Novelisations were once a lifeline method of continuing to enjoy a film or television programme long after you had initially viewed it. For certain franchises, these could take on a life of their own. Certainly this was the case with lines such as the Target novelisations of Doctor Who serials, and in the cases of some of the episodes that have since been wiped, they remain some of the best ways to experience those stories. Such high regard are these still held in by many fans that they remain an important part of the show’s history, and continue in one form or another to this day.
That’s not that these adaptations were always successful of course. Famously, the novelisation of Back to the Future is a hilariously deranged affair, that before even covering the opening scenes of the film has already depicted a nuclear holocaust. They can also manage to undo the work set out in the original work as is the case in the novelisation for The Dark Knight Rises, taking the ambiguity of the ending of the film and stating it as cast iron fact.
As the existence of that particular book shows, even with home media being more available than ever, novelisations do still exist even for the likes of Wallace and Gromit, though certainly in a smaller amount than was once the case. One particular genre where novelisations seem to have largely been done away with is television sitcoms. The Red Dwarf novels are obvious examples of this, but they are in no way an isolated case.
Over a decade before Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers was released in 1989, Porridge, one of Red Dwarf’s comedic inspirations, had already been adapted into multiple books. The Red Dwarf novels also wouldn’t mark the end of these type of adaptations, with David Renwick adapting One Foot in The Grave in 1993. All three of these books have their own way of approaching the source material, and all have different successes and pitfalls. In comparing them we can get something of an insight into the writers approaches, and indeed why this style of comedy book is a sad loss.
When handled by the original writers, a novelisation gives the creators a chance to expand upon the confines of a half an hour sitcom. In the cases of Dwarf and One Foot, Grant Naylor and Renwick chose to undertake the task of turning their work into book form themselves rather than handing it to another writer. Unfortunately, this is not the case with Porridge, with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’ work having been adapted by Jonathan Marshall; a fact that the omnibus edition ‘Three Helpings of Porridge’ likes to avoid mentioning aside from once on the seventh page.
A change of writer for a novelisation isn’t necessarily a death knell however, and sometimes a fresh perspective can prove useful in expanding the story to book length. One particularly successful example of this is the novelisation of Star Wars: Revenge of The Sith by Matthew Stover, which takes the stilted dialogue and illogical plot points of the movie and does an admirable job of providing explanations and internal struggles to justify some of the film’s more bizarre choices.
Jonathan Marshall, the writer of the Porridge novelisations, was something of a halfway house however. While the series had been written by Clement and La Frenais, Marshall was an ex-con that they had consulted with in order to have their scripts convey the correct slang, dress and routines. It was Marshall’s repeated use of the phrase ‘little victories’ that would prove to be the main starting block for the writers, and would indeed be an idea that years later could arguably be applied to the first series of Red Dwarf.
Consequently, Marshall was not entirely removed from the material he was dealing with, and this undoubtedly had some influence on its direction. However, the fact remains that the was not one of the actual writers of the show being adapted, and this leads to one of the problems with his approach to adapting the material; the use of first person.
It’s an approach avoided by Grant Naylor in any of the Red Dwarf novels. While you could perhaps argue that this could be as a result of the show having two leads rather than one, it’s notable that Renwick also chooses not to in his novel of a show that is very much based around one central character.
This use of first person is a risky approach, especially in adapting a character the audience is familiar with from television. In this situation, the reader is more likely to react negatively to anything that seems out-of-place in a character’s behaviour, and when not handled by the original writers this is more likely to occur. It’s not as wide of the tonal mark as Eoin Colfer’s Hitchhiker’s Guide sequel, but compared to the likes of ‘I, Partridge’ (which is perhaps one of the finest examples of first-person comedy character adaptation writing), it’s certainly found wanting.
Here I am ensconced in my old flowery-dell; that means cell for the uninitiated, contemplating the pros and cons of serving a five stretch. No central heating, a stone floor, a small barred window and no handle on the inside of the door. What you might call a prison.
