Dead or Alive, You’re Reading with Me…


By Shawn Robare

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After moving into my first house that I actually own, I’ve finally begun the long process of unpacking and organizing my large pile of junk…er….my collections.  Most of my stuff has been tucked away in boxes for the past three years and it’s been fun opening them all up and reminding myself just how much of a packrat I’ve become over the years.  Part of the unpacking process has been setting up a new home office where my fiancée and I have been pulling out all the stops in terms of making the space everything we’ve always wanted in a functional yet fun work area.  For me that means a place to display my modest collection of vintage toys, Monster Squad stuff and my collection of movie novelizations.  Since I co-host the Cult Film Club podcast with Paxton Holley and my fiancée Jaime, one of the things I love doing is tracking down novelizations for the flicks we cover so that I can dip into them for fun differences and details on our show.  So I wanted this collection of paperbacks prominent and handy for when we record, which we’ve been doing in the new office.  Well, I also happened to be chatting the other night with my bud Chris about novelizations and our collections.  I hadn’t set up the new bookshelf yet, but I couldn’t help myself and I went spelunking through the mountain of boxed up books in our spare room so that I could pull the collection back together.  We decided to share top seven novelizations on social media, and while piecing mine together I chose a book that I’d actually never read at that point, Ed Naha’s adaptation of Robocop.

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I debated about putting Robocop in the top seven for a second since I’d never cracked the cover on it, but in the end decided to include it because that novelization holds a special place in my heart.  On one hand it’s one of the books that proven to be the hardest to track down for my collection as I made a pact with myself along the way that I wouldn’t succumb to picking these up on eBay or Amazon if I could avoid it and instead do my best to find them out in the wild at Goodwills, used book stores or rummage sales.  To date I’ve only even seen one copies of Robocop on store shelves, and I bought it so fast it would have made your head spin.  On the other hand, as far as novelizations go, Robocop pretty much sums up why I love these adaptations on a purely conceptual level.  For me novelizations exist in a very odd realm in the world of literature.  They’re completely disposable, have a ridiculous origin in savvy marketing, and are an ironic representation of a thing that I cherish.  Love a movie?  Then buy the book.  The idea of revisiting a bombastic, heavily stylized, multimedia action extravaganza in novel form is so ludicrous that I truly adore it.

This is what was running through my mind when I chose it, but afterwards it got me insanely curious to see just how similar the book is to the film.  When it comes to novelizations, my favorites are always the books that feel a bit meatier when it comes to page count.  So many of the thinner books are strict adaptations of movie scripts with little to no new material.  In fact, they usually have less scenes than the actual film.  Robocop has always made me wonder because it clocks in at a very tight 189 pages.  But this past week, as I finally sequestered myself on breaks and lunches at work to tear through the book, there were quite a few surprises…

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First and foremost, even though it clearly states on the cover that Ed Naha adapted the novel from the Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner script, some of the text belies the fact that Naha must have seen a cut of the film based on descriptions of the characters that are dead-on for the actors that portrayed them.  Clarence Boddicker’s appearance matches Kurtwood Smith’s way too close, and I’ve even scanned through the Neumeier/Miner script which doesn’t describe the character as accurately.  Maybe casting had already begun and the assignment came with actor headshots.

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Playing devil’s advocate though, maybe this is just my brain filling in all the little details of the final film as I read.  This is one of the bits of strange phenomena I struggle with a bit while reading novelizations because the films are so ingrained in my mind that I see it playing out as I read.  This is why, when I’m taking notes I can’t help but refer to new material as “deleted scenes”.  Even though I have no actual memory of ever seeing these bit and pieces that were excised from the film, I can so vividly picture them in my head.  Speaking of which, there are a fair number of deleted scenes in this book (and in the script) that flesh out the characters and situations in the story a bit more.

First of all, the book opens on a quiet moment at home with Murphy and his family.  This is the morning/day before he starts his new shift in Old Detroit and it gets into a little bit more about his past and his family.  In the flick we only ever see Murphy’s wife (Jan) and son (Jimmy) in flashbacks or hallucinations, but in the book we get a couple of scenes with them before and after Murphy is murdered by the Boddicker gang.  In the early scene Murphy is thinking about his new assignment and it reminds him about the death of his father, how he was shot by a stray bullet while standing at the picture window of their home.  There’s not a lot to this short bit, but it underlines a tone in the film when it comes to death and violence.  As his father is dying Alex notes that he seems almost amused, and just manages to say “Sumabitch…” before dying.  This is echoed in the sequence where Murphy is slaughtered by the gang later on, where he finally seems to understand what his dad’s final thoughts were probably like.

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In the second deleted sequence with Murphy’s family we visit Jan & Jimmy as they’re packing up the house in preparation for leaving on a shuttle to a colony on the moon.  There’s just a beat here of somber emotion that is great for filling in the gaps with Alex’s family life, but would have totally thrown off the wacky ultra crazed tone of the film for sure.  In both of these sequences you also get a metric ton more references to the story within a story character of TJ Lazer.  Lazer makes it into the film in a couple bits where Murphy practices twirling his gun before he holsters it so that his kid will think he’s cool just like TJ Lazer.  Well, the book mentions TJL about fifteen additional times going so far as to describe the show so that it sounds like a futuristic version of T.J. Hooker, complete with an overweight, past his prime actor like William Shatner.  When Murphy finally becomes Robocop, we get a short scene with his son Jimmy watching him on TV and then falling in love with him as his new hero (replacing good ‘ol TJ Lazer.)

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There’s also a new sequence early on in the book involving a handful of Old Detroit cops on a night when everything goes wrong.  Two patrol cars are lured into an empty parking lot and then ambushed by Boddicker’s gang.  The book gets pretty descriptive with the murders which are more over the top than Murphy’s murder in the film if you can believe it. This sequences plays to a subplot in the film that I think gets kind of lost in the shuffle.  The whole idea that Old Detroit is as rough and violent as it is, is not just because of the dystopian future, it was made that way by Dick Jones.  Jones, who needs his ED 209 project to have legs enough (pun intended) to go to full production so that they can land some seriously lucrative military contacts, basically calls an open season on Old Detroit and hires Boddicker and his gang to make the place a war zone.  In the film this sub plot is there for sure, but because of the amped up, uber-violent, uber-sarcastic tone to the flick it tends to get lost in my opinion.  This opening scene of the police massacre plays to this subplot though.  Boddicker’s men are sending a message, so much so that they literally paint the deathcount of each murdered cop on the body in spray paint.

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The book further underlines this later during the chase sequence where Murphy and Lewis pursue Boddicker’s gang to their hideout.  During the gunfight in the van Boddicker has some moments where he’s thinking about how much he hates situations like this where he has to kill because he wasn’t specifically paid to do it.  Again, it gets to this idea that every evil event that Boddicker and company perpetrate on Old Detroit is specifically ordered by Dick Jones.  Again, it’s not that this doesn’t make it into the film, it’s just way clearer when you read the story as opposed to experience the stylized version in the film.

There are also a lot of interesting small differences between the book and the film, a lot of which revolve around Murphy after he’s murdered and reconstructed into Robocop.  Most of these are welcome peeks into Murphy/Robocop’s inner monologue, stuff that’s hard to do on film without clunky voiceover.  For instance, there’s a who section where we witness Murphy’s slaughter by the Boddicker gang from his perspective which is vastly different than how we experience it in the film.  In the movie we’re forced to act as a bystander/witness that has to watch the brutality from the point of view of the killers mostly.  In the book, we’re inside Murphy’s head as he slips past shock and unbearable pain into a more detached, transcendental state of consciousness.  The reader is almost treated as if we’re his essence starting an out of body experience as he finds the whole situation almost comical.  It’s during these moments, and in the time when he’s lying waiting for the medical evacuation team when Naha uses a framing device to showcase Murphy’s consciousness flickering in and out.  Murphy checks himself on things, like his ability to remember what a helicopter is as it touches down near his body, or what it feels like to be strapped down to a gurney.  These checks are revisited after he wakes as Robocop, but as the machine he explains his observations with a self awareness that he has been programmed to know these things.  Slowly, as Murphy’s soul and brain overtake the machine these metal checks revert back to how he felt as he was dying.  I’m probably not explaining this as well as it comes across while reading the novelization.

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Some of the other little touches that I really loved include the fact that Robocop has the ability to test a person’s blood alcohol level just by his proximity to their breathing.  So during the new year’s eve party when he is about to be introduced to the police force and the one drunk female scientist comes over to Murphy and kisses his visor he’s able to make a notation about just how inebriated she is based on her breath!

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I also thought it was cool that in the book Robocop isn’t as immune to damage as he appears to be in the film.  Though it’s cool to see Murphy kicking ass and walking through hails of bullets and fire, it was always a little weird to me that he seemed nigh invulnerable up until he tried to arrest Dick Jones, thus initiating directive 4 in his programming.  I never really understood what exactly it was about directive 4 that basically revokes Robocop’s ability to deflect bullets.  He’s shot up a bunch of times early in the film only to have all the bullets bounce off, but after attempting to arrest Jones all bullets seem to penetrate his armor.  In the book this is different.  For one, he’s only really bulletproof to small arms fire, so later when the police are brought in to take him down they’re using armor piercing rounds.  But Robocop’s vulnerability is also addressed in the gas station scene where he’s apprehending Emil.  When the gas station explodes it ends up charring Robocop’s armor, so much so that it remains this way throughout the rest of the book.  In fact, the in sequence right after that incident, when Murphy/Robocop storms into the police records archive he’s still smoldering in that room.

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Naha also has some fun with the product placement in the gas station scene.  He mentions that during the explosion the “S” in the Shell station sign goes flying off the building leaving only a flashing neon “HELL” over the situation.

Robocop is also a lot more expressive in the book than in the film.  He has a more developed sense of humor, makes jokes at times, and has very human mannerisms like shrugging his shoulders at criminals that don’t comply or giving a two finger salute to bystanders after he’s arrested someone.  Though it’s fun to imagine a lighter-hearted Robocop, and I totally understand why Naha inserted this sort of humanizing body language in the book, it feels very out of place with the character and dulls the switch-over from OCP products back to a sentient Murphy.  For all the work he put into the inner awareness framing device, it’s sort of undermined by a more human Robocop.  Similarly, in this vein, Naha also has Robocop make some weird observations as he’s accessing situations.  In the scene where he goes into City Hall to rescue the Mayor from the deranged city councilman, there’s a bit where he’s analyzing the walls of the rooms to try and find a way into the situation without using his gun.  While scanning the wall of the room where the hostages are he notates that the structure was rebuilt in the 80s using subpar building materials that were way overpriced.  This gave me a bit of a pause, because how would Robocop know that the materials were overpriced? Maybe he has access to all of the city’s records up to and including invoices for contract construction work done over the past century?

One of the last bit of differences I want to bring up is the sequence where Boddicker is sent in to kill Morton by Dick Jones.  First off, Naha changes one of the most classic Boddicker lines in the film.  In the film and in the script when he first comes into Morton’s condo he utters the two words that set the tone for this scene, “Bitches Leave.”

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In the book, when Boddicker comes in Naha has him say, “Okay sluts. Take a hike.”  Not nearly as efficiently evil, and no where near as iconic.  I’m not sure why he decided to change this either because it’s plain as day in the script snippet above.  Not only does he change this, but Naha also weirdly adds a softer side to Clarence in this scene with the addition of Morton’s cat.  The cat comes walking into the room while Morton is begging for his life and Boddicker reaches down and pets it.  This pisses off Morton who considers the cat a traitor, and then as Boddicker is leaving, while Morton is fumbling for the grenade, Clarence picks up the cat and takes it with him.  On the one hand, this is kind of weirdly cold to have a killer acting nice to an animal in the middle of murdering someone, but it’s also conflicting a bit with his character that typically comes off as if he has no compassion what so ever.  A sense of humor, yes, but compassion, no.

Lastly, Naha adds some fun little pop culture references in the book that I wanted to point out.  Early on he has Murphy quote from the 1941 Wolfman film with this foreboding line, “Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night…”.  It foreshadows Murphy’s transformation nicely.  Of course there’s also the William Shatner/T.J. Hooker bits I mentioned above, but there’s another actor reference that really got a chuckle out of me while reading.  After Robocop becomes a fugitive and Dick Jones is settling back into his warzone of an office he flips on the television to a news story about the death of Sylvester Stallone.  Stallone was having his brain transplanted into a clone body and died during the operation.

All in all, I’m glad that I finally sat down and read this novelization, and I can’t wait to dig into another.  But what do I read next?

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  • Paxton Holley

    As you know, we share the same passion for novelizations. And it’s driving me nuts that you don’t have franchise movies together in that last pic. ;-)

    Ed Naha’s Robocop pops up from time to time at my local used book place as well as Robocop 2. I’ve not pulled the trigger on 2 yet.

    Unfortunately, I don’t usually see the cover you show, with the poster image. I usually see a cheaper version (see link below). While I like your cover pic better, I think the logo on mine is better. It’s Robo-tastic!

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/paxtonholley/3944696993/in/photolist-71zMSB-71zAZ8-4A1sLP

    I found Howard the Duck at a library sale a few years ago. Got it for like 10 cents. I’m dying to read it because I hear it’s miles different than the movie. I bet that Remo novelization is good. Manhattan Project could be good too but I’d miss the performances by the Johns (Lithgow and Mahoney).

    • Yeah, somehow I ended up with the UK edition of Robocop. Not sure how that happened. I do love the font on the US version, and the whole book cover actually. It just screams “novelization” to me.
      I wish I had more used book stores near me now. I had a glut of them in Atlanta, but up here in Maryland there’s like only two. One of them doesn’t carry novelizations, and the other is like hour, hour and change away so I haven’t hit it up yet.
      I’ve been meaning to tackle Howard the Duck. It’s right up there with Robocop for me in terms of completely nailing the ludicrous/awesome nature of novelizations. When I do tackle the Manhattan Project I’ll have the Johns that live in my head act out the parts as I read. Luckily they both have such distinctive voices that I can’t help but hear them in my head…

      • Paxton Holley

        Does the UK edition add a lot of ‘U’s? Like Roubocop. New Detrouit. Are there extra scenes of high tea in the OCP HQ?

        • LOL, now I wish it did. It’s weird though, looking at my books, I have quite a few from the UK. Goonies, Three Amigos, Pretty in Pink (not pictured above.) I wonder, are folks going over there, buying pieces of Americana, and then bringing it back just to donate them to Goodwill and used bookstores?

          • TheNavigator

            This is a great article as its still my favourite movie of all time and I’ve never read the book. They could be either US kids buying the books when they were on holiday in the UK in the 80s as they would be more appealing than non movie books when your young or UK kids who have moved to the US and took some childhood stuff with them, I’m thinking the first one is more likely. As you know I’m from the UK and surprisingly I hate Tea I’m sorry not to live up to the historic UK stereotype but I’m more of a coffee guy! :)

          • That does make sense, I could totally see kids on holiday over there from the US that wanted a bit of home to keep them occupied. In the same breath, why did the UK only get all those cool Annuals and TV show adaptations that we never got over here (like A-Team annuals and the Streethawk books?!?) Lucky…

          • TheNavigator

            Yeah Annuals were a weird thing I did have a lot of them growing up. They were always released at Christmas and had the next year on them (So a Street Hawk annual from Christmas 85 would say 1986 on the cover. And they were like a last minute gift for a kid if you couldn’t find anything else and then they would go down really cheap after Christmas which is when I would buy some more.

          • That sounds way cooler than most of our last minute gifts here in the states (socks, plastic army men, or misc. die cast cars…)

          • ShadowWing Tronix

            Street Hawk books? I’d like to read that!

          • Yeah, I think only folