Monday, February 27, 2006

A Pox On Morgturmen!: George Gipe's GREMLINS Novelization

A novel by George Gipe
Based on a screenplay by Chris Columbus
Avon Books, 1984

"When you're a thousand miles from nowhere
And there's nothing below but the drink,
It's then you'll see the gremlins,
Green and gamboge and gold,
Male and female and neuter,
Gremlins both young and old.
White ones will wiggle your wingtips,
Male ones will muddle your maps,
Green ones will guzzle your glycol,
Females will flutter your flaps,
They'll freeze up your camera shutters,
They'll bite through your aileron wires,
They'll bend and they'll break and they'll batter,
They'll jab toasting forks in your eyes..."

-Murray Futterman's Song

And yes, Mr. Futterman sings to Billy, as they drive to the bank in his snowplow.

Gremlins the novel starts with a quiet scene, but the information it contains is a bang: we learn in the first chapter, via narration from inside Gizmo's brain, that Mogwai are from outer space. They're a species engineered long ago on the planet Enz by a being named Morgturmen. They were then dispersed to every planet that could sustain life.
"... the galactic powers ordered the Mogwai sent to every inhabitable planet in the universe, their purpose being to inspire alien beings with their peaceful spirit and intelligence and to instruct them in the ways of living without violence and possible extinction. Among the planets selected for early Mogwai population were Kelm-6 in the Poraisti Range, Clinpf-A of the Beehive Pollux, and the third satellite of MinorSun#67672, a small but fertile body called Earth by its inhabitants."

Hooray! Anyone inaugurated into the alternate-universe of popular movie novelizations knows their weird pleasures. Novelizations, because of their aim to adapt a 100 page screenplay into 300 page paperback, invariably without the aid of a finished film to refer to, inevitably end up expanding the story in deadline-averting ways. A) invented scenes and subplots for minor characters, B) character backstory and internal monologues fabricated whole-cloth, and C) heavy prose reliance on unexpected extended metaphors.

Gremlins has extra work to do, since it's evident George Gipe probably had the shooting script from which to work, and a large amount of business in Joe Dante's film must have been improvised on the set or pages were changed late in production. Specifically, all the comedy business cartoon gags and Gremlins playing dress-up moments in the sequences in Dorry's Tavern and the movie theater are nowhere in the adaptation. I'm personally interested in what happens to the story without these gags. The story becomes more blackly humorous, closer to the tone of Chris Columbus' earlier screenplay drafts. For me Dante's cartoon sound effects, slapstick and pop culture reference jokes never mesh with his movies but strike them at oblique angles, and sometimes ruin them. Anyway, all big fans of the Flashdance Gremlin will be sorely disappointed with this book.

What's funny about the book: Gipe is prone to adjective abuse and is especially fond of describing facial features as "expressive." Billy has "a wide expressive mouth." Gizmo has "huge brown expressive eyes." Expression being their primary function, it is a good thing so many faces are expressive. Not, however, that one can blame young Peltzer if "Billy like so many other young men - and older men too, for that matter -- had fallen madly and totally in love with Kate Beringer the first time he laid eyes on her." Just take a gander at Kate's "flashing green eyes and dazzling dark hair" (aren't Pheobe Cates' eyes brown?).

If it seems unkind to pick on a guy with such task, it must be said: the Gremlins novelization actually improves some story problems of the film. Hoyt Axton gives such a warm, engaging performance as Billy's father, Rand Peltzer, that it's always seemed a shame that he disappears from the picture a third of the way through. Likewise for Mushroom the dog, whose hilarious and star-making turn as Barney steals the whole movie, but is barely on screen once the mayhem begins. Gipe fixes this, and allows Rand and Barney to feature in the department store chase finale... with Rand weilding his Bathroom Buddy invention! I can't say if any script drafts had such a fun payoff for the Bathroom Buddy, but bless Gipe for realizing the throwaway gag's unused potential.

The Gremlins novel is also deftly exploits the story's themes of technology gone haywire. Repeatedly human endeavor is foiled by its own cleverness and irresponsible application. Gipe seems to understand this theme even more than the filmmakers, and that the Gremlins themselves are this metaphor made flesh, not generic demons. The climax, where the Gremlins run amok through Kingston Falls, is narrated mostly by radio reports (we miss the gag about the monsters eventually overrunning the DJ booth!), and are a catalog of inventive technological mayhem. A particular favorite scene is Kate locked in battle with the user-unfriendly lighting and sound system control panel at the department store, cross-cut with Billy and Stripe engaged in physical combat.

Some other shuffling doesn't work quite as well - Kate's sick joke anti-Christmas monologue is relocated to a less effective moment, for example, and the opening chapter being narrated by Gizmo makes his entrance less magical. This loss is not balanced out by many paragraphs devoted to detailing how, why, and under what circumstances Gizmo will eat rubber washers, wood and foam packing peanuts.

Where Gipe comes close to the deep-end is expanding the lives of supporting characters. The Mogwai's jaw-dislocating space opera backstory is even more elaborate and epic than I've outlined, and Gipe tries to use it to justify a lot of how Gizmo and the Gremlins behave in the movie. It doesn't quite work- it's just too weird. The Mogwai, for example, pass on some information about their species through a type of genetic memory, but not others: Stripe knows he can transform, but isn't sure how to do the trick.

A lot of supporting cast are paid inordinate attention only to be dumped from the story. Billy's underage buddy Pete (portrayed by Mr. Corey Feldman in the film) has his hero-worship of Peltzer expanded and focused into thinking Billy can help him learn dealings with the fairer sex. And while the book makes Pete more responsible for the birth of the first Gremlin, (Chapter Eleven's entire, ominous text reads: "Pete forgot."), it also denies him much of anything to do - he no longer battles Christmas-light-dangling Gremlins with a pair of scissors.

High school biology teacher Roy Hanson is surprisingly filled-out:
"The first black instructor at an exclusive private school in the country, he had left there three years ago to become only the second black teacher in Kingston Falls. Now, at thirty-four, he was recognized as one of the best biology and natural science instructors in the area. Tall and stockily built, he was a teacher with whom few students messed..."

I have no idea why we need to know this about Pete's science teacher, but I am glad I know so much about the history of the Kingston Falls school system. We will later learn a lot about the city council and the YMCA (it had a typewriter stolen in the last year!)

We meet Lynn Peltzer, Billy's mother, in the kitchen appropriately enough. Perhaps Gipe felt the character a bit underwritten. I can't disagree. But in order to foreshadow her determination in the spectacular, show-stopping gross-out sequence that is Gremlins' Kitchen Scene, Gipe makes us privy to Lynn's thoughts as she fantasizes about what life would be like if she had joined the Army!

It's fairly well implied that the crotchety town drunk, Murray Futterman (Dick Miller), is crushed to death by his snowplow in the movie. That Mr. Futterman is revealed to have survived the attack is partly a joke about sequels and a funny way for Dante to get his favorite character actor into Gremlins 2. But in George Gipe's novel, Mrs. Futterman is called to the coroner to identify her husband's body. The scene before Futterman is murdered is a strangely harrowing battle, in which Futterman has WWII flashbacks as he holes up in the garage and takes sniper shots at Gremlins who are futzing with his TV antenna. And in this terrifying situation and half-hallucination, Futterman has not felt more at-home or alive in years. It's pretty much the difference in tone: Gipe's book is a little less funny, a little more sadistic, but finally it cares about its characters inner lives a little more.

1 comment:

Camel said...

If I remember right, doesn't the epilogue say something like Pete ran away because he thought he'd be persecuted for the whole debacle?