When I was a teenager, I had scores of guilty pleasures; after shedding the majority of them in my twenties, few remain. Among these last silly indulgences are movie novelizations, the first feature-length books that I read as a child. Revisiting these books in the twilight of my young adulthood, I've noted that most of them are terrible, but a few do exist that are worth reading. Alan Dean Foster's adaptation of Ridley Scott's widely (and rightly) celebrated space horror film is among the latter of these.
Based very loosely on an early draft of O'Bannon and Shusett's script, Foster's Alien differs greatly from the film. The basic scenario and the characters are essentially the same, but the differences aren't limited to mere details. Scribed from a source prior to numerous rewrites, the influence exerted by visual genius H.R. Giger, on-set tweaking and Scott's own judicious post-production editing, this is certainly not what you'll see onscreen.
That said, the book is capably written. It only hints at the sporadic brilliance that Foster would later develop and implement in numerous film novelizations and his own original fantasy and sci-fi novels, but it is effective. The pace of the narrative is deliberately uneven and yields mixed results. While the book's slow first half does gradually generate tension, it's also quite dull in spots, often concentrating on minutiae that isn't of much interest. On the other hand, the last fifteen pages are a whirlwind of action, much of which is quite thrilling.
While the fully-grown alien is revealed sparingly throughout the film, Foster wisely chose not to describe its' appearance, only acknowledging its' large size to imply the creature's power and ability to intimidate. The more gruesome happenings are also hinted at with great effect, allowing the reader's imagination to visualize the gore between the lines.
Quite a few sequences in the book aren't to be seen in the original theatrical cut of the movie. Most of these are based on scenes that were cut from earlier script drafts, a few that were only partially shot, and numerous well-known outtakes that later resurfaced in laserdisc and DVD editions of the film, as well as the 2003 director's cut. While many of these portions were cut to preserve pacing, consistency or overall quality, they're all very effective in a written context. Foster's depiction of a scene wherein Ripley discovers Dallas and Brett's cocooned bodies is far more creepy than the middling equivalent that was cut from the 1979 theatrical release.
Most tie-in novelizations are subject to poor quality control, but I only noticed a few misspellings here. However, Dallas casually glances at Brett (actually Parker) nine pages after the assistant engineer has been picked off! This is the only serious mistake that I found in this book.
Of course, no tie-in novelization ever came close to crossing over as a serious work of genuine literature. But Alien is a pretty solid pop novel for its genre. Employing the slightly prolix dialogue, uncompromising situations and exhaustive detail characteristic of 20th century science fiction, this would probably be regarded as a minor classic had it been released as an original novel in the '20s or '30s. As it is, it's still superior to most of the laughably juvenile trash that passes for adult sci-fi these days.
This is one of Foster's earliest movie novelizations and his second adaptation of a screenplay by Dan O'Bannon; the first is that of Dark Star, the quirky B-movie that O'Bannon created in collaboration with John Carpenter. Just as certain elements of Dark Star were recycled in Alien, the same recurring features can be found in both books. Although these novels have long since gone out of print, they're both cheaply available via Amazon and make for a fun (albeit brief) reading double-bill.
Just don't expect high terror on the order of Lovecraft.