About two years ago, I came across a paperback sitting on the shelf of a Goodwill in Dallas. It was the novelization of the 1978 film, Saturday Night Fever. Naturally, as soon as I saw it, I knew that I had to buy it.
Novelizations of popular films are always an interesting read. Since they’re usually based on the early drafts of a film’s screenplay, the novelization will often include extra scenes or details that may have not been apparent in the film itself. Often, things that may have been left unclear in the completed film will be cleared up in the novelization. At the same time, as a writer, I always find it interesting to see whether or not the author of a novelization can succeed at putting their own spin on familiar material.
Take the Saturday Night Fever novelization. There are two things that everyone automatically thinks about whenever they think about Saturday Night Fever as a film. They think about the Bee Gees soundtrack and they think about the scenes of John Travolta dancing. Obviously, with the novelization, there is no soundtrack. The Bee Gees aren’t even mentioned in the book. As for Travolta’s dancing, the book doesn’t go into a great deal of detail beyond acknowledging that Tony Manero is a good dancer and that everyone wants to join him out on the dance floor. But Gilmour wisely doesn’t try to describe any of Tony’s dance moves. Instead, he focuses on how Tony feels when he’s the center of attention.
Indeed, the entire novelization focuses on Tony as a character. We spend a lot of time inside of Tony’s head and it’s not always a pleasant place to explore. At the same time, we also discover that Tony isn’t quite as clueless as he sometimes comes across as being in the movie. From the start, he knows that he’s going nowhere and he knows that his friends are losers. Without Travolta’s charismatic performance or Staying Alive playing as he struts across New York, Tony often comes across as being an even bigger jerk in the novel than he does in the movie. And yet, we still sympathize with him because the novel makes clear that Tony understands, more than his family and his friends, that he’s trapped in a life that doesn’t provide much hope. Saturday Night Fever is a dark film, even with the music. In novel form, it becomes downright existential in its portrait of Brooklyn as being a Hellish prison, both a location and state-of-mind from which there is little chance of escape.
Tony’s family is a bit more abusive in the novel, which makes the film’s famous “watch the hair” dinner scene a bit more difficult to laugh at. The novelization spends a lot of time on Tony’s brother and his decision to leave the priesthood. In the movie, Frank, Jr. just kind of vanishes. In the book, it’s explained that he went to a sort of halfway house for former priests. I assume this was all stuff that was in the screenplay but cut from the actual film. One can see why it was cut but, at the same time, it was still interesting to learn a bit more about Tony and his family.
In the end, it’s not a bad novelization. At 182 pages, it’s a quick read and it not only does a good job of showing what exactly Tony is escaping from when he gets out on the dance floor but it also provides some new insight into the story. (Of course, the majority of that insight deals with Tony being a misogynistic homophobe but, then again, that’s pretty much who he was in the film too. The book just makes it even clearer, as well as showing that Tony’s prejudices are largely due to where he’s from and how he’s been raised.) It’s a good companion piece to the film and a good collector’s item. The copy that I found still had a pull-out poster of John Travolta in the middle of it!