One of the most fascinating artifacts of the Hollywood marketing machine was the film novelization: book versions of some of your favorite movies that started coming out in the late 1970s and hit their peak popularity in the 1980s, that most nostalgic of cinematic decades. Before VCRs, these books were a great way to take your favorite movie home with you. And now Jon Olsen is giving them new life.
Olsen is the creator/curator of Audiobooks for the Damned, a free service that takes his obsessively collected stockpile of books that are “NOW a major motion picture” and brings them to life with recorded readings — giving lovers of classic and cult films some aural pleasure.
Name a film from the treasured recesses of your childhood or teenage years and chances are it was made into a book. Gremlins? Check. Mad Max? You bet. Desperately Seeking Susan? Mmmhmm. Videodrome? Yeah. Olsen’s ties to the books are rooted just where you’d expect them to be: in his childhood. “They’re special to me because when I was younger there were a lot of films I desired to see but didn’t get to, and the novelizations were sold at the Scholastic Book Fairs and I got to spend my money there,” says Olsen. “The Harry & The Hendersons novelization is a great example. This was my favorite book as a kid, as awful as it was. My household was not conducive for me to just get to see something as violent and scary as Alien and Aliens, but through the books I could do whatever I wanted to.” And what he wants to do now is share these relics, and maybe reach some other kids whose parents are keeping them from their cinematic dreams.
“My obsession has become a mix of nostalgia and knowing in my heart that there is something artistically horrible about them, too,” he continues. “Novelizations are novels adapted from films, or early drafts of films at least, locked with short deadlines and printed cheaply and perfunctorily and end up being part of the movie’s massive marketing universe. Basically, it’s the literary equivalent of the McDonald’s cup from back in the day.”
Sometimes those early script versions included scenes that never made it to the big screen, inadvertently becoming “director’s cuts” of sorts for listeners. And sometimes the authors were given room to riff on the story, which is what happened to the tie-in to Poltergeist. For this recording, Olsen laid down a “hidden track,” concluding the reading with his critique of the new directions that the book took from the final film. The book’s writer, James Kahn, got wind of the Olsen audiobook and thanked the series for resurrecting the tome, but only after staunchly defending his take on the film and what “crawled out of my brain." And that, says Olsen, "was certainly surreal.”
The idea of bringing these books back to life came over a Thanksgiving dinner with Austin-based pal and collaborator Amy Mullin, after Olsen's mad purchase of dozens of movie tie-in books at the closing of the Denver Book Fair, a Broadway mainstay, had netted a much sought-after copy of the novel version of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. “I mentioned Thunderdome and the thought of recording a reading, and she leapt on it. I came back home with the desire to actually record E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and laid it down,” Olsen remembers. “Her first recording was actually Footloose, which she did all on her own. She would sit in her Texas back yard, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, reading aloud while the grackles and the doves made a cacophony with descriptions of Kevin Bacon dancing his heart out.”
Depending on the thickness of the book — and the excitement of the reading — recordings ran anywhere from two to eight hours. Naming his project Audiobooks for the Damned, Olsen quickly tossed the audio files onto a YouTube channel and connected it to a simple website to start building a library. After many requests, he worked to make the titles downloadable so that the so-called damned can listen to Space Camp or Basic Instinct when they take a road trip or overseas flight.
The project is a labor of love — but don't think you can read your dog-eared copy of Cocoon for the series. Recording duties fall squarely on Olsen, Mullin and a very small pool of local talent tapped to come in for a taping sesh: Olsen knows who has the right vocal moves to bring these twice-told tales to life for a third time.
ABD’s courageous title count is currently thirty-plus books, with more in the can and others being set up — but there are thousands of novelizations out there. What treasures is Olsen hunting for? “There’s nothing we don’t already have that is looming on the horizon," he says, then adds: "I suppose finding a horrendously out-of-print copy of Halloween? Ghostbusters, Flatliners, holy fuck, I wonder if Tremors has ever been novelized? Someone started a rumor that there is a novelization of Roadhouse out there. It almost certainly doesn’t exist. Someone wrote a few pages of a satirical take on a novelization and this legend came forth from it, but damn, if it is real, that would be like the Bigfoot or Lochness Monster of novelizations!”
Explore the depths of your cinematic nostalgia at audiobooksforthedamned.com. Downloadable versions are coming soon; in the meantime, subscribe to the ABD YouTube channel so that you don’t miss any new works. Here's a starter set of popular titles:
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial
“The alarmingly purple and occasionally startlingly erotic novel of the Steven Spielberg film,” says Olsen.
“Short and worth listening to if for no other reason than Amy Mullin’s vocalizations of the female lead are amazing,” raves Olsen.
“I hear it’s entertaining but to get through that reading I drank more than normal and I hear the chapters I blacked out in are great!” says Olsen.
Saturday Night Fever
“Not the worst-written book out there," admits Olsen. "There’s a bridge in NYC that I kept fucking up its pronunciation because I’m not from there. There is definitely some prose in there that has a sleazy '70s verbaciousness to it.”
“Our most popular one so far," Olsen says. "Terminator is great because every tuinty little character in the novel has a gigantic backstory. In the movie there’s a scene where Arnold tosses a guy out of a phone booth who yells, 'Man ,you’ve got a real attitude problem!' but in the book he’s got a huge backstory that would’ve been quickly cut from the movie if it had ever filmed.”
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“A junior novelization of a film based on a Philip K. Dick novel! It’s a very basic retelling of the film in eighty pages, less because there are illustrations. If you want a quickie to get some laundry done, this one is your friend,” says Olsen.
Over the Edge
This one had long been out of print but thanks to an interlibrary loan, ABD could finally bring this Matt Dillon masterpiece (the movie was filmed here in Aurora) to your ears. “Our nation’s library system is a thing of beauty,” says Olsen.