thrift store finds: batman (1989) novelization

(Thrift Store Finds is a mostly-weekly “column” of sorts where I discuss some of the cool books I’ve happened upon in my neighborhood St. Vincent DePaul store. Please don’t mistake me for an expert on any of the books I am writing about… I’m just a fan of a bargain.)

I was the last generation of kids for whom home video wasn’t a given. By the time I was in junior high, VHS had pretty well taken over the world, allowing even the most meager of homes the luxury of making it a Blockbuster night. Moreover, as home video rental stores began to get a foothold in towns and cities across the country, the window between a film appearing on the big screen and in your local video store narrowed considerably.

When I was a kid, however… this was not the case. If you wanted to see a movie, you saw it in the movie theaters. If you were lucky, a year or so later, it’d appear on HBO… and a year after that perhaps, on one of the Big Three TV networks. If you wanted to know more about that movie, you’d watch Entertainment Tonight. Many a Monday evening I remember spending glued to the television watching the ageless Mary Hart opine about weekend’s movie grosses.

There was no immediate gratification of a home video release. There was no Internet to sate a budding cinephile’s interest in the making of their favorite movies. It was catch-as-catch-can.

…and this is where movie novelizations picked up some slack.

When I was growing up and you wanted to re-experience that movie you loved so well, they were the only game in town. Novelizations were written retellings of your favorite flick, normally based on the screenplays of major motion pictures rather than the finished product that landed in movie theaters. Stemming from this fact, movie novelizations were often rife with “bonus scenes” and extra perspective on characters in a flick, simply by virtue of having to be written months before the actual movie was completed. After all, a film novelist couldn’t know which scenes in the shooting script would end up on the cutting room floor. As a reader and a movie fan, I always found this thrilling. For instance, I remember reading Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of Alien 3 and enjoying it MORE than I enjoyed the movie at the time.

I’m not sure movie novelizations serve much of a purpose in this day and age, when the Internet so readily caters to the whims of the cinematically obsessed… but I was vividly reminded of my my own obsession with novelizations this past weekend when trolling a New 2 You thrift store in Mason and discovering…

the novelization of the 1989 Batman movie by Craig Shaw Gardner.

I can remember exactly where I was when I read this book. I was sitting the back of our family car on a summer vacation to Gananoque, Ontario. Although I have no recollection as to exactly why Gananoque was our destination of choice in the summer of ’89, I do vividly remember sitting the back of my family’s un-air conditioned station wagon and pouring over every page of this book.

In the past here at Thrift Store Finds, I’ve avoided re-reading whole novels I wanted to mention out of a lack of time… but my nostalgia got the better of me and I dived back into this book. You know what? Over twenty years later, it’s still great fun.

Y’know, looking at the cover now, it’s not the best. Batman’s ears are obscured by the logo and while they managed to get both Batman and The Joker on there… it just looks a little awkward to my 2010 eyes. 1989 Chris couldn’t have given a flying fig about bad logo placement, however. This was a second chance to experience Batman! In action! Weird cover design be damned!

The first thing I noticed was the dedication page. I’m not going to do a ton of scans of this book as it’s all prose… but this grabbed my attention:

As a kid, this probably made no sense to me, but as an adult who spent two years of his post-college life living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I now know that Gardner was dedicating this book to the BEST comic book store in the greater Boston area, Million Year Picnic. Named for the Ray Bradbury short story found in The Martian Chronicles, many a Wednesday afternoon did I spend combing the shelves of the tiny store, inarguably the best place to pick up indie/DIY comics in Harvard Square… or anywhere else, for that matter.

The next thing I noticed as I started chugging along through the book was how inspired Gardner seems to have been by Frank Miller… or perhaps, how inspired the script on which this book is based is inspired by Frank MIller. Miller was the artist/writer behind the seminal Batman mini-series The Dark Knight Returns, the book which fittingly returned Batman to his pulpy, angry, crime-obsessed roots. Within the first few pages of Gardner’s novel, you’ve got Batman thinking of the duo of criminals from the opening scene as a couple of “punks”, a trademark Miller descriptor.

Nothing that explicit floated to the surface in the actual Batman movie, but the novelization wears the inspirado on its’ sleeve. This is to the book’s credit- everything I’ve ever heard says that Miller’s rough-and-tumble take on Bats was the thing that got producers thinking that a Batman movie could be something more than Caesar Romero’s mustache covered over with white clown paint and illustrative sound effects. I love that you can plainly see that in the author’s prose.

The book follows the movie’s storyline pretty slavishly which is EXACTLY what you’d want from a movie novelization… but Gardner’s great on details. In particular his interior monologue’s for Jack “Joker” Napier are really wonderful and spelled out for an eight year old Chris Pearce exactly what the hell was going on with that whole “Did you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” line that The Joker lays on Bruce Wayne halfway through the movie.

There’s also quite a bit more from Police Commissioner Gordon in this book, his own thoughts on Batman. Gordon’s role in the movie is pretty undernourished, amounting to a handful of scenes that don’t really carry the character anywhere interesting. Gardner gives him a unique point of view in the book that, in my estimation, is quite a bit better than anything the movie had time to give viewers.

There’s also the requisite amount of comic creator namedropping going on here, if I’m not mistaken. One of the police officers under Commissioner Gordon is called “O’Neil” and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that was a homage to Batman editor/writer Denny O’Neil. Interestingly, O’Neil himself wrote the novelizations to many a DC Comics property, including the adaptation of the 2008 Batman flick, The Dark Knight.

….anyhow, I paid an always-attractive quarter for this trip down memory lane and it was more than worth it. Mr. Gardner has a website chockablock with information about his career and this here book (which made him a New York Times bestseller!) and many of his other novels, both adapted (he wrote the Back to the Future novelizations!) and original works.

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3 Responses to “thrift store finds: batman (1989) novelization”

  1. […] I gave author/novelization guru Craig Shaw Gardner some props when I rediscovered his Batman noveliz… and then last week, I found Back to the Future, Part III, written by the man. I don’t have as much residual BttF love to reread the novelized adventures of Marty McFly and Doc Brown in Hill Valley, 1885, but I remember buying this at my elementary school’s Book Fair and reading it to pieces. […]

  2. […] it exactly, but it just didn’t work for me.  But what do I know? For another opinion you can go here and see a guy who loves this friggen […]

  3. […] tell you the truth, I have been looking for a copy of The Batman Murders for awhile now. Craig Shaw Gardner is a popular writer/novelist who famously (to me, anyway) wrote the novelization …. Batman-mania had such a feverish grip on America that Gardner’s take on the Caped Crusader […]

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