The phenomenon of the “movie tie-in” has become so important over the years that many publishers regard it as a small art form.
I certainly do. Since motion pictures can give us only a slice of the book, the job of the movie tie-in is to lure viewers from screen to print, and heaven knows that’s not an easy sell. Hollywood’s target audience — young males aged 13 to 25 — reportedly believes that reading a book is harder, duller and less relevant than watching a film.
So most publishers have mistakenly decided that the movie tie-in — instead of rousing and inspiring potential readers! (which we’ll get to in Part II) — must calm and reassure. It must show moviegoers that reading can be less taxing, more fun and just as passive as watching a movie.
For some years, publishers did this by inserting a fat section of color photos from the movie into the pages of the text. Just open the book to these photos, the movie tie-in beckoned, and you’ll see it’s all the same movie experience. There’s nothing literary or challenging here.
Photo inserts are expensive, however, and besides, it’s the cover illustration that must erase any artistic-looking stuff from the book. That’s one reason this gorgeous jacket art (“Celestial Eyes” by Spanish artist Francis Cugat), which appeared on the first edition of The Great Gatsby —
–was replaced at one point with the pulp-fiction look below, where a big-chested Alan Ladd removes his shirt just in time to be shot.
Pulp fiction covers had an extra allure. They reminded readers that movies were heavily censored at the time, while explicit sex scenes in books were protected by the First Amendment. So the marketing line at top — “The Great Novel of the Sinful Twenties” — promises that reading a book might be better in terms of active personal engagement with the story that’s not allowed in a movie theater.
New tie-in art for The Great Gatsby arrived with this photo from the 1974 movie, where Robert Redford and Mia Farrow try hard to emote under those nifty hats. Here the message seems to be that failures of the upper class can be just as entertaining as sinful sex.
Then came your basic larded-with-celebrities illustration in this Art Deco cover for the 2013 tie-in. Too bad it looks like a dreary office party from The Wolf of Wall Street. It might be cold, clinical and tiresome. It might be manipulative, cynical and boring. But it’s safe.
So movie tie-ins try to lure or trick us to look inside, but sometimes they’re more honest than the publisher’s original illustration. For example, the first book jacket for The Help seems to be saying, let’s-not-talk-about-RACE-for-god’s-sake in Penguin’s U.S. edition, since it doesn’t even allude to the story inside —
— or does it? Let’s see, one bird sits apart from two other birds, and that’s a metaphor, right? So it must mean …. I know! Birds of a feather should do the laundry together! At least in the United States. In England, the jacket may have resembled a documentary film cover, but at least it provided a glimpse of the story’s theme inside.
Eventually, after the movie came out, the skittish publisher decided that famous actors from the movie could, in the American tie-in, give the reader an idea of the story:
Or wait. These characters seem to look like birds, don’t they? — all lined up in a cartoonish and nonthreatening way. Aw. And here the publisher is trying to make everything entertaining and fun with a marketing line that says, “Change begins with a whisper.” Isn’t that simple? It’s your basic no-risk movie tie-in.
Which brings us to 12 Years a Slave and the subject of truth in book cover illustrations. When you look at the movie tie-in photo of actor Chiwetel Ejiofor playing the role of Solomon Northup, what do you see?
I think the cover says, This is an escaped slave who is running for his life. I bet it was selected as the “brand” for movie posters and book covers because it suggests that: 1) here is an “action” movie and not some boring treatise on slavery that will make white viewers feel guilty; and 2) Solomon Northup survives the 12 years of the title, so don’t worry about a sad ending.
The irony here is that we never see Solomon Northup running like this in the movie. We see him speed up on his walks between plantation and store; we see him explore the swamp and contemplate escape; we see him nearly hanged and chased around a hog pen, but we never see him running so desperately, so wildly, so fearfully fast.
In the book, however, the running scene does exist, and it’s a pivotal episode. I’m not sure why the director didn’t bring it to the screen (what an idiot), but readers will find a thrilling, awesome passage in the book that keeps us on the edge of our seats.
Next: So what if a cover photo never appears in the movie? Why the difference matters.