Saturday, June 12, 2021

Embrace the Differences: The Raiders of the Lost Ark Novelization

Raiders of the Lost Ark turns forty today. Hard to believe, sometimes. I still remember watching Siskel and Ebert gush over the movie. Youthful though I was--twelve--Harrison Ford had already become my favorite actor because he was Han Solo. Who knew Indiana Jones was just around the corner.

To commemorate the movie's anniversary, I decided to do something I had never done before: read the novelization by Campbell Black. Yeah, I had the book back in the day. Yeah, I remember cracking it open. But I also know I never finished it. Heck, I don't even remember getting that far into the book before stopping it. I have no memory why. Unlike Star Wars--where I devoured every morsel of news, read every book, and bought every comic--I don't remember doing the same thing with Raiders. It is possible I didn't continue with the novelization because of the differences. Now, forty years later, those differences are fantastic.

Raiders is one of my Top 5 all-time movies. I have no idea how many times I've seen it, but those clips in the Siskel and Ebert segment are all familiar. It's probably one of your favorite movies, too. I can "see" the movie in my head when I listen to John Williams's brilliant score. But the novel was a nice breath of fresh air. 

Early Days of the Canon

Campbell Black is the pen name of Campbell Armstrong, a Scottish writer, who wrote over twenty-five novels. Few pieces of information exist on the internet about him, but his bibliography notes Raiders was this third, and final, movie novelization. 

In the one interview he did for TheRaider.net, Black comments that he "wrote Jones as I saw him. An adventurer, yes, but I always felt there was a slight melancholy side to him. I don't think Lucasfilm really approved of this, but from my point of view I couldn't write the novel if I had to base it on the character in the script - I found him shallow and shadowy, all action and no thought, and I wanted to add some kind of internal process to him, which I think I did. Up to a point."

As much as I enjoy the extensive universe other writers created with Indiana Jones (and Star Wars, too), there's something special about a single writer, very early on, looking at stills and the script and crafting a story as he sees it. No canon, no interlaced movies, no franchise, no established backstory, just a script and one writer's ideas on how scenes of a movie can be stitched together into a coherent novel.

Like Alan Dean Foster, who ghostwrote the Star Wars novelization, Black must have had access to an earlier script because the differences between the movie we know so well and the events in the novel are sometimes striking, but that's what makes the experience so rewarding. 

The Movie is Not the Novelization

I'm not sure what happened to my original copy of the novel. I had the version with black on the cover. The paperback I read this week was published in 1989, after Last Crusade, so it has a white cover. Soon after I started reading the South America prelude, I took a pencil and began annotating the differences.

In a movie, editors can make cuts and swipes and change scenes. You can do the same in a novel, but Black provides a lot of connective tissue between scenes. Just how did Indy get to Nepal? Well, Black describes in detail all the travel and driving Indy did, even throwing in a new character, Lin-Su. Granted, he doesn't do the same for the journey from Nepal to Cairo, but who cares.

I enjoyed the languid pace of the novelization. As much as I enjoy the movie and all that it delivers, there's something to be said for the same story delivered via text over a number of days. What Black does is what novels do well: get into the heads of the characters. We hear the inner thoughts of Indy, Marion, and Belloq. They all prove quite compelling in Black's hands, adding layers and nuances to each character. 

Belloq, for example, proves himself more competitive and mercenary than Paul Freeman portrays him in the film. With Freeman, you could almost side with Belloq in his quest for the Ark and the secrets it holds. In the novel, he's depicted very much as borderline insane with his single-minded devotion to getting the Ark and using it before Hitler gets his hands on it. 

Speaking of Belloq, something occurred to me that I never considered in forty years. It's regarding the headpiece to the staff of Ra. Belloq gets his version of the headpiece because the words are burned into Toht's hand. With that, Belloq makes his calculations. Indy, however, needs the Imam to read and interpret the words on the headpiece. Did Indy not know that language?

Key Differences

This is what you want to know, right? Well, let me get to it.

South America 

- The pit over which Indy and Sapito swing is actually obscured. Sapito nearly falls into the pit because he steps into the cobwebs covering the pit.