On the other hand, according to the Law Society Gazette, sentences are going to get longer. And if we go by what the Daily Mirror reports, unemployment is rising, petrol is due to rise and so are Manchester United, an’ that can be bad. I mean, think of all them grotty United supporters infesting dear old Highbury. Looking at it in that light, I reckon there is something in doing a bit of Porridge in the winter.
Now I must be honest – and that’s going to break the habit of a lifetime. When old Justice Fraser, known by the criminal fraternity as Big Nose, gave me five years I didn’t actually leap up and down with the shouts of jollification. No, as I recall it I said, ‘Charmless nurk’, and went on down the steps for my cocoa and a limp bun. Old Fraser didn’t look too pleased with my comments but then he hadn’t looked pleased at all during the trial. Course being a Scotsman doesn’t help. It’s not that I’m racially prejudiced or anything but I’ve always noticed that Scots are not much bottle in the way of having a giggle. Now me, I like a joke, and try to inject a note of levity into most situations such as weddings, funerals or court appearances.
(Book: Three Helpings of Porridge – Page 11)
In comparison, Rewick’s One Foot novelisation is unhampered by the ungainly first person imposed on the Marshall’s book, and his character insight feel more truthful to the characters he created. With a clearer path to the characters he is writing about, he’s often able to boil their traits down into a short succinct as in his description of Mrs Warboys.
Being Jewish was, for Mrs Warboys, less an act of faith and more a taste in wallpaper, Which explained how parasitic larvae on a piece of infested pork managed to find their way into her digestive system. of course there were those who has observed that the parasites were the ones to be pitied in this case, and that if the drugs didn’t get them the stories about her childhood in Stanmore would.
(Book: One Foot in The Grave – Page 31)
Grant Naylor also benefit from following a third person approach, with it often allowing them to examine a characters flaws that they themselves would choose to be blind to. In this description of Rimmer found in Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, we can instantly see not only a clear consistency of tone with the television series, we can also see the different insight we are offered into the character’s mindset.
Rimmer wanted to become an officer. He ached for it. He yearned for it. It wasn’t the most important thing in his life. It was his life.
Given the opportunity, he would gladly have had his eyes scooped out if it meant he could have become an officer. He would happily have inserted two red-hot needles simultaneously through both of his ears so they met in the middle of his brain, and tap-danced the title song from 42nd Street barefoot on a bed of molten lava while giving oral sex to a male orang-utan with dubious personal hygiene, if only it meant attaining that simple, elusive golden bar of an Astronavigation Officer, Fourth Class.
But he had to do something much more demanding, much more impossible, and much more unpleasant. He had to pass the astronavigation exam.
(Book: Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers – Page 61)
This presents an insight that the television counterpart is not without, but the sheer desperation, the longing and the sheer infeasability of Rimmer obtaining his dream is never greater explained than it is in passages such as these. Rimmer is complex and more neurosis than a Hollywood self-help group, and as such is a perfect character to explore in this manner. Consequently, we feel that we know him better as a result of reading the novel unrestricted by the constraints of a half hour sitcom.
Television can present other restrictions of course, especially in a primetime slot on BBC 2. For Renwick, sitcoms often have a dark undercurrent, and this is often apparent in his work from One Foot in The Grave through to his highly underrated work on the darkly bittersweet Love Soup. However, in the sitcom world of the early 90s, this would generally only be pushed so far without raising a broadcasters concerns about alienating viewers.
It was a foolish thing, but Margaret couldn’t suppress a certain feeling of guilt. After all, her job at the florist’s had never been so secure. With the economic climate grim beyond belief and the health service in tatters the shop was enjoying an unprecedented upturn in suicides nd natural deaths. In the ten years she’d worked there she’d never known such a run on lilies. A cornucopia of corpses, Mrs Treby had called it, as she merrily bowled another wreath into the stock room with a bamboo cane. For certain, after thirteen years of Conservative government the future of the floral tributes industry had never looked rosier.
