Turning Movies into Books: An Interview with ‘Man of Steel’ Novelizer Greg Cox

By  · Published on November 12th, 2013

When I was a kid, we went on a lot of road trips. When I say a lot, I mean a lot. Summers usually meant that we were gone nearly every weekend in the travel trailer my dad hauled behind his suburban, off for a new campground somewhere in Texas. He even drove that thing to Orlando one year, taking my mother, brother and me to DisneyWorld, staying at Disney’s rustic Fort Wilderness. Great trip, but that is a long trip from the DFW Metroplex.

This was the day and age before iPods, iPads, and Kindles, so I usually relegated myself to the way, way back with a stack of comic books, or a science fiction novel. Thankfully, my mom encouraged my reading, and a trip meant that she would pick up a book for me (or sometimes, even let me pick one) from the spinner racks at the grocery store checkout. Speaking of those, do they even exist anymore? These days you never see books for sale at the checkout, and if you do, chances are it’s a Harlequin romance. Blurgh.

At one point, my mom picked up a novelization of a movie for me, giving me a chance to read the story before I’d seen the film. I can’t remember exactly which movie it was… probably The Empire Strikes Back. But I readily recall reading novelizations for The Last Starfighter, Tron, The Goonies, Explorers, and even a couple of Knight Rider adaptations, including the classic “Trust Doesn’t Rust” episode, which featured KITT against the evil KARR. Given my penchant for never throwing things away, I have no doubt that these are in a dusty box in my garage somewhere.

Many times I would notice scenes in the books that never happened in the movies. Like in the book of The Last Starfighter where there are a lot more scenes with the Beta Unit. I usually figured this was just the writer fleshing things out, but then discovered that this tends to happen because they get to see the script before the film is finished. So it’s like getting bonus deleted scenes long before DVDs were invented.

Because we didn’t get to the movies nearly as much as I do these days, these books were my film education. It wasn’t just science fiction either, as I vividly remember reading titles like “Little Britches” and “Summerdog.” I was a sucker for just about anything in paperback in those days.

Recently, I received a review copy of The Man of Steel novelization, which was written by prolific and award-winning author Greg Cox. I had nearly forgotten entirely about the experience of reading movies, and I jumped at the chance to talk with him. He has a pretty enviable job, getting to turn scripts into books long before the movies come out. But as he explains, that can be daunting as well.

How did you get started as a writer?

In retrospect, I’ve always been a writer. I remember scribbling stories about my favorite monsters and superheroes in my notebooks as a kid, but I didn’t get serious about it until I discovered organized sf fandom, started attending conventions, and meeting actual authors and editors in person. That’s when it dawned on me that, “Hey, real people actually do this for a living. Maybe I can, too.”

What was the first thing you had published?

Not counting some semi-pro zines, my first real professional sales were to “Amazing Stories” and “Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.” In particular, I sold “Amazing” a handful of humorous stories, including one about Prospero (from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”) attending a fantasy convention. You know what they say, write what you know!

What was the first established series, film, or property that you wrote about?

That would be Batman. Back in 1992, around the time the second Tim Burton movie came out, a friend alerted me that DC was looking for Penguin and Catwoman stories for a couple of upcoming short story anthologies. I ended up contributing one story each to “The Further Adventures of Batman,” Volumes Two and Three. Hard to believe that was more than twenty years ago!

You are listed as a New York Times bestselling author. What book first landed you that acclaim?

“Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Q Continuum Trilogy.” Those are still probably my bestselling Trek books. I once saw them on sale in Rome – translated into Italian, of course.

I grew up reading novelizations of movies, often without ever seeing the films until I was much older. Do you think that’s a lost experience, or does that still happen?

Same with me, sometimes! And, judging from some of the mail I get, that still happens today. Not everybody manages to get to a theater right away, especially if they have kids or jobs or exams to study for. Real life just gets in the way of getting to the movies sometimes. (I still haven’t seen Iron Man 3 yet.)

What is it like adapting a movie to a novel? How early do you get to see the script?

The challenge is writing a 300-page description of a movie you haven’t seen yet. With Man of Steel, I read the script about ten months before the movie opened, which was relatively luxurious. You’re often on a much tighter schedule.

How often do things change between what happens in the novel, and what happens in the script/movie?

You’re usually working from an early version of the script, so there are invariably discrepancies between the novelization and the finished film. Sometimes you’re alerted to changes in the script, but not aways. Plus, you have to use your imagination a bit when it comes to the action and the visuals. (Although I may fire off some questions to the studio if I need a little help visualizing a sequence.)

Specifically, with Man of Steel, how much freedom did you have to explore more parts of Kal-El’s story?

I tried to stick pretty close to the script, but I had the advantage of being able to go into the characters’ heads and describe the events from their points of view. And I worked in lots of Kryptonian names and terminology that appeared in the script, but not in the movie dialogue.

Assuming that the Superman/Batman movie does happen, and since you’ve written the novelizations for Man of Steel and The Dark Knight Rises, would you be up for novelizing that as well?

Absolutely. From your lips to Warner’s ears . . . . :) And the movie is definitely happening!

At this point, have you ever thought about going the other way and writing a screenplay?

I’ve flirted with idea, and took an afternoon class once, but, honestly, that’s a whole different industry and type of writing. The closest I’ve ever come was writing the script for a “Tales From the Crypt” audiobook once!

What is your guilty pleasure when it comes to reading? What do you enjoy reading?

I like a variety of stuff: science fiction, murder mysteries, horror. I recently stayed up to one in the morning reading “Joyland” by Stephen King. And I’m still hooked on comics, of course.

What advice do you have for people looking to become writers?

Develop a tough skin. Be prepared for the occasional rejection letter or bad review. Listen to your editors and don’t assume your first drafts can’t be improved on. And check out the “Writer Beware” website for good advice on how to avoid phony agents and publishers that just want to rip you off.

Finish this sentence: “Greg Cox stood alone against galactic peril…”

“ . . . as he faced his ultimate foe: a tight deadline!”

Man of Steel is out on Blu-ray and DVD today, and the novelization is currently available.

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