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Issue 9. Performance

eXistenZ, a different novelization?

Authors: Thomas Van Parys, Lien Jansen & Elisabeth Vanhoutte
Published: October 2004

Abstract (E): Generally, novelization can be defined as the adaptation from film into novel, as opposed to the more usual adaptation process from novel to film. Although most novelizations have no literary ambitions, it occurs that some authors succeed in giving a particular twist to the "job" they are asked to do. Christopher Priest's novelization of David Cronenberg's eXistenZ might be an example of such a rather uncommon practice.

Abstract (F): De manière générale, on pourrait définir la novellisation comme une adaptation inverse, c'est-à-dire comme la transformation d'un film en livre. La plupart de ces novellisations sont dénuées de toute ambition littéraire, cependant il arrive que des auteurs essaient d'aller plus loin que le simple " boulot " qu'on leur demande de faire. Ce que Christopher Priest a fait à partir du film de David Cronenberg, eXistenZ, est peut-être un exemple d'une telle pratique peu commune.

keywords: novelization, eXistenZ, Christopher Priest, David Cronenberg, science-fiction


Generally, novelization can be defined as the adaptation from film into novel, as opposed to the more common adaptation process from novel to film. The phenomenon of novelization fits in with the cinephile's desire to write about cinema, and with the idea that a film is incomplete without an accompanying text. As part of the marketing strategy for a film, a novelization is usually limited to an elaborate transcription of the screenplay. In that sense, it is merely a commercial exploitation of the film's success and actuality.

However, in contrast with this more mainstream 'book from the film', some novelizations have attempted to be a literary counterpart to the screenplay. Likewise, since David Cronenberg's eXistenZ is arguably an artistic and intellectual cult film, a renowned science fiction author has been asked for the novelization, namely Christopher Priest. He is the writer of The Inverted World, The Space Machine, The Affirmation and The Extremes, among other novels. In 1983, Priest received the prize for 'Best of Young British Novelists'. He was nominated four times for the prestigious 'Hugo Prize', and three times for the 'Arthur C. Clarke Award', which he finally won in 2003 for The Separation. In 2001, his whole career was honoured with the 'Prix Utopia'. Although he had started as a science fiction author, he broadened his literary path by the late seventies and began publishing work that was less determined by the norms of the genre. Combining sf and fantasy with fictional innovations, Priest tries to elevate science fiction from its label. eXistenZ can be considered as a more highbrow sf novel in that Priest created a hybrid novelization which incorporates science fiction as well as literary elements; he has attempted to stretch the commercial limitations inherent in this kind of novelization as far as possible.

The following interview (May 2004) deals with Christopher Priest's intentions and various issues concerning this particular novel as well as the phenomenon of novelization.


Do you know why David Cronenberg wanted his script for eXistenZ novelized?

I had no direct contact with Mr Cronenberg at any point, so we discussed neither the film nor the book. I assume that because eXistenZ was based on an original script, under the contract the film company had the right to make a novel out of the script. I'm pretty sure Mr Cronenberg knew what was going on, but as I say we never spoke or communicated at all. From my point of view, I was commissioned by my usual book publisher and I worked with them.


How did you handle the task concretely? Were you free to make certain changes?

I tackled it in exactly the same way as I have written other novelizations in the past. I read the script through to get some sense of what the eventual film might be like, thought about it for a bit, mentally decided which scenes would work best in a novel, and which ones would need to be revised slightly to make them work, then got down to it. Time is always short with a novelization. You become involved with the film when they've almost finished work on it, and they want the book to be ready so that it can be on sale at the same time as the film is released. And of course publishing a book takes time. So there's no time to waste.

In general, what you try to do is produce a book that will run parallel to the film. It should try to have the same effect on the reader as the film will have on its audience. It should tell the same story, have the same characters, have the same general "feel". But a book requires many more words than a screenplay, so you have the opportunity to embellish a little: work in some back-story, fill out the background, describe the locations, and so on.

But remember: at the time the novel is being written, the author only has a screenplay to work with. It's probably not even a final version, a shooting script. You have no real idea which actors will be in it, or where the film will be shot. You have no knowledge of the music, the pace, what the special effects will look like, the way the lighting will be used, the overall style. All you can do is guess at them, from what's in the script. Other than this, I was free to do whatever I thought was best for the novel.


Do you think eXistenZ fits in with the other novels you wrote?

