Let’s Broaden Our Minds: Novelist Craig Shaw Gardner On Adapting Batman ’89 For Prose [Interview]
Though it might seem a bit strange from today’s perspective, tie-in novels used to be a huge part of genre movie merchandising – they gave fans a way to take home the experience of their favorite films in the days before the home video explosion, and provided studios with an additional method of promoting their projects in bookstores, department stores, and on newsstands.
And like everything associated with Tim Burton’s Batman film, Craig Shaw Gardner’s novelization was a sales phenomenon, spending much of 1989 near the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Gardner’s book expanded on many of the film’s plot lines and character arcs, and gave readers some insight into earlier drafts of the film’s screenplay with a number of passages based on sequences that had been reworked or cut entirely from the final movie (in fact, it made substantially more sense than the finished film, as Gardner was able to craft his story without being bound by a strict two hours of screen time.)
As part of our 25th anniversary coverage of Batman ’89, ComicsAlliance spoke to Gardner about the challenges he faced and the fond memories he has of adapting Tim Burton’s blockbuster for prose.
Comics Alliance: How did you end up getting the gig to write the Batman novelization?
Craig Shaw Gardner: I had written another novelization for a movie called The Lost Boys. My editor on that one picked me because I had written numerous horror short stories and humorous fantasy novels (beginning with A Malady of Magicks), and The Lost Boys was both funny and scary.
Brian Thomsen, then editor at Warner Books, read that novelization and decided I was the right person to write the quirky project he had just been assigned, Tim Burton’s Batman. It also didn’t hurt that, at the time, I managed a comic book store.
CA: How familiar were you with Batman before taking on this assignment?
CSG: I had read Batman comics since I was a kid. In an attempt to give myself enough time and energy to write, I had left my career in public relations (which took up too much of my time), and became first a clerk and then a manager of a couple Cambridge, MA bookstores, one of which was the Million Year Picnic, one of the very first independent comic books stores. I was working retail when Frank Miller brought us his tougher, more violent Batman of The Dark Knight Returns era.
CA: How much research did you do while working on the book? Did you interact with Tim Burton, talk to screenwriter Sam Hamm, or deal directly with any of the other filmmakers?
CSG: I was lucky enough to be able to visit the film set. I was attending the World Science Fiction convention in London that year, and the film was shooting just outside the city at Shepperton Studios. I got to walk around Gotham City. The baroque set design gave me a real idea of the mood of the film, which I tried to convey through my writing. I was told I shouldn’t talk to any of the actors or directo. The only actor I actually saw was Kim Basinger, who was shooting an early part of the restaurant scene before the Joker arrives. Someone told me that Jack Nicholson and the director were having a bit of a disagreement, and Jack was not expected on the set that day. Michael Keaton had to delay his next scene because the seams of the bat-suit kept coming apart.
I was greeted with great enthusiasm by the technical and special effects crew. They showed me all the prop guns and let me stick my head inside the Batmobile (they wouldn’t let me sit in it, though). I got to lift Batman’s cape, which, like the rest of his suit, was made of rubberized wool. The cape itself weighed at least fifty pounds. This is the reason Batman poses so much in the first film. The suit was so hot and heavy that he could barely move.
CA: The film script itself went through a number of changes during filming – did you have to make changes as you worked on the novel, as new drafts kept coming in?
CSG: When you write a novelization of a film, you’re doing so at the same time as the film is actually being made. All film scripts change a lot as the director sees what works and what doesn’t. So the writer is sometimes given script changes for scenes he or she has already written, which then have to be rewritten to conform to the film.
Batman’s ending was changed at the last minute, the day before the book was to go into production. The editor couldn’t get in touch with me – I was out running an errand – and so he got [longtime Batman comic book writer and editor] Dennis O’Neil to rewrite the couple of paragraphs that needed changing.
CA: You gave Vicki Vale and the Joker a bit more depth, some interior monologues, and used them to provide some perspective on the mysterious figure of Bruce Wayne/Batman by having them serve as stand-ins for the reader… What inspired you to use that approach?
CSG: In writing a novelization, you generally get one page of book for every page of film script. Scripts are usually around 120 pages long, generally a page per minute of screen time. A book manuscript needs to be at least twice that long. So the writer needs to find a way to stretch the story. In this case, the best way to do this seemed to be having the other major characters react to Batman. Batman himself has to remain something of a mystery.
CA: Your book also filled in some backstory and fixed some of the more gaping plot holes in the film.
CSG: Screenplays often don’t quite make sense. The images of a film fly by so quickly that the audience has been conditioned to accept what’s happening on the screen and maybe think about it later. The book reader, however, needs to see a certain interior logic. Every screenplay I have ever turned into the novel has needed to be “filled in” here and there in order for the written story to make sense. I try to do it as unobtrusively as possible. (When I was writing the novelization of Back To The Future 3, I discovered a plot hole you could drive a trick through. I mentioned it to screenwriter Bob Gale, and it was fixed in the finished film.)
CA: The book became a phenomenon in its own right, staying on the New York Times bestseller lists for practically the entire summer. Did you anticipate that level of success?
CSG: That was a pleasant surprise. I think one of the reasons the book became so big is that the films’ producers made a mistake. The movie was supposed to come out… I forget which month it was. So the producers scheduled the book to come out in Month X to coincide with the film’s release, not realizing that published books arrive up to four weeks before that month. For example, May books usually show up in early April. Because of this, the book came out a full four weeks before the film. The film’s publicity had made a lot of people curious, and they bought the book in record numbers.
A tiny little local paper ran a piece on me having a bestseller. This piece led to interviews with the Boston Herald and Boston Globe (the Globe’s coverage was rather snarky and condescending – we were talking about comic books, after all), which in turn led to appearances on local TV and eventually The Today Show and Entertainment Tonight. And every time my name appeared in print or on TV, all my books (not just Batman) sold out at all the local stores.
This gave my career both as a novelist and a novelizer a boost that probably lasted a decade or two. I’ve produced more than 30 books in that time, and I’m finally beginning to put my early books out in e-book form. My first three books, A Malady Of Magicks, A Multitude Of Monsters, and A Night In The Netherhells, are all available through Crossroad Press, and I’m writing a brand new e-book series, the first two of which, Temporary Monster and Temporary Hauntings, are now available. My newest series is about a temporary employment agency that secretly controls the world, and the books feature ghosts, vampires, an alien invasion, and a superhero or two.
Unfortunately, I doubt that most novelizations, just because of the involvement of both film and book companies, will ever see e-book form.
CA: And now, 25 years later, looking back at that summer of “Batmania”, the craziness of that time, that moment when Batman was simply ubiquitous and you were a part of it… How do you feel about it all today?
CSG: It was the right book at the right time. I don’t think a novelization would ever have that sort of impact today. I had to write the book crazy fast, which led to a problem or two, but overall it was a great experience. I’m really glad I was a part of it.