Given our 2017 on-demand lifestyles, it’s understandable if you are ignorant to the importance that movie novelizations once possessed. Created in a time when movies played theaters once and then seemingly disappeared into memory, these tie-in books were a cheap way for audiences to relive theatrical offerings. As home video became more commonplace, the tie-in novel slowly became a relic of a forgotten time, a quaint collectible at best, literary oddity at worst. Besides, people would rather see the actual movie than read it, right?
And so we now live in an era where damn near every form of entertainment that has ever existed is at our fingertips. Except of course for new movie novelizations, which are now more of a prestige, boutique thing (see Charles Ardai’s novel of The Nice Guys for an example) than the merchandising given they once were.
At the risk of turning into a grumpy, sighing real-life version of The Simpsons‘ “old man yells at cloud” meme, I will say that the fall from grace of the movie novelization is a bummer because it denies readers the opportunity to see how a product intended purely as a quickie cash grab can become a classic in its own right. Although George Gipe’s take on Gremlins — in which the bombshell that the titular creatures are in fact chaos-loving aliens from a distant star is dropped — comes a very close second, the greatest of all movie novelizations is Ellis Weiner’s gleefully sardonic take on Howard the Duck.
We recently reread this 232-page masterpiece and can say without any sense of detatched irony or manufactured whimsy that Weiner’s work would be right at home amongst the work of Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, and Daniel Manus Pinkwater in the sci-fi/humor section of your personal library.
Here’s a few reasons why.
From the first page, Weiner understands what an inherently ridiculous character Howard the Duck is.
During the opening scene of the movie, Howard is yanked across from the universe while the commanding voice of Richard Kiley gives a speech laden with lots of psuedo-cosmic importance. This was probably meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but always came off a bit pretentious. This point is not lost on Weiner, who spends the majority of the first chapter skewering the “voice of the universe” conceit as silly and hamfisted. Right out of the gate you get a sense that the author is going to let his creative juices flow all over the assignment he has been given, even if it means nibbling at the hand that feeds a little bit.
It should be noted that Ellis Weiner is no ordinary hired gun. At the time of this novel’s writing, he had already enjoyed an impressive career working as an editor for National Lampoon, and his involvement with that publication led to his writing the still-cutting edge Frank Herbert parody Doon. Given that his comedic sensibilities were on a similiar wavelength to those of Howard’s creator, Steve Gerber, Weiner was an ideal choice to give this novel some much needed irreverence. It is a talking duck from outer space we are dealing with here after all. Have some perspective.
Four pages in and the following passage gives some subtle commentary into how Weiner himself may (or may not) have felt about this gig:
“Howard was not only tired, he was irritable, and assailed by that almost nauseating sense of futility and waste that, sooner or later, descends on almost everyone the moment they perceive–if only for a second–how pointless and dumb their jobs really are.”
Ouch. If he was disgruntled with the source material he had to adapt, he certainly didn’t half-ass his task at hand as Weiner’s writing truly expands the world of the film and its characters. Case in point…
The book is full of asides that give insight into the characters and their backgrounds that is almost completely absent on screen.
Did you realize that Beverly decided that she would do anything she could to avoid “an ordinary life” when she was young? Or that Howard went through some serious soul-searching is his youth? Or that Philsie desperately wanted to be a scientific mind that was respected by, and featured on, PBS? Probably not, but Weiner carefully details the wants and desires of the main characters nevertheless. He even spends some time chronicling what makes a public relations exec at a nuclear power plant tick before the man is callously destroyed by the Dark Overlord’s lust for energy.
Elsewhere in the book, regular Coverage In-Depth Inserts pop-up to provide further analysis on everything from a comparison of lounge chairs on Earth versus those on Duckworld to a look at the surprising cultural set-up over in the Nexus of Sominus. These asides were very reminiscent of entries from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and each gives the book some additional quirkiness that the movie needs.
The film’s most infamous moment is not featured in the novel.
Yes, the condom scene. So shocking was the suggestion that Howard liked to get it on that this sequence was snipped from some overseas prints of the film (even though he should be seen as a role model for practicing safe sex). The novel features Bev picking up the wallet, but no mention of the prophylactic is made. An edit that this writer considers to be, well, fowl.
Weiner interupts his novel to discuss the pros and cons of censorship.
In the scene where Howard is stripped searched by the police, Weiner stops the action in the story to state that he won’t transcribe the harsh language exchanged between characters at this moment. Why? Here’s his explanation:
“Such words–in print, if not in person–make certain people uneasy. This very book, harmless jest though it is, might be banned in certain locales, or even burned in others. Certain parents would claim Howard the (of all things) Duck capable of corrupting their children and advancing the cause of Satan in the modern world. Yes, that Satan.
The consequences would be dire.”
This hilarious explanation, which pokes a great deal of fun at 1980s political correctness run amuck, goes on for several more paragaphs. As if Weiner needed a break from the Duck action to blow off some comedic steam. It’s a tremendously funny aside that further differentiates the book from its commerce-based origins and propels it into the stratosphere of irreverent art.
Phil Blumburtt is a raging atheist
Arguably the character who gets the most development in the novelization is Phil Blumburtt. Played in the film by Tim Robbins as a lovable schnook, here readers get a further sense that Phil is a genuinely good guy beneath his wacky exterior. (The book also solves one of the biggest questions of the movie, why Phil is suddenly a rock and roll tech guy when he has previously devoted his life to science, with some quick dialogue explaining that he is just helping out Cherry Bomb until he can figure out his next career move). The greatest bit of insight we get about Phil is when he recalls the worst date he ever had, one that culminated in a science vs. faith discussion that ended with the following exchange:
“But that’s a belief, too. You have faith in science, and I have faith in creationism.”
“But science is true, and creationism is a bunch of literal minded mythology—“
“Maybe science is a bunch of mythology. How do you know it’s true?”
“Because it is, you stupid idiot!”
So it’s safe to say that Philsie’s a Hillary guy.
SO MANY DUCK PUNS
John Cleese was once (probably falsely) attributed to the quote that the three enemies of comedy are “puns, puns, and puns.” I don’t know how much validity there is to that statement, but I can tell you that any pun-haters out there should just stop reading right now, ’cause shit is gonna get real. You know how the entire Duckworld sequence pretty much exists just to make stupid duck-related puns? Well in the book, Weiner really doubles down with that aesthetic. Here then are a mere sampling of some of the pun-ishing (sorry) jokes featured in the book:
• Birdweiser (alcoholic beverage)
• The Fowlharmonic Orchestra (professional musicians)
• American Eggspress (credit card)
• Rubeak’s Cube (puzzle toy)
• Marcus Webfoot, M.D. (television program)
• Norman Mallard (writer)
• Squaking Heads (rock band)
• Bad Day at Quack Rock (motion picture)
• Mallard Fillmore (president)
• The Fountainhen (famed Duckworld novel that merits its own Coverage In-Depth Insert)
- Quackanudos (cigars)
And on and on and on. This book is remarkable. Some might even say it will quack you up. (Drops mic).
Chris Cummins is a writer and comics/historian. You can follow him on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.