There's no real connection between eXistenZ and my other books, except a fairly loose one. I've always admired Mr Cronenberg's films, have usually felt that he and I are probably on the same sort of wavelength. In this sense, I feel I've grown up in the same intellectual or artistic culture as him, that we have interests and concerns in common. I suspect we share many things we like or admire: writers, other films, etc. When I was offered the novelization, I was pleased to accept it for that reason.


Are you satisfied with the way your novelization turned out or would you make a few changes in retrospect?

I'm neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with the finished book. I wish, as always, I had had more time to work on it. And I wish I had had a chance to see an early cut of the film before I eventually did. But I feel it's a reasonably professional job, written for the right instincts, that does what it set out to do. I'm sure there are places where it could be improved.


Why did you use the pseudonym "John Luther Novak"? And why is the pseudonym not consistently used, since some editions say "Novak", while other "Priest"?

I have used the "Novak" pseudonym for at least one other novelization. "Novak" was used this time because just before working on eXistenZ I had written and delivered a novel of my own, which has the title The Extremes. I felt that the similarity of the titles could easily lead to confusion. However, when some of the publishers outside Britain (notably in the US) discovered who "Novak" really was, they said it would "add value" if my name was on the cover page. Thinking that "added value" meant they would pay more for it with my name on, I agreed. However, I realized soon enough that they meant it added value for them, not for me.


In an interview you mention that Mr Cronenberg's vision is dated. Could you explain this some further?

This is a tricky subject. I'm sincere when I say I admire Mr Cronenberg's films. Over the years I have generally believed his work to be on the cutting edge of a certain kind of commercial cinema. He's one of the few really innovative and distinctive directors.

Even so, I felt that his take on virtual reality was bit eccentric, and not all that original, frankly. This would have been the impression gained by almost anyone who has, for instance, played any computer games in recent years. Some of the concepts in games are truly mind-boggling. In eXistenZ, the characters delve into an artificial reality where they end up in a Chinese restaurant, which leads to a breakdown in what is "real" and what is not. I felt the mind was not likely to be boggled too much by the Chinese restaurant. Then the story goes off into shifting loyalties, betrayals, a violent insurrection, and an extremely corny ending in which we discover that the two principal characters are not what they have seemed all along.

My first thought was that Mr Cronenberg could not have read any of the novels by Philip K. Dick. Certainly books from the 1960s like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch contained ideas and situations that were many times more interesting and sophisticated than weirdo frog-parts in a Chinese restaurant. Then my second thought was that Mr Cronenberg could not have read any of *my* recent novels. I've been working with quite advanced concepts of virtual reality for at least the last twenty years, and most of those were a bit more ambitious than weirdo frog-parts. In particular, the novel I had just delivered, The Extremes (which of course Mr Cronenberg couldn't have known about) took the subject of virtual reality into what I considered to be new and advanced areas.

But ... my job wasn't to get into an intellectual arm-wrestling match with him. For one thing, screenplays are endlessly rewritten, often to satisfy people in the film business who haven't the vaguest idea how screenplays are written. I could all too easily imagine that by the time the script reached me, it was the product of many compromises, revisions and substitutions. His film needed a novel and I simply played the thing with a straight bat. I took his material and made the best book I could out of it.


In that same interview, you say that you regarded writing the novel as a mere job, and eXistenZ is not mentioned on your website. Does this mean that you did not have any literary ambitions with the novel, or did you still try to raise the story to a higher level?

To say that writing a novelization is merely a "job" makes it sound as if it's written cynically or carelessly, just for the money. That's certainly not true of novelizations in general, and emphatically not true of this one. You obviously wouldn't do the work unless you were paid, but the money's not that good. Every writer takes pride in his work. But, you're working with another writer's material, you have only part of the information you need, and you're under immense time pressures. It's going to be inevitable that what you produce simply cannot be at the same level as your own "real" novels, where you take all the time you want, you're in total command of the material, and so on.

eXistenZ doesn't appear on my website because I always felt it was much more Mr Cronenberg's work than mine.


Is it correct that your first draft was rejected? What was Mr Cronenberg's reason for rejecting it?
No, it wasn't rejected. What happened was that someone in Mr Cronenberg's office (of course, it might have come from Mr Cronenberg himself) said that the novel wasn't dark or menacing enough, that it was too fast-paced, too light. They wanted it made more sombre.

The irony of this, for me, was that one of the things I most liked about the script was its pace, its storytelling flair, and the witty and intriguing dialogue. When I read the script the first time I smiled all the way through, and laughed aloud a couple of times. Cronenberg is an excellent writer. The Jude Law character, in particular, has a nice line in dry asides. The Willem Dafoe character is written in an over-the-top way, which Dafoe, incidentally, translated perfectly on the screen. For some unexplained reason many of the characters spoke English with Russian accents, and I assumed this was some kind of obscure joke. On my reading of the script, I mentally imagined the film as being something like a science fiction version of The Big Lebowski, kind of bittersweet, amusing, oddball. I wrote the book accordingly.

