Monday, January 28, 2013
Predator, by Paul Monette
June, 1987 Jove Books
It seems that in recent years Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1987 Predator has come to be regarded as his best action movie. I’ve liked it since I saw it in the theater as a kid (this was back in those forgotten days when action movies were actually rated R and if you were under 17 you needed a parent or guardian to get in to see them…or you could just wait for the VHS rental), but I’ve always preferred Total Recall and especially Commando, which for my money is the greatest action movie ever.
I’d read somewhere that the Predator novelization was much different from the film. This is true in most cases, where novelizations are based on in-production scripts that go through changes during filming. Predator is a case where a film went through more changes than most; an interesting bit of trivia is that Jean-Claude Van Damme of all people was originally slated to play the part of the Predator, wearing a costume different than the one finally used in the film. (You can read more about it and see some photos of Van Damme in costume here.)
This novelization though is based on a script even earlier than the Van Damme version, as the Predator here is a very different creature. Not wearing the armor or bearing the sci-fi weaponry that we now know and love, this Predator is more of an anthropologist, a lizard-like being with scaly skin who has come to Earth to study humans, killing them for dissection purposes. It can still only see in an infra-red spectrum, and can also mimic voices like a sampler, but in the novel it also has the ability to take the form of other creatures. Everything but humans, that is; we learn from one of the many scenes from the Predator’s viewpoint that it is unable to refashion itself into human form. However it’s free to take on the guise of a bird and soar over the jungle.
First though it’s worth talking about the author of this novelization, Paul Monette. A gay poet, Monette is the last person you’d expect to pen the novelization of a gun-blazing Arnold Schwarzenegger classic. Monette, who passed away from AIDS in 1995, is most remembered for writing a few volumes of poetry dedicated to his partner, who also died from AIDS. But on the side Monette also wrote movie novelizations (Scarface being another).
This means then that you can expect a fair bit of word painting in Predator. Monette writes with the deft and literate hand customary of a poet, doling out metaphors and analogies and extended bits of introspection with aplomb. He also capably brings to life the stinking, sweaty mire of the South American jungle. I don’t bring it up much because it’s outside the theme of this blog, but I do enjoy poetry, and in fact rank Christopher Logue’s War Music as the best thing I’ve ever read, but truth be told this style of writing doesn’t jibe with action fiction. Which is to say, Monette’s florid description often gets in the way of the guts and gore.
Story-wise the novel is basically the same as the film; it’s only the incidentals that are different. For one the special forces crew is a more “salty” bunch in the novel, more prone to dropping F-bombs and spitting hatred at the world. In other words, they all lack the memorable qualities of their filmic counterparts. Schwarzenegger’s character Dutch Schaefer in particular is a more grim character in the novel, probably a more “realistic” portrayal of what such a person would be like in the real world.
One difference as far as the team goes is here they’re all white, except for American Indian Billy (the unforgettable Sonny Landham in the film) and Poncho (Richard Chaves). I only bring this up because here Blain (Jesse Ventura) and Mac (Bill Duke) are both redneck bumpkins, racist without realizing it, and they both constantly harrass the “minorities,” particularly Dillon (Carl Weather), who in the novel is the only black guy on the team. I’m curious if this was pointedly ironed out of the film by making Mac a black character; whatever the reason, the film again has it better, as Bill Duke was much more memorable in the role he played than the redneck cipher that is the Mac of this novelization.
But if you know the film you know the story: Dillon, Dutch’s old pal and now a CIA agent, has called in Dutch’s team to infiltrate enemy territory deep in the jungle (here in the novel somewhere in the south-east region of Mexico called Balancan). Dillon has been on desk duty for the past decade or so, which serves for more ribbing from the team, more here than even in the film. And when it turns out that the mission is not to rescue hostages but instead to wipe out a small terrorist army, Dutch really gets into a lather, instead of just brushing it off like Arnold did in the film.
Here though we come to Monette’s failings as an action writer, though it could just be the fault of the early script draft he worked from. That action scene where Arnold and team assault the terrorist compound is probably the best sequence in all of ‘80s action cinema, just an awesome blitz of gory deaths, explosions, and one-liners (“Stick around!”). The only sequence I can think of that I like nearly as much would be that part in Rambo III where Rambo takes on the nightvision goggle-equipped Spetsnaz commandos in the caverns of Afghanistan. But really, the scene in Predator is the closest we ever got to seeing a Gold Eagle novel on film.
In the novel however, this raid on the terrorist compound is more low-key, over almost as soon as it starts, and lacks the onslaught of the film version. Dutch still delivers his “stick around” line, but again without the charm of Arnold; like most of Dutch’s dialog in the book, it just comes off as more mean-natured than goofy. However the book does a better job of explaining what Dillon’s purpose was down here; turns out these terrorists were plotting, along with the Soviets, a sort of Invasion USA attack on American soil.
From there on things proceed just as in the film, only with more insight into the characters and their thoughts and motivations; a big beneficiary of this is Anna, the female terrorist who is taken captive by Dillon and therefore endures the Predator’s horrors along with the rest of the team. Here she not only speaks English pretty much from her introduction into the narrative, but we also get more of an idea of how the Predator freaks her out to the point of insanity.
There are also several scenes from the Predator’s perspective, and we see the alien anthropologist going about its grisly work. This entails weird scenes like where it becomes a bird or a tree, monitoring the humans in secret. When in its normal form the Predator goes about with a spear, its sole weapon (something which didn’t debut in the films until Predator 2), and uses it to kill and eviscerate Dutch’s team one by one.
I had a hard time understanding the Predator, though, as its motive and learnings about humans are pretty vague, at least as Monette presents them. He has it that the alien doesn’t realize how it’s snuffing out indidivual lives with each kill, yet as the narrative ensues it seems to take relish in stalking the commandos, playing on their terror, and drawing out their deaths. But in the long run this take on the alien isn’t anywhere near as memorable as the film version, and if the movie had been like this novel I doubt it would be regaled as it is today.
Billy is also given a lot more depth in the novel. Here Billy is expressly described as a shaman, going into trances and seeing the ghosts of his ancestors in the jungle. There’s a vaguely psychedelic scene where he stands on the ruins of a Mayan temple and experiences an extended trip into prehistory. Molette implies that the Predators have visited the Earth in the past, and shamans have been the only ones to stop them. As in the film Billy’s the first to realize that the thing hunting the team is not human, but here in the novel the alien has the same realization about Billy, that he’s the only one that knows an alien is following them.
It all leads to the same finale, with the individual deaths playing out mostly the same as in the film, though again the Predator kills solely with its spear rather than an arsenal of exotic weaponry. After making Anna “get to da choppa,” Dutch stages his solo war on the Predator, here too accidentally discovering that mud makes him invisible to the alien’s sight. Also Molette points out that Dutch goes into his final combat nude, which really brings home the savage, primordial nature of the conflict. And Molette makes clear something the film only implies, that Dutch has appropriated Billy’s mantle as the shaman-warrior who must kill the alien.
Speaking of that early action scene in the terrorist compound, I read somewhere that it cost so much to stage that the producers had to scuttle the planned finale with Dutch storming the alien’s ship. The novelization obviously doesn’t have any concerns with budget, so here Dutch does actually track the Predator back to its spaceship after he’s wounded it in their battle (in the novel he hurts it by lobbing a grenade at it). The Predator’s death is super goofy, though; as it hobbles into its ship, Dutch snatches up its dropped spear and hurls it, impaling the Predator just as it enters the doorway…and then the spaceship explodes!
The film ends with a memorable shot of a silent Arnold sitting in “da choppa” as it takes off, Anna by his side (and the black helicopter pilot, by the way, is Kevin Peter Hall, who played the Predator in the film). Molette extends this a bit from Anna’s point of view, having it that she’s fallen in love with Dutch after this awful experience and plans to be with him, no matter what.
This novelization is interesting mostly as a curiosity piece, just to see how many changes the Predator and its details went through between the script stage and the final film. In every regard I find the film to be stronger, and I’d wager that most every other reader would feel the same. Something just feels “off” about this novelization, like it’s half complete or missing something. Again though I don’t think this is all Molette’s fault, as likely the script he’d been handed had a lot of issues of its own.