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Book Review: Alien by Alan Dean Foster

Alien
The egg is just happy to see you

Movie novelizations are a funny thing. I've read a few over the years, and they largely feel like a literary sugar rush, a quick, enjoyable romp that is largely forgotten once it wears off. You sometimes get a little, non-canonical detail added to what you already know from the film here and there, get to inhabit the characters' thoughts a little more, and might witness an extra scene that was deleted after the script went out to the author, but for the most part, there's not much to them, which is why I haven't bothered to review any on this site. The novelization of Ridley Scott's Alien by Alan Dean Foster--a prolific sci-fi/fantasy author who has penned many movie novelizations over the years--isn't much different, but it is a slight cut above your average tie-in merchandise.

Foster's writing style is simple and utilitarian, but he is adept at delineating character traits both quickly and consistently. As such, he brings to life the crew of the Nostromo quite well, even though it seems as though he worked on the novel before the cast was fully in place. He avoids physical descriptions and skirts around character traits that aren't generic enough to be performed by any actor, which would make it an odd read for anybody who doesn't already have a mental image of these characters as Sigourney Weaver, Yaphet Koto, John Hurt, etc. On the other hand, for those familiar with the film, it gives the book a streamlined feel, which gives Foster more time to elaborate on details the film necessarily brushes over.

In other words, Foster never reveals things like height, hair color, skin color, or the like, but he is able to dive deep into the inner monologue of his characters, revealing motives for their behavior that aren't always clear on screen. For instance, the character of Captain Dallas is the same gruff and command-weary captain played by Tom Skerritt in the film, but in the book, Foster reveals a lot of conflicting emotions behind his actions, like feeling regret after scolding some gentle interpersonal prodding from the crew. While Tom Skerritt absolutely inhabits the character, Foster makes him feel more complete as a fully fleshed-out human being.

Alan Dean Foster
Alan Dean Foster (he's the one on the right)

Because of this, in concert with his adherance to the shooting script, I wouldn't call Foster's novelization an adaptation. This might be a pedantic delineation, but for me, an adaptation is a more liberal thing. With adaptation, the writer is freer to make wild changes to both style and substance, whereas with novelization, the writer is trying to anticipate what the final film will feel like and make as few contradictions to that as possible.

Still, there are plenty of differences between Alien the movie and Alien the novelization. There are big changes--like the omission of the "space jockey"--and more subtle ones, like the extended bits of take-off and launch from LV-426 (which is never actually named in the novel). All three forms of the alien, as described (albeit tersely), are based on early designs by Giger and not the ones that ultimately made it to film, with the facehugger sporting a giant eye on its back, the chestburster looking like the famed headless turkey that was so laughable on screen it was changed in the middle of production, and the final xenomorph sporting its own pair of giant eyes and lacking the iconic inner jaw.

There are written descriptions of two sequences that were ultimately axed from the film at different stages of development. The first is a scene in which Ripley comes across a coccooned Dallas and a Brett that has been turned into an alien egg that was partially included in the film's director's cut. If this had made it to the theatrical cut, it could have drastically altered the course of the series to follow. The film downplays the crew's concern that certain members of the crew are alive, though, so cutting the scene doesn't present too many issues of its own. The second scene is a fairly extensive action sequence involving the alien at the airlock that was cut for being too expensive. This is a great scene that would have been visually exciting, but its absence is hard to hold against the film, even though the scene does explain why Ripley has a nosebleed when she confronts Ash in the final cut.

Early Facehugger Concept Art
Giger's early designs included the eye and suckers described in the novel

These are all relatively minor changes, however, largely cosmetic. Where the novelization really pulls its weight is when it explains things the way the film never could. It answers questions I didn't even know I had about continuity, character, and conflict. This is where the different mediums both diverge and shine. A good filmmaker can gloss over these details--like the positioning of characters and their roles during an intricate plan to chase the alien through the airducts--without an audience really noticing, whereas a novel can make the geometry and mechanics of a sequence much clearer, at the expense of visual atmospherics like the circular vent locks and the flickering of Dallas' flamethrower in the dark.

I consider Alien, the film, to be a masterpiece of sci-fi/horror cinema, but there is one thing in particular that the novel does better, and that is the handling of Ash. No offense to the incredible acting of Ian Holm, whose performance is legendary, but the novel highlights Ash's mysterious behavior throughout the story, which is especially notable since Foster's wandering POV enters every other character multiple times but never once gets in the head of the android. The film is a lot more subtle about it, and first-time viewers are often taken completely by surprise by the big reveal late in the story. In the novel, however, it is much clearer that something is up with Ash, and there are several more scenes of him convincingly talking his way out of suspicion. His being an android is still a genuine surprise, but the novel drops more hints that he may not be entirely human. The mystery of Ash is almost as central to the plot of the novel as the mystery of the alien.

Like any movie novelization, though, Foster's Alien lives entirely in the shadow of the film. It's even written like a movie, with jumpy scene transitions that take place between sentences (which can be confusing in places), and since Foster paints very conservatively, your mind's eye relies on a forehand knowledge of the sets and actors put together by Ridley Scott and his crew. It's not an absolute necessity for fans of the series to read it, but it's a better use of your time than most tie-in works of its ilk. At its worst, it's superfluous, but at its best, it's a fun, familiar ride through a well-trodden story that manages to sprinkle in a few new perspectives and ideas for fans to sink their teeth into.

FINAL SCORE:

It's a bit too minimalistic and not written for anybody unfamiliar with the film, but fans of Ridley Scott's classic should give it a read.


-e. magill 8/29/2019


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SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS:
Diane Magill-Davis
John Burrill
Warren Davis

Become a Patron today!
patreon.com/emagill


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