Then the word came down from on high that it needed to be darker, more menacing. This was conveyed to me by the editor at the publishers, who by this time had read and approved my manuscript. She had also read the script. We had a long, long telephone conversation, looking through the script, comparing it with the novelized version. In the end she agreed that I had followed not only the detail of the script, but also the spirit of it. She went back to Mr Cronenberg's office, but they wouldn't be moved. The book was too light-hearted, and needed to be made heavier.

The outcome of this was that an advance screening was set up for me and the editor at Shepperton Studios. Neither Mr Cronenberg nor any of his staff were there. It was here that I saw the film for the first time. At the end of the screening, the editor and I sat in the tiny auditorium and again discussed what differences there were between the film and the book. We remained united in our belief that far from being dark and menacing, the movie was an amusing, interesting, well-made adventure film with a lot of witty dialogue and entertaining scenes. There was some fairly gruesome stuff (such as the scene in which Jude Law suddenly finds himself impelled to eat the disgusting Chinese meal made out of lizards' legs and toad entrails, and the whole business of jacking into virtual reality by having a slimy pod hotwired into your nervous system), but even that seemed to us to be played not as horror but as black humour. Maybe it was a culture clash: our British sense of irony against North American literalism?

Whatever the explanation, the situation remained that Mr Cronenberg was not satisfied, or someone who worked for him said he wasn't. I agreed with the editor that I would run the manuscript one more time through my word processor, and look for every opportunity to introduce a sense of looming threat. This I did. I put in more negative adverbs: nervously, gloomily, darkly, terrifyingly, and so on. I made the weather worse. I kept the hours of daylight shorter. I described worrying noises. I interjected lines of dialogue and description. "I don't like this." "What the hell was that?" That sort of thing. I did what I could.

It seemed to be enough, because after that, up to the present day, I have never heard another word from either Mr Cronenberg or his staff.


The theme of sexuality is quite present in the film on various, mostly metaphorical, levels. In the novel, it is made much more explicit, for instance Ted Pikul's motivations and motives evolve mainly around sexual desire. Was there any particular reason for this emphasis?

I felt that having a more overt sexual relationship between Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law gave the story a bit more impact, so I made it more detailed. I was also drawing on experience. The sex scenes in films are often shot several times, in varying degrees of explicitness. One version will be intended for cinemas in big cities, another for "general" distribution. Another might be made with cable TV in mind. Or foreign markets. The actual scenes are often improvised on the day between the actors and the director. The screenplay will confine itself to "they go to bed together and make love", and will only mention details if those details have a bearing on the characters or the plot. So from the point of view of the novelizer (who hasn't seen the film, and only has a short paragraph to work with) all options are open. My own policy is to try to write such scenes so they are consistent with the characters, the story, what is going to happen next, and so on. It's literally impossible to second-guess the film, so you write the novel the best way you can.


What is your view on the phenomenon of novelization?

Novels based on films obviously have an appeal. I think people read them partly because they want to recapture some of the magic of having already seen the film, and a novel will help them re-imagine it, and partly because they are looking for an explanation of something they found obscure, or an expansion of scenes, or something like that.

I also think a good novelizer can improve things. There was one film I worked on where, unusually, I was shown a rough cut of the film before I even saw the script. At the end of the rough cut there were three endings, one after the other. The director appeared at the end of the screening and explained that he had shot three endings because he couldn't decide which was the best. Privately, I thought all three of them were poor, and gave the film a weak climax. I decided not to worry about it, wait to see what the script said, then deal with the problem at the time. Perhaps by that time they would have decided. But a week later, when I was sent the script, I discovered that it had no ending at all! The writer had simply given up. When I got to the end of the novel I tried to find out what the director had decided to use, but no one would tell me. So I wrote a completely different ending of my own, consistent with the characters, logical within the plot, and with a surprise at the very end. Naturally, I think it's better than any of the other three endings. It's definitely a lot better than the one the director eventually chose. I went to see the film when it came out, and he had picked the easiest, most obvious ending of the three. It was also the weakest. (Of course, now you will want to know what the film was, but I'm not saying. Although I can say that it was not any film of Mr Cronenberg's.)


Christopher Priest



Maerlant Center Institute for Cultural Studies

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