-Indy takes a swig from a flask as he reaches the idol. [Love this]

Berlin

There are a few scenes not at all in the movie. They are from the point of view of Dietrich, the main German officer as played by Wolf Kahler. Dietrich never trusts Belloq and we get many internal thoughts from the German. It also explains how Belloq came to be employed by Hitler. Later, during the Cairo scenes, we get a few more scenes from Dietrich's POV, irritated at Belloq's pomposity.

Connecticut

It is certainly implied that Indy is a womanizer, all but taking an undergrad per semester. This is part of the apparent--but never explained--backstory with Indy and Marion. Based on the book, she might as been as young as sixteen when the mid-twenties Indy had a relationship with her. 

Cairo

-There's a nighttime scene between Indy and Marion and whether or not they they'll hook up. It includes their actual first kiss and we get the skeevy take from Indy about how well the woman kisses versus the child from his past.

-The Imam who reads the markings on the headpiece is the one who puts into Indy's head the idea that no mortal should look at the contents of the Ark. It is the Imam's warning Indy remembers at the end.

Tanis Dig

-There is no scene between Belloq and Marion where she puts on the dress and tries to drink him under the table. In its place is Marion's seemingly being under Belloq's spell. They actually kiss and she all but succumbs to him. 

-Belloq actually sees all the lightening that floods the sky when Indy and his friends open the Well of the Souls. 

Truck Chase

-Toht is in the car that flies off the cliff. He dies here and doesn't get his face melted at the end.

-Black describes how the Germans discovered which pirate ship is carrying the Ark.

The Island

-We learn how Belloq arranged for him to open the Ark before delivery to Berlin.

-The scene where Belloq challenges Indy to blow up the Ark isn't here.

Verdict

The novelization is a nice addition to the wonderful movie. There is a place for both. Campbell Black's novel is a good story and a worthy addition to the canon we now have, even if much of what he comes up with (how Indy got the bullwhip) is overridden with subsequent movies and books. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and actually might continue with the novelizations of the next three films. 

Side Note

I went and located my copy of the comic adaptation and many of the scenes mentioned here are in there. Perhaps the Marvel comics folks and Black read from the same script.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Sixty-Seven Years Later, THEM! Holds Up

What do Matt Dillion, Daniel Boone, Kris Kringle, and Mr. Spock have in common? They all battled giant ants in 1954.

I can't remember exactly when I first saw this 1954 film, but there's a sliver of a memory from the early 80s when I spent some summer weeks at my grandparents' house in Tyler, Texas and it might've been then. Moreover, I also can't pinpoint when I was re-introduced to this film directed by Gordon Douglas. Sometime this century. But it has vaulted to one of my favorite 1950s-era science fiction movies.

I watched it again over the weekend, first time in a few years, and boy does it hold up well. It is sixty-seven years old this month, and still packs some genuine suspense, especially during the anticipation of first seeing the ants and, of course, their sound effect.

The atomic bomb tests at Alamogordo, New Mexico, were only nine years old when THEM was released, and the unknowns about nuclear energy were still being learned. It is nuclear radiation that morphs the common small ant into the giant behemoths we see in the film. 

The opening sequence is gripping and unsettling, as we follow a pair of New Mexico state troopers as they discover a little girl wandering in the desert. She's catatonic, in a speechless state of shock. Even as the troopers, one of whom is played by James Whitmore, investigate what happened to her family and a nearby store owner, they can't make heads or tails of the destruction. It's only when we hear that distinctive sound effect of the ants does the girl react. Cleverly, Whitmore and a doctor do not see the girl rise up from her resting spot, terror across her face, only to lie down again, eyes wide in fear.

That sound effect. Most every time, it precedes the visuals of the creatures, and it adds so much suspense for the viewer. I defy you not to have a little chilly twinge crawl up your spine when you hear it. One of the troopers hears the high-pitched sound and goes off screen to investigate. The last thing we hear is his own death scream. 


