just getting captured offscreen. There’s no extra twists or turns.
No what sets this novel apart is the characterization. Every single character in the film is a cipher but that changes here. Faust takes the time to give every single character a well written backstory. It’s not unexpected that Samuel L. Jackson’s character gets a fleshed out backstory. It’s unexpected that minor characters get it.
Take the first victim, Kelly. In the movie she and the generically handsome guy she hooks up with go into the bathroom, smoke weed, start having sex, get bit, and die. She’s in no way a character and we’re excited for the snake carnage to start. In the book Faust gives us 7 pages of in depth leadup into her story which makes the deaths genuinely sad. We truly like this punk rocker who takes a chance on a guy. There’s tremendous detail here too, capturing the mid-00s punk scene, complete with a nice reference to the b-movie Devil Girl From Mars.
Then there’s a couple so forgettable they barely register on film but die. In the book she’s an animal rescue owner who shames the Paris Hilton clone over her dog and he’s her long suffering husband. This is again a poignant section. Faust creates a real portrait of what it is to be tied to someone devoted to a cause and how that cause impacts a person. It’s touching and quite real.
But my favorite might be the herpetologist. In the movie he’s a functionary despite being played by great film weirdo Todd Louiso. In the book he’s a glorious creation, a fame seeker who destroyed his relationship in the process. The situation he finds himself in wakes him up. It’s very much written for laughs but it nails the tone of the piece.
And that’s the other thing Faust does that I’m sure would’ve frustrated other writers. She gets that this is a fun story. Not exactly a comedy though she adds tons of that on top of the witty script, but a fun story. It’s absurd, heightened, and despite the 400 page length, a rapid read. She embraces how deliciously pulpy this can be in a way the movie couldn’t despite still being a blast. She truly gets that this is a 70s disaster movie parody.
I also have to commend her word choice in this. Characters are described with details like “agile, spindly fingers like the busy legs of tarantulas” and “a glossy black pompadour that would’ve made Elvis green with envy.” Could’ve just said long fingers and black hair but I have such a clearer picture from just this minimal effort. I love bold imagery and this is wall to wall that.
I could now ask if there’s anything I disliked about it. I could say that at times it gets a bit offensive as this is really quite un-PC** at times especially with the omnisexual flight attendant. I could also say that as good as it is, this is still a pulpy read. But you don’t critique something for being exactly what it means to be. This is an exploitation piece and it’s glorious at that.
Snakes on a Plane the movie is an awesome time killer. Snakes on a Plane the novelization is an unsung work of pulp gold. This book is out of print sadly but it’s on Amazon for about $14 as of this review. It’s also on the internet archive library for checkout. Seek it out no matter what.
*If Mr. Irvine should read this, I have tons of your work on my shelf. I dig it. Getting out of the way is a style.
** Faust herself shed very interesting light on this character in a response to this piece.
“Thanks, Austin! Funny you mention the pansexual (like me!) flight attendant as “un PC” though. That character is based on real friends and lovers I’ve known and was singled out for praise by a bisexual magazine for being a rare positive portrayal of a bi guy. In this film it’s just a lame joke that his character acts effeminate but turns out to have a hot girlfriend. I tried take that awful joke and create two realistic pansexual characters that people like me could relate to.” This really was a cool move on her part and I have hard respect for that.