This is only peripherally a review of Star Trek: Into Darkness the film. I’m going to talk about the film, yes, but more immediately I’m going to talk about the novelization of it, written by Alan Dean Foster, and the reading of it by Alice Eve. I saw the film first, and then listened to this reading via Audible, so it’s my more recent experience of the story.
A lot of people I know, because I’m probably the most devoted Star Trek fan they know, and because I also write, and because I’m an opinionated cuss, have asked me what I thought of this latest film. Some of them are pretty bent out of shape about it, since it revisits some especially sacred ground for Trek. Well, I enjoyed the film, and I wouldn’t be too bent out of shape anyway. I’ll tell ya why. (One caveat: I’d be very bent out of shape if they’d outright ruined one of the classic characters, as Marvel and DC Comics have been bent on doing to cultural icons at least for the last five years. They didn’t. This film was made with respect and affection for those who went before.)
Back to tellin’ ya why. The best thing, for me, about the JJ Abrams Trek movies is that they’re an excuse for Alan Dean Foster to write a new Star Trek novel. Not that the films are bad, just that I’m not as much looking for a whole new Star Trek as I am looking for more of the old one. For me, Foster is part of the old Trek. I was just coming of age as an audience member in 1974 when he started novelizing the animated Trek episodes. Those stories, for me, are much more a part of Trek than Jean Luc Picard and his crew could ever be. No slam on Next Gen, it’s all in what you grow up with.
Foster is the king of novelizations. As memory serves, he first novelized Dark Star, John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s comedic SF film, which was an unlikely candidate for a novelization, but got one. I think it was on the strength of that book that he got the Star Trek Logs. Again, unlikely candidates for novelization. Who ever heard of novelizing a Saturday morning cartoon? No one in 1974. But this was Star Trek. As of 1974, most of the series had been novelized by James Blish. (His wife, J.A. Lawrence, completed the series in 1977 with Star Trek 12 and Mudd’s Angels.)
Since then, he’s done, well everything. Aliens through Alien 3 (which I’ve heard he disliked and wanted to rewrite), AlienNation, Outland, The Thing… Even Transformers. Oh, holy crap, I may have to read Transformers novels… And he’s done them all very, very well. And he famously adapted the first Star Wars, only (shhhh! it’s a secret!) he signed a contract saying he’d let George Lucas have credit.
Why do I read novelizations, anyway, you may ask? After all, it could be argued that a novelization is not a real novel. It’s adapted from a story written for film, and stories written for film are usually less complex than a full-blown novel’s story. The action in the story is intended to be seen, not read about. It’s a different kind of story-telling. But perhaps it’s the synergy between books and films, with so many films being adapted to the screen since film was invented, that caused audiences to demand that original screenplays, those not based on novels, also be accompanied by a book. Or perhaps greedy damn publishers just wanted one more way to make money, I dunno.
I do know that, when I see a film I particularly enjoy, I usually feel an overwhelming impulse to read the book. And if there’s not a book that serves as the original source material, a novelization, if well done, is fine with me. Why would I want to spend time reading a story I just watched on the screen? Well… lotsa reasons.
- A story is best experienced multiple times, a good story, anyway. Stories often get better with the re-telling. Part of that, in the case of spoken, remembered stories, is just that the storytellers hones both the story and his craft as he goes. But another part of that is that the listener, reader or viewer’s interaction with the story deepens and matures with each experience of it. Days, hours or weeks later, you notice things you didn’t notice the first time. Years later, you’re in a different place in life, you sympathize with difference characters because experience has changed you. (See my review of Les Miserable.)
- Reading / listening to the novel brings you more intimately in touch with the story and characters. I read fiction and watch films to spend time with favorite characters. Repeat viewings let me know them better, and reading an authors perspective lets me know them better still.
- Sometimes (as in this case) a story moves so fast that you can really experience it. You’re too busy trying to catch your breath. It’s just possible that the storyteller is doing this intentionally, so you won’t notice that his story doesn’t hold up. The fast-talking salesman uses this technique. In the workplace, it’s called “baffling with bullshit.” If you read the story, you have more time to think about it.
- Similarly, a screenplay doesn’t hold a lot of words. The novel lets the storyteller delve deeper. This is especially helpful to the reader if there are subtleties and mysteries he’s trying to grasp.
- Differences can be intriguing. A lot of readers I’ve talked to get very upset about a book and a movie being different from each other. I particularly remember one fan at a convention challenging the late Jimmy Doohan (as if he had anything to do with it!) about the differences between the film and novel versions of Star Treks II and III. She was livid that Vonda McIntyre had added characters and scenes, and even, in the later book, about 80 pages of introductory material never penned by a screenwriter. Me, I love differences.
- And don’t assume I saw the film first. With the first two Trek films, I was so excited about the films coming out that, when the novels came out first, I read them immediately. It gave me a whole different appreciation for the stories. Ironically, the first Trek film was novelized by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry based on a script which was plotted by Foster.
So, you get it, I love novelizations, and was actually more excited about the book than the movie when Into Darkness came out. And I thought the movie was pretty good. Benedict Cumberbatch is a brilliant actor. He leapt off the screen and made you feel his magnetic, manipulative personality. I won’t spoilerize and say who he played, but I will say, again, that a lot of people are upset that certain ground got re-covered. And I see their point. Originality would be nice. And, particularly, the ground that got re-covered was broken by Harve Bennett, someone I have tremendous professional respect and personal affection for. Harve inspired me to be a writer 30+ years ago, and, when I met him much later, he was so gracious and encouraging to me, my family and my friends that he’ll always be a hero to me. So I guess I should be picky about how his legacy is treated. And, honestly, I think this film treats it pretty well. It’s not Harve Bennett’s Trek, which is to say it is not the greatest Trek film ever made. Harve, after all, produced two of the three which would be considered for the title, and there’s really no contest, even among those three, for which is best.
Foster’s novelization is faithful. It adds less to the actual plot than did his adaptation of the 2009 film, although it does cover a couple of points that are missing from the film. As always, the prose is elegant and inventive, and he does bother to explain and develop some of the science behind things which are glossed over (by necessity) on film.
I have to say that this is not a script that lends itself to novelization. It is a particularly fast-paced and frantic tale. Foster keeps up well, though, slowing it down to a breathable pace, and setting the right emotional tone. (Kirk and Spock do get put through quite the emotional wringer in this one!) The fastest-paced moments are at the end, and I was especially happy that he did not dwell on the action-packed climax.
See, if there was a part of the movie I didn’t care for, it was action-hero Spock fighting the villain on a flying robot garbage scow over San Francisco. It was just too… movie-ish. I was glad that Uhura stepped in and got some action too, but still… I felt it was contrived and went on too damn long. I get the impression that Foster might have thought the same, or at least realized it was not a good subject for a lot of prose. The scene, in the book, is mercifully short. He pretty much starts it halfway in. I know why the movie didn’t do the same, but, still… Too long!
Unlike its predecessor classic Trek films, those Bennett produced and Meyer and Nimoy directed, I don’t think Into Darkness is going to trigger in anyone a love of good films. Not that it’s a bad film, but it is, well, a Summer Blockbuster. When I saw The Wrath of Khan, for instance, I suddenly became a lover of movies in general, and I hadn’t been before. I suddenly became aware of direction, production values, literary allusion and all the rest. Khan paved the way for me to love Casablanca, Gone With the Wind and the films of Hitchcock and Capra. I don’t think this one’s gonna do that for anyone, and I think one of the reasons is that it’s made more for an audience who likes a good knockdown dragout on a flying garbage scow than it is for one that appreciates classic cinema.
But it was a satisfying two hours, and Foster’s adaptation is a satisfying six or so. The narration on the audiobook is by Alice Eve, a cast member from the film. She has an excellent reading style, and handled the accents very well. Eve is not American, but she reproduced Kirk, Spock and McCoy sounding as American as you please, and her Scotty was priceless. My only complaint about Eve, as opposed to Zachary Quinto who read the first film’s audiobook, is that she can be very, very quiet at times. Great for film acting, but not so much for an audiobook when the listener is likely in a car or on a train. Not her fault, but the sound engineer and director should have gone to greater effort to correct the issue. Even at that, it’s a beautiful voice to spend six hours listening to.