What struck me with this viewing is how the first half of the film is basically a crime film. There are the investigators--now including an FBI agent played by James Arness (Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke), and a pair of scientists, father and daughter, played by Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street) and Joan Weldon--just trying to figure out what's going on. The monsters drop out of their own film largely because of costs, I assume, but the unknown facing the investigators makes for quite an urgent story. The investigators scour news reports and interview eyewitnesses--including Fess Parker (star of the Daniel Boone TV show) as a pilot who saw the queen ants flying west but is thrown in an insane asylum because of his wild story. 

There's even a scene where our heroes discover another nest of ants, the workers protecting both a pair of queen ants and their eggs. Reminded me of Aliens (1986) and how many other monster films. 


A young Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek's Mr. Spock) shows up as a soldier relaying information from the teletype machine.


They finally figure out there's a nest in the sewers of Los Angeles. At this point, we jump to a more traditional monster film: humans hunting the creatures in darkened tunnels, the suspense escalating. That a prime weapon is flamethrowers lends itself to some gruesome imagery of the ants being consumed by fire. 


From a historical perspective, what I appreciate about THEM is how the soldiers and the scientists worked together. The military defers to the entomologists in the discovery of the insects, but the scientists don't want to preserve one for study, a trope in many films of this kind. No, the scientists know exactly what they need to do and work to that end. This is also a year after the Korean War where our military and the government is still held with a certain amount of respect by the civilians. Many of the side characters accept what the FBI agents tell them without question. I bet you'd get quite a different kind of movie nowadays. 

We also get a potential lesson at the close of the film, as the last nest of ants are consumed by flames. "When Man entered the Atomic Age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict." Looking to sixty-seven years to 1954 from the vantage point of 2021, we can see how many of the nuclear fears of the early days of the Cold War didn't pan out, and we're all relieved by it. But in our post-COVID pandemic era, when the origin of the virus is still not fully known, what are our fears now? What might the folks sixty-seven years hence--2088--think of our current fears. Will they pan out, or will they fester into something greater?

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Always Try Your Dreams

Every year during the first week of June, my mind drifts back to the first week of June 1944. The week leading up to D-Day. Even now, seventy-seven years later, the magnitude of the courage of the men who stormed those beaches never fails to take my breath away.

There have been many books written and documentaries compiled, oral histories recorded and movies filmed. One in particular is Saving Private Ryan which features a grueling opening segment. As horrific as those opening minutes are, you know it’s all just make-believe and that it’s only a taste of what really went down that morning.

Every year, I also take moments to look at the photos of the Allied troops squeezed into those landing crafts. For that one moment when the cameraman snapped his photo, some of those soldiers smiled. Others didn’t. Both tell the same story: the invasion was necessary and they were called on to do it. That was the nature of their birth and world events.

This week, one of those photos really got to me. I honestly can’t find it. It was part of a meme. But in this photo as in so many others, the faces of those men were young. So young. I often wonder how I would have comported myself if history called on me to do what those men did. My son’s nineteen now and he would be called as well. How would he do?

As thankful as we are for the courage of those men, it’s sometimes difficult not to get emotional when thinking of them as individuals. As regular humans on this earth. They, like all of us, had dreams of what they’d do when they got home. Many soldiers returned home. So many did not. Perhaps the cure for cancer was in the brain of one of those men. Maybe a great baseball player or an engineer who could invent something we would now take for granted here in 2021.

But today, I’m talking about creatives. Imagine the books or the songs not created, the paintings and the sculptures, the plays and the actors that never were created. All gone.

The thing is, those men had creative dreams like we do, and then they stormed those beaches to preserve the dreams for all the survivors. For us. For those that’ll come after us.

Perhaps me getting emotional on this commemoration of D-Day is related to my own recent struggles with my writing, my business, and my ideas about the future. I have grand plans and sometimes, I question myself. Why? What’s the point? Who would care?

Well, I care about these plans. I came up with them, after all. They are, to my mind, good and decent ideas. Why not try?

Try because you want to. Try because it could bring you great happiness. Try even though you might fail, but you can learn from that failure. Try because you could reach someone who will need what you create at a precise moment in their lives.

Try because of what happened seventy-seven years ago this morning and the men who didn’t get the chance to try.

Try your dreams. Always.