Comics : Spider-Man 2: The Official Movie Novelization

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This review was first published on: 2004.

Background...

Of course there's a book of the movie. There's always a book of the movie these days. Peter David wrote the last one, Spider-Man: The Official Movie Novelization, and now he's written this one. From the outside, it looks pretty similar to the first - regular paperback, 4.5" x 7" and both of them just over 300 pages, making them a small- to medium-sized effort by novel standards.

In Detail...

Spider-Man 2: The Official Movie Novelization
Jun 2004 : SM Title
Publisher:  Ballantine Publishing Group
Writer:  Peter David
Screenplay:  Alvin Sargent
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Review

Just to establish some context, maybe we can take a moment to step back and look at the novelization of the first movie. When reviewing that book a couple of years ago, it seemed clear to me that Mr. David was clearly struggling to find a way to create a good novel within the confines of the rather tightly constricting screen play. I think that in the end the result was disappointing.

This time around, David has clearly abandoned that entire concept, and he has decided to take the bull by the horns and add his own content when and where he sees fit. He makes that pretty clear early on, when the first two chapters bear no correlation to the movie script at all. Chapter One sees Otto arrive at ESU to give an unannounced lecture to Connors' science class, only to be kidnapped by a man driving a giant robot, apparently because Otto is rumoured to be working on some secret "arms" project. Heh, arms. Get it?

The second chapter sees Mary Jane and John Jameson lunching with Jonah at his exclusive club. MJ turns on the charm, and wins over the gruff Jonah with some well-placed flattery, backed up with some heartfelt argument on the subject of Spider-Man that wins Jameson Sr.'s begrudging respect. We learn how she and John met, and generally get some background filled in that was missing in the film.

The first chapter is relatively entertaining, although the giant robot thing is a bit silly, and jars with the overall tone of the story. Still, we get to learn more about Otto's background, and his friendship with Doc Connors. The second chapter is all about human interest, and as such fits much more convincingly within the general context of the book and the movie. While it is entirely new material, it again gives more depth and background to the characters.

At this point, David seems to realise that he's running out of pages, and he'd better get started with the script, so he tells about Peter doing the pizza delivery thing. Then we get Peter missing his lecture, the birthday party, the backyard conversation, etc. Back on track with the film, basically. That's pretty much the theme for the book. The movie is covered, and is interspersed with new material which gives explanations and motivations to the characters.

Sometimes this new material consists of entire standalone chapters (e.g. a whole new chapter where Ock "talks" to his arms and establishes a father/child relationship with them), and a complete new scene at the end with Mary Jane at the church making the decision (aided by family and friends) not to marry John. In many other cases, Peter David simply inserts fragments of dialogue or background text to clarify relationships and details that the film would have conveyed with non-verbal information, i.e. "acting".

In general, this approach works fairly well. David is a lot more confident in adding new material than he was with the previous novelization - he really manages to make this his own telling of the story; he takes ownership of the book far more convincingly than before. However, I do have one real problem with the whole concept.

I saw the movie a couple of times. It was a great film, and it communicated some lovely subtext throughout the dialog. My difficulty with the book is that Peter David has written much of the sub-text into the story, but in many cases it differs with the sub-text that my head inserted. For example: Peter returns from his birthday party and tiptoes up the stairs, only to be overheard by his landlord. As Peter tiptoes, David explains that Peter could have moved silently if he wanted to, but he just didn't care.

Now, when watching that scene at the movies, I didn't get that impression at all. I thought Peter was trying to be really quiet, but he just happened to be overheard. Reading the opposite, I now get this whole cognitive dissonance thing going in my head, which is to say - I get confused and unsettled! It really takes the edge off my enjoyment of the book when every few pages I stop and think, "No, that's not how I understood it!"

Here's another example. When Peter arrives for his surprise birthday party, the impression I got from the film was that he had genuinely forgotten his own birthday! That would be classic Parker, surely? However, Peter David explains in the book that Peter had figured out ages ago that his Aunt was arranging a surprise party, and was just pretending to have forgotten. Sure, both ways are perfectly reasonable... it's just that I got one understanding from the movie, and then the book told me the opposite, leaving me befuddled.

Actually, it wasn't just the subtext that changed between the two versions. There's a number of out-and-out factual changes too. For example, Otto's nuclear reactor generates a gravity well that attracts everything, not a magnetic field that attracts just metal. The visual picture that this generates is completely different from that in the movie. Again, not necessarily better or worse, just annoyingly different.

Even when not contrasting with facts, there's intrinsically a big change in the emotional impact of the various scenes. When Peter and MJ are talking in the back yard after the birthday party, the film is just packed with lingering meaningful pauses. However, the book seems to just race through. All that atmosphere and tension that I was expecting just totally fails to materialise in the text version. The same happens with that highly moving scene where Aunt May forces Peter to take $20 from her. I honestly cried tears when I saw that in the film - the acting was Oscar-quality. But in the book version, it had no impact at all.

The contrast between the film and the text translation was a permanent niggle. Finally, I just wanted to toss the book aside. After all, the DVD isn't that far off! If I'd read the book before the movie, I'd probably have accepted Peter David's version with no problems - but then of course, I'd probably have been confused and annoyed when I watched the film and saw the other version!

As a footnote, the book is also filled with a heap of gratuitous cameos. Stanley Lieber (Stan Lee's real name) appears at one point as an innocent bystander. Gwen Stacy gets a one-line cameo during a college lecture. Dr. Henry Pym is present at Otto's demonstration, and actually transforms into Ant-Man, unbeknownst to all those attending. Even the bum who brings in Spidey's abandoned costume is actually Prince Namor! I guess these are fun little things for hardcore fans to enjoy, but they do seem a bit superfluous.

In General...

Maybe I'm basically trying to say that the whole concept of writing a "book of the film" just fundamentally flawed. All you do is end up with two separate tellings of the same story, both with significantly different interpretations of key events. It's just a bad concept. Peter David does a pretty good job, all things considered. The "new" chapters he has added are actually quite enjoyable, purely because I don't have those prejudices from the movie mucking everything up.

I guess we had to get a book of the film--it's a marketing must-have. However, I've seen a lot of copies of the first book in "remainder bins" at discount book shops. I dare say you might be able to find this one in the same place in a few months' time.

Overall Rating...

It's difficult to know what rating I would have given this book had I read it before seeing the movie. Maybe even as high as 4 webs? Reading it after seeing the film, it's intrinsically annoying, and I can't manage more than two webs. Perhaps I could be generous and average those two ratings, giving a rather gentle three webs flat.