Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Thing

The Thing by Alan Dean Foster. Originally published by Bantam Books, June 1982. Approx. 250 pages.

What is it that captivates us about movie novelizations? Is it the potential of "finding out what happens" before all the other rubes waiting for the release of a movie? Is it the promise of some additional character background detail; expository nuggets that perhaps were not truly fleshed out in the film? Growing up in the late 70's and early 80's, before Wikipedia and Director's Cuts, these were legitimate draws. Heck, a movie novelization was often the only way to "re-watch" a movie if your family didn't have a VCR yet.

It's fairly safe to say that the heyday of the movie novelization has passed. They still exist, but their cultural significance is somewhat diminished. Video game novelizations, on the other hand, seem to be enjoying a robust market/audience.

The myriad novelizations of my youth run the gamut in quality. There are gems, and there are ones that pretty much put the draft of the script into paragraph form.

One thing is for sure, however. No discussion of movie novelizations will go long without mention of Alan Dean Foster; the man regarded as the best and most prolific in the genre.

I have no idea how much information is given to an author in advance; how many specifics or details on characters, places, etc. I will say this, though: ADF always turns in consistently detailed, vibrant settings in his works.

With the movie novelization diatribe done (I think I am going to try and revisit some classic ones this year), let's look at ADF's novelization of The Thing.

Well, before I get started, I need to clarify...does anyone need a plot synopsis for this? I mean, is there anyone left who hasn't seen this science-fiction classic? If not, go do so now, then come back and we'll discuss how this novel stands as both an independent work and as a companion piece.

Plot similarities and differences:
The core structure of both the movie and the novel are the same for the most part (bearing in mind that this is the novelization of a movie that is a remake of a movie that was a novella adaptation). If I remember correctly, the novelization is drawn from the second draft of the movie script; so while there are structural similarities, the spiritual essence is different (seeing the evolution of script drafts to final film gives you a good perspective of just how talented a filmmaker Carpenter is).

Some scenes from the film are not present in the book: I am assuming that they spawned from the collaborative process between Carpenter and Bottin.

Also, there are scenes present in the book which did not make it to the final film: most notably the "dog chase" scene (no, not the opening scene with the helicopter pursuing the "dog-thing"), and the suicide of one of the team members (giving the novel a distinctly 80's "splatter scene"). The dog chase scene is a good one, to be sure, however it has the distinct feel of a traditional Hollywood action scene. I can see where this might have been omitted for either being too costly a scene, not necessary to the overall plot, or both.

Other than that, the ending is fairly different. The location of the finale takes place in a different part of the compound, and the final moments themselves, well, I think they end on a most "positive" (not necessarily upbeat) note. It is slightly open-ended, but with a kind of salvation in sight; unlike the nihilistic, bleakly ambiguous ending of the movie.

So, what information does a movie novelist usually get beforehand? I've seen some movie scripts, and I remember they might have a short paragraph description of each character as they are introduced. Is that all the novelists get? Do they get additional notes?

Well, to be honest, it's kind of difficult to reconcile the characters in the book to those in the movie. I mean, they weren't cast yet, so that's that. And it is a testimonial to what was some of the best ensemble acting that we've seen in cinematic history.

The problem is that these characters are hard to identify overall. And, again, I'm guessing that ADF didn't have a surplus of detail heading into this task.

I was going to gripe a bit about how lead character R.J. MacReady gets the thinnest characterization of all. He's fairly withdrawn, as in the movie. The best scenes in the book show hints at some mental trauma carried over from a stint in Vietnam. I was going to say how a little exposition would have enriched the depiction, but then I remembered - in the 80's, we all knew someone who had been messed up by the events in 'Nam. Usually, it was enough of an explanation just to say that someone had "seen some shit over there", and that was sufficient. Taking that into consideration, it remedies any complaints about the characterization.

My remaining complaint is that Childs is not the formidable figure that he is in the movie. Well, a lot of that has to do with the irrefutable coolness of Keith David, but a major part of the climax of the story is the "chess match" between MacReady and Childs. If they can't be seen as equals, it's all for naught.

Other than that, there are slight differences, but you can attach the faces from the movie, and it'll help a bit. Palmer is presented in the book as a more youthful grease monkey than the burned out stoner in the film, and the Clark we get makes you really appreciate all that Richard Masur put into his role.

Interestingly, the character of Windows is called "Sanders" here. This is funny, because it was originally supposed to be "Sanchez", and the character still speaks Spanish at points in the book.