(Book: One Foot in The Grave – Page 9)
Perhaps the most obvious example is that of Stuart. In the episode Timeless TIme in the second series, Victor refers to a headline that states “no British babies believed to have been killed” before apologising for saying “the first thing that came into my head… I wasn’t thinking”. Margaret, reacting to this, says the following:
“I was thinking about him just this morning, funnily enough, running into Glynis outside the post office with Michael. She had him just a few days before, if you remember: she was coming out of the hospital just as I was going in. He’s still working for that insurance company. They’re talking about moving him to his own branch up north somewhere. She’ll miss him. She never had any others. He’d just bought his mum an ice cream and then he was going to run her up to the doctors. It doesn’t seem like five minutes since it was the other way round. I always think of Stewart when I see him. God, he’s enormous now. His eldest girl’s just starting at the secondary. I wonder what he’d have gone into? I wonder if he’d have gone into insurance?”
(TV: One Foot in The Grave S2 Ep 2 – Timeless Time)
It’s a very subtle approach that leaves the audience to infer the sad reality. When novelising the events of the first three series however, Renwick used the opportunity to provide a bit more insight into who Stuart was and what exactly happened to him.
Stuart Meldrew was born on Tuesday September 4th 1951.
On Wednesday September 5th 1951 he went off with another woman.
Victor and Margaret were shocked to the core and so were the doctors, and the police and the authorities, and just about everyone who read of the affair in the local newspaper.
More accurately of course, another woman went off with Stuart. Baldly and brazenly. Just walked into her arms and then made off with him down the road in a London taxi cab.
Margaret, who had had a difficult pregnancy and an impossible birth, froze over with shock, while the father of the child was seen to gallop about like an ostrich, bellowing at the doctors to for God’s sake get his son back.
Five days passed before the taxi driver came forward and led the police to the home of a poor, emotionally disturbed woman in Hertfordshire. Mercifully, the bemused infant was found alive and safe in a cat basket, and duly returned to his mother’s arms. And never has the hospital witnessed such scenes of joy as those between the exultant parents and their gurgling, week-old child.
The Doctors said there was no reason to believe that his death six days later was due in any way to the abduction. Subsequent examinations had sadly uncovered a hole in the baby’s heart which under any circumstances would have limited his chance of survival.
(Book: One Foot in The Grave – Page 174)
The combination of the dark subject matter and the juxtaposition of the happiness of the characters with the emotional turmoil a line later creates a fabulously somber piece of writing which takes the subject matter into far more upsetting detail than ever made it to screen.
While this may be something of an extreme example, the of expanding the show’s pathos is not limited to Renwick’s writing. For a point of comparison, let’s take this passage from the first Red Dwarf novel:
The music changed; a Johnny Cologne number: Press Your Lumps Against Mine. It was smootch time
There was a loud scraping of chairs as people stood up and guided their partners onto the already packed dance floor. A huge, multi-limbed beast rippled, ebbing and flowing, contracting and expanding to the gentle sway of the music.
Lister suddenly found himself alone at the table, the others lost in the undulating, pulsating mass of smootching bodies. He squinted drunkenly around the vast disco. So many people. People dancing, people touching, people laughing, people talking, people kissing.
So many people.
In just over seven months, every one of them would be dead.
(Book: Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers – Page 58)
Despite both pieces dealing with very different characters in different situations, there is an interesting resemblance between the writing approaches, with both bits of text ending in a shock statement that subverts expectation from the ones that precede it. As with One Foot, this subject matter was addressed in the TV version as well, but in text form it allows for a much greater exploration of the issue.
On screen, Balance of Power showed Lister dealing with loneliness by contrasting a similar scene with him sat alone after the crew died, highlighting his isolation. Effective as it is, this passage from the novel highlights the loss that will shortly occur in his life in a way that it’s televised counterpart cannot by presenting us with Lister’s direct perception of the happiness around him. Furthermore, it goes some way to making Lister an even more sympathetic character by better conveying the unhappiness of the pre-accident Lister, and expanding on how a man with very little could still lose more than he ever knew.
In addition to expanding on the melancholy of a moment, the Red Dwarf novel can also, just as Renwick does, use the form of the novel to take a darker look at his world. With one of their lead characters amounting to a digital spectre that serves as a constant reminder of death, Grant Naylor had already created a setup with potential to explore the darker themes of death and loss. They begin as early as the first chapter with Saunders contemplating what his death and subsequent resurrection as a hologram means.
‘If anything happens to me,’ he’d always said, ‘I dont want you to sit around mourning.’ Protests. ‘I want you to meet someone else, someone terrific, and start a new life without me.’
What a stupid, fat, dumb thing to say! The kind of stupid, fat, dumb thing only a living person would ever dream of saying.
Because that’s what she was going to do now.
Start a new life – without him.
(Book: Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers – Page 5)
A further example of a darker tone is in some of the use of stasis booths. In the show, they serve as a plot device to have Lister survive, and their effects on the characters pretty much ends there. In the novel however, we are presented with a scene featuring Rimmer exploring the damaged stasis booths of the Nova V, leading to a disturbing sequence unlike anything else in the show at that point.
The third was occupied.
Skeletal legs jutted through a gash in the stasis booth door. The impact of the crash had driven the incumbent’s limbs through the reinforced glass.
Rimmer peered in through what remained of the observation window. Somehow the rest if the body had been preserved, wedged half in and half out of the stasis booth. The legs had withered with age, while the upper body remained in suspended animation.
Rimmer’s voice activated the door. Surely he couldn’t be… alive. The door lock twirled and the door arced open.
The man opened his eyes and looked down at his legs. His scream cut through Rimmer like a shard of jagged glass. Then he stopped screaming and died of shock.
(Book: Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers – Page 197)
It’s an assuredly haunting image, and one that it’s hard to imagine being part of Red Dwarf until Series V at the earliest, though even then, more likely to be the sort of sequence referenced rather than seen, as with the body falling through Rimmer in DNA. But whether this is the type of scene that Rob and Doug may have considered tackling later in the shows life, the point remains that at the time, it was something that was simply off the cards. As with Renwick’s novelisation a few years later, the written form allows the writer to present the audience with darker subject matter than they might normally expect.
The horror results of the technologically advanced world of Red Dwarf is of course something that go on to be even more apparent with their treatment of Better Than Life, which would be further escalated in their second novel of the same name. The consequences of not wanting to leave what seems like paradise even though it kills you were not played out in the episode it originated in, but its rich concept is throughly explored here, leading to this section surpassing its televisual counterpart.
Now that was weird. A fifteen-month old baby driving into town to get some milk for his brother. It was barely believable. Well, it wasn’t believable. It was impossible.
Lister looked down at the message on his right arm. Four letters, one symbol. A chill passed through him. He knew what it means. ‘U = BTL’.
He knew what it meant.
(Book: Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers – Page 271)
This kind of expanding on an idea from the TV show would seem like an obvious development when writing a novelisition, yet it’s something the Porridge adaptation is clearly unconcerned with. Once again, this seems likely to be linked to not having the original writer being the one to craft the story, especially given the approach Rewick takes in his book.
Like Grant Naylor’s book, Renwick takes various plots from different episodes throughout the first three series of One Foot, but rearranges events to suit a continuous narrative flow. He also take the opportunity to expand on back story to certain events. Where Infinity details elements like the events on the Nova 5 prior to the crew dying, Renwick takes the same opportunity to elaborate on events, for example detailing the events of the holiday the Meldrews embark on in the episode Return of the Speckled Band.
Also, much like the way Grant Naylor expand on Better Than Life and improve on their original take on that story, Renwick does the same with his book. One of the most striking examples is the expansion of the plot from the sixth episode of Series 3, The Worst Horror of All, where the Meldrews accidentally take a stranger to see a sitcom, mistakenly believing he’s Mrs Warboys cousin Wilf.
While the TV version has the Meldrews having to confront the embarrassment of the mix up, the novel takes things to a much greater extreme with a death from a brain haemorrhage, a mix up of corpses and Mrs Warboys finding herself walking up in a drawer in a mortuary in a fabulously cringe worthy farce that episode it’s based on never had time to examine.
When we see how the novelisations allow this kind of expansion, we also start to see why the dwindling numbers of them for sitcoms are a sad loss. It also highlights however when a novelisation doesn’t choose to seize such a good opportunity. Considering the situation at the heart of Porridge, you’d certainly be forgiven for expecting that there would be scope to explore here.
Yet despite the setting and the circumstances the character finds himself in, the novel rides on a jovial wave that it seems unable to dismount from, and while a lighter tone might make sense for television, in book form it seem misplaced. While in no way does the show have some of the dark heart of some of Renwick’s writing, it is far from absent of some more thoughtful themes.
These are perhaps best summed up in the final episode of the third series with Fletcher asserting that ‘nobody wins Mr Mackay, that’s what’s so tragic’ when the prison warder tells him the system always wins. For the lightheartedness throughout, we as an audience are also asked not to dismiss the characters as criminals, but to feel for them as human beings. How the outside world will accept them at their end of their time inside is a question that hangs over the series, and we are asked to question if the penal system will help reform Fletcher and Godber or rather put them back in a position where the only way to survive is to return to the life that led to their incarceration.
Such an inherent question should be ripe material for the book to cover. Yet insight into the character’s mindset simply aren’t forthcoming. Instead, the only real insights into Fletcher’s thought’s that Marshall offers are when he provides a basic description of how a line is acted. Aside from this, the prose comes across much as the scripts for the episodes did, but with ‘I said’ or ‘he said following each line.
Well now – a gambling debt’s one thing but cheating a poor, sick old thief is another. I fixed the toad with an even steelier look and said: ‘You’ll give those back Norris.’
But he refused to be cowed and snarled back:’Will I Hell!’
I turned to Blanco. ‘Don’t you worry, me old son, I’ll get them back for you.’
Blanco sighed. ‘It doesn’t matter, Fletch. What do I need with a Waltzing Matilda music box where I’m going?’
Pretending not to catch his drift, I say sternly: ‘You ain’t going nowhere mate. You’ve got another two years to do.’
‘I’ll be out of here sooner than that’
(Book: Three Helpings of Porridge – Page 232)
So ultimately, what can we conclude from comparing these three novelisations? As the previous passage shows, when the adaptation is largely just concerned with representing the material seen on-screen by in prose form, it becomes a drawn out and lackluster affair. The familiarity with the material can only breed contempt in this situation, as we as readers are forced to re-consume the media we know and love in a slower form.
And yet, when they are adapted well, they offer the potential to expand the world and motivations as the Red Dwarf novelisation does, or to emphasise the darkness and enhance the emotional impact as the One Foot in the Grave adaptation does. Where an inherent wish to provide an expansion of the story exists, these novelisations excel.
Clearly it would be unfair to state that a fundamental necessity for a novelisation to succeed is to have the original writers, but certainly Red Dwarf and One Foot show the benefit of being written by writers with a clear understanding and affinity with the characters. It allows there to be a consistent tone that keeps us constantly in world, even when events are presented differently, and plays into the advantage that books have over many television shows; the ability to explore the inner most thoughts of the characters.
For is as fans of Red Dwarf, we are hugely fortunate to have had an opertunity to explore the world of the show across four separate novels, which in many ways provide us with some of the most important explorations of the show’s themes in any medium. The skill of not only adapting their scripts but also shifting into writing in a prose style in such an engaging manner is something that certainly isn’t a fait accompli, and it’s something that highlights why Grant Naylor and Renwick are so successful as comedy writers and why their work continues to resonate so strongly today.