By Gavin Smith
I’m pretty certain that anyone who has devoted a significant amount of their life to making, writing about, or intensively watching movies has a first-contact backstory somewhere in their childhood. Something, usually a movie (but not always), that planted a seed of curiosity that eventually grew into a full-blown obsession. Today’s world is marinated in movies, and youthful filmmaking aspirations are as commonplace now as starting your own rock band was 30 years ago. But way back when, before VOD, before the Internet, before DVD and VHS and Siskel and Ebert and cable, cinephilia was sometimes cultivated in unlikely ways. By the time they were in high school, some of my film-culture peers were reading Sarris’s The American Cinema, Pauline Kael, or this magazine, living on a television-fed diet of Golden Age Hollywood, and being taken to the movies on a regular basis by unwitting parents. It wasn’t that way for all of us, believe me.
This issue of Film Comment marks the publication of a story on something close to my heart. Indeed, it’s a subject that sheds a little too much light on how I cultivated my movie passion—and by extension how I wound up sitting here writing this editorial. That subject is: movie novelizations.
There, I’ve said it.
Now begins not a sentimental journey but a mortifying tale of misspent youth, a shame-filled confession of what I was up to while Kent Jones was rereading Manny Farber’s Negative Space for the 12th time.
I was drawn to the movies by a television-nurtured interest in science fiction and a frustratingly unfulfilled need to see the 1953 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, followed by an enthusiasm for all things Planet of the Apes. My first book about cinema was The Jaws Log. My hometown had only two movie theaters, and you had to be 18 to see most of the major films of the day. Clipping movie ads out of newspapers and reading Mad Magazine’s movie satires did little to fill the void—and then I became aware of the burgeoning literary genre of “the book of the film.”
Too young to see The Omen or The Gauntlet? Their novelizations were surely the next best thing. And so began my terrible habit of reading not just books that had been adapted into movies (Carrie, The Eagle Has Landed, Twilight’s Last Gleaming) but books that were based on movies—movies that the British Board of Film Censors deemed unsuitable for me to see like Squirm and Rabid, and movies I was too impatient to wait for like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Alien. What was I thinking?
Okay, right about now I find myself wondering, as I’m sure many of you often do, if I am actually fit to be the editor of this magazine. But I like to think that my fellow critics and film folk of a certain age have similar stories of how they fed their cinephilia. Anyone? Drop me a line if you have anything to share. (And doesn’t it burn you up that a younger generation of cinephiles had it so easy thanks to home video?)
If you want to know more about why I’ve never read anything by Dostoevsky, Dickens, or Faulkner, but I have managed to read the novelizations of Silver Streak and Airport ’77, turn to page 44 for Grady Hendrix’s terrific survey of this unique literary form.
© 2011 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center