The one aspect where the book trumps the movie. Rule One in ADF's novelization playbook: make the setting come alive. Go back and read any of his novelizations. They usually start with an in-depth description of the scenery. Bringing the area to life will help draw the reader in.

I wonder how much research, how many phone calls and interviews back in the pre-internet age he had to undergo to compile what comes off as a very accurate description of living and working at an Antarctic outpost. The tools and machinery, the day to day protocols involving everything; even seemingly mundane but actually critical details like dressing properly to step outside.

Remember, in the movie, the team members are stepping outside in shirts, hatless, etc. I get it; we need to see the actors to recognize them. However, they are dressing lighter than we do for Upstate New York winters, and it doesn't add up.

In the book, the full ramifications of the environment are recognized - the unforgiving, killing cold, the months of impending darkness as winter sets in, the feeling of total and utter isolation as no help can be reached. The movie plays well on the distrust of the team members; the book utilizes the isolation and claustrophobia to a better extent.

The creature:
Well, there's no way the book was winning this one. The effects that Rob Bottin brought to the table in the film version are incomparable. He is a genius in his field, and The Thing is his magnum opus (with his effects for Legend coming in second). Again, what tools ADF had to work with, we'll never know. He does indeed create a quite formidable creature for the book; playing off the terrifying screeches and bizarre transformation effects. Also, ADF demonstrates the formidable physical power of the Thing, further making the dog chase scene a helpful addition to the book.

As a comparison to the movie monster effects, it's a no-brainer. But, if you evaluate this as a creature that features in a book randomly picked off of a shelf, it's not too shabby.

Final thoughts:

I always knew this was going to be a tough one to give an unbiased review for. When you consider the movie, there are so many elements that elevate it to the masterpiece level - and you really can't rank them. You are nowhere without Carpenter's direction, Bottin's vision, the ensemble acting, Morricone's score (again with Carpenter), and Lancaster's script. That Foster could churn out a novelization of this caliber from what we assume are a script draft, some notes, and maybe some sketches is pretty amazing.

The Thing: the movie novelization works as a companion piece to the movie. Not exactly "separate but equal"; it is both similar and different in equal amounts. It excels as a novelization. It works as a standalone sci-fi/horror title, albeit one with fairly thin characterizations. It even surpasses Peter Watts' annoyingly pretentious short story "The Things".

If you are a huge fan of the movie, or a movie novelization fetishist, this title is a must have. Be aware, the costs in the secondary market run fairly high.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Plenty of covers abound for the novelization. This one is what it is. It's creepy, it's desolate, it works.

Cover Final Score:


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Watchers In Death

Watchers in Death by David Annandale. Book Nine in The Black Library's "The Beast Arises" series. Originally published August, 2016. Approx. 191 pages.

The Beast Must Die ended with a brutal loss at Ullanor for the Imperium, as well as the loss of the Primarch Vulkan, who gave his life going toe to toe with a monstrous being most assumed to be the Beast himself. However, upon returning to Terra, Koorland is dismayed to still here the perennial chant of  "I Am Slaughter" being broadcast from the ork attack moon hovering over Terra.

A new approach is most definitely in order. Which brings us to Watchers in Death.

After conferring with Grand Master Vangorich, Koorland realizes that instead of massive frontal assaults against the orks, the Astartes should custom make 5 marine mixed-Chapter "kill teams" to conduct surgical strikes and precision kills. Never mind the fact that at the climax of The Beast Must Die, a kill-team of various Chapter Masters failed in their task of taking out the Beast, but I digress.

Koorland proposes the notion to the Council of High Lords, knowing full well that a) they will balk at the notion and oppose it vehemently, and b) he's going to do it anyway. As to why the High Lords are perfectly fine with planetary assault forces composed of mixed Chapters at full strength, but fear the notion of 5 member teams (I'm assuming they are worried that they might be utilized for purposes of assassination, at which point I'd remind them about Vangorich glaring over their shoulders).

So, there's a lot on the line going into this installment. There's the sense of urgency, and the palpable tension between Koorland and the High Lords. Ergo, this should be a slam dunk for Annandale, whose prior two installments were fairly strong.

The problem is, the finished product is anything but a slam dunk. While not bad in the least, Watchers in Death is, in areas, flat and mundane. It just shouldn't be this was. Let's have a look-see...

Much better here than in some previous installments. Koorland is still showing maturation and increased capability as a leader, but we aren't seeing enough of the rage, sorrow, and loss that must be huge drivers for him.

We get to see more of the High Lords in all of their conniving action again. I would implore writers of this series (well, the series is already over, but you know what I mean) to not lose focus of the importance of these characters, as their appearances have been a bit lean lately. Especially of interest in Ecclesiarch Mesring's further mental declination into madness in the light of his impending death.

Also enjoyed was the continued duel of one-upmanship between Inquisitorial representatives Wienand and Veritus. This is enhanced by one of the story's subplots - a covert mission to determine whether or not the secretive Sisters of Silence (they of the infamous Sister of Silence audiobook) still exist.

However, not all of the characters fare this well. Also, I need to mention; for all the positives that I mentioned, there still, in my opinion, needed to be a bit more. We should've seen more of the fallout of Koorland's Deathwatch mandate across the entire swathe of High Lords; how it affected each of their positions, spheres of power, and machinations. And, I really don't think that is asking too much, either - Watchers in Death is definitely one of the leaner tomes in the series. An extra five pages for character development would have worked absolute wonders.

Also, the members of the first Deathwatch units are, to be frank, a tad dull. First of all, there is a frustrating lack of diversity in the initial groups. They are populated primarily with Space Wolves, Dark Angels, Ultramarines, and Blood Angels. This same assortment is applied to all three of the original teams. There is nothing spectacular about these characters, either, and I had a hard time with both keeping up and caring to. I could tell you that the Space Wolf would be the growly one, and the Dark Angel would have "ie" in their name somewhere. There was a librarian in each team. That's about it. For the initial group that would set the standard for how this method would turn the tide in the battle against the Beast, it's a pretty boring batch.

One last note: it's nice to see an appearance by Annandale's best character from his entries, Galatea Haas, even if her job here is little more than a cameo.

Not much to say here. Koorland proposes the idea, the High Lords balk. The teams assemble; there is a cringe-worthy moment that explains why they choose to wear black. Then, they go on a few missions to show how effective this dynamic is. Plus, Wienand, Veritus, and Thane go on their SoS wild goose chase. It tells the story, to be sure, but that's it.

One of my traditional sticking points with Annandale. I believe him to be a meaningful writer; therefore, he only really writes well when there is something of import. When he was describing the Proletarian Crusade, there was a faith based charge on the line. The participants were getting swept up in the the ideology of their ultimately damned maneuver. And Annandale was able to invest the reader fully in that.

With standard action sequences, that engagement is not present. It ultimately devolves into familiar territory: boltguns crack, bones crunch, combatants die in scores, swathes, and droves. There are literal mountains of the dead.

Also, we want the Deathwatch teams to succeed, but the processes of their tasks become methodical.

What Annandale excels at is the aftermath(s). Whenever a Deathwatch team takes out an ork target, the fallout is usually quite amazing (won't go into too much detail because of spoilers).

All in all, Watchers in Death is a good entry. Should have been great, but it is definitely a step above average. I would like to commend Annandale for three strong entries in this series.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Ah yes, the extremely photogenic, if a bit Robert Pattinson-y, Deathwatch kill team member. This is a great picture. I only have a few things to mention here: first of all, there's no real rhyme or reason to that hairline. Second of all, the picture of the Marine himself is so well done (look at the original):

....that it's a real shame that the final cover had to cut the heavy bolter off midway through. I understand it's a formatting issue and all, but it throws off the overall effect. Still a great picture.

One last minor quibble: the mark of the Inquisition is in plain view on the pauldron; and, at this point, the Deathwatch are not yet under the Inquisition's purview. Nothing really damning about that; the picture still stands as a fantastic piece of art.

Cover Final Score:


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Beast Must Die

The Beast Must Die by Gav Thorpe. Book Eight in The Black Library's "The Beast Arises" series. Originally published July 2016. Approx. 163 pages.

It took me nearly half a year to finish this book, and now it has taken me almost a full month to compose the review. Roughly three drafts later, I'm going to try and condense this to a few paragraphs and let you know the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I have to admit, I am feeling some real exasperation with this series as a whole. Were it not for the fact that the books were already sitting on my shelf, paid for and waiting to be opened, I might have given up already.

So, taking that into consideration, I want to put out here a reminder of some of the issues which I already have with the series as a whole. This way, if I teeter to complaining about them, it won't seem as solely an indictment of Mr. Thorpe.

Issues plaguing the series as a whole:

Wants to convey a aura of political intrigue, and manipulation. Final result is more in tune with bumbling and incompetence. Shady or not, the High Lords still preside over the day to day operations of an Empire that spans thousands of planets. They are not, you know, stupid.

Neither are Space Marines. These are genetically enhanced super soldiers, molding in the image of the original master of said Imperium. Again, super soldiers. In normal times, each individual Chapter may be tasked with the protection of an entire sector. They are not incompetent on strategic, tactical, or logistic levels. Please do not present them as such.

Another thing I want to mention before an in-depth analysis of the book is that this book is a bit light on plot. For his second entry series, like his first, Thorpe has opted to give us a book which is one huge battle set-piece. In The Emperor Expects, it was an epic naval battle. In The Beast Must Die, it is the assault on Ullanor. I have no problem with this ambitious move, but it also bears mentioning that the ancillary story lines see no advancement via this installment.

Also, we all know that tastes vary from reader to reader. With this in mind, I try to minimize criticisms based on style. For example, I've seen many cite Thorpe's flowery descriptions as a reason for not liking his work; however, I personally believe that that is when his work is at its most engaging. With that in mind, any complaints that I lodge will be when something just doesn't make sense.

Now, on to the review:

The Good:
No doubt about it, Gav Thorpe is a master architect of worlds. He has been instrumental in making the 40K universe what it is today; and that is predicated upon the sheer scope of his imagination. He brings the imaginative worlds of this shared universe to true life with his prose.

Also rendered with vivid detail are the diverse assets of all the factions in play here: the Adeptus Astartes, the Imperial Guard, the Adeptus Mechanicus, and, the chaotically jury-rigged machinery of the orks themselves.

I also give high marks (for the most part) for Thorpe's action sequences. When your choice is to make over 90% of your book one continuous action scene, the fact that you are maintaining a roughly 80% efficiency rating at it is still fairly impressive. Again, as mentioned before, it goes to my personal taste. I like when Thorpe uses vividly descriptive and comparative terms to bring his scenes to life and imbue them with a true sense of scale. I personally do not like Warhammer fiction that reads like "And then the Fist Exemplar, wearing Mark III armor, fired an incendiary round from his something-pattern bolter, hitting the 30 meter tall gargant." But, I'm sure some people do.

What doesn't work so well for the action scenes is that we don't have enough "eyes on the ground"; in my opinion, it would've worked to have a few more characters, giving us a few more viewpoints, and really invested us in what was at stake here. However, speaking of characters....

The Bad:
Yeah, characters and dialogue just aren't Gav's strong suit. His characters all kind of go along with the emotional current of the narrative, rather than being the forces driving it. There is nothing added to these characters in this book. (although I must say, there are epigraphs for some chapters which take snippets of Vulkan's inner monologue, and they are fantastically done)

In fact, there are some scenes which are just kind of painful. Which leads us to....

The Ugly:
Be forewarned -  there may be minor spoilers and major griping ahead.

A note before the rant begins: one thing I did not mention in the review for The Hunt For Vulkan (in order to minimize spoilers) is that Vulkan is indeed found. It is a moment of excellence for Annandale, because he truly conveys the sheer awe that even a super human like an Astartes would feel when a true living legend appears before them. It was truly an awe-inspiring moment.

Fast forward to preparations for the assault on Ullanor, and we have Koorland stomping his foot like a petulant child and shouting "I am Slaughter!" over and over at Vulkan. That was the moment that led me to put the book down for a few months.

Then, we have the issues with strategy, as I mentioned before. This massive assault force reaches Ullanor, and SPOILER!!!! the orks are utilizing pretty much the same technique that they employed to dismantle the Proletarian Crusade in seconds (just lay low for a while). And the Imperium forces fall completely for it. I am assuming the preparations and transit to Ullanor took a few months; and, in that time, the combined strategic minds of the Space Marines, Imperial Guard, and Adeptus Mechanicus could not come up with a solid attack plan as well as a half-dozen contingency plans? Really? In all honesty, it takes quite a bit to rustle my jimmies, but that left me quite rustled.

In closing:
I don't want to get too caught up in the complaints. I want to reinforce that for all of its flaws, there is a lot of good in The Beast Must Die. Read it for the grand action sequences, including a rousing climactic battle.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

As always, a fantastic cover. Why they chose the Adeptus Mechanicus for this installment, I have no idea. They figure in the book, they are written very well in the book, and I truly wish that they had featured more in the book.

Cover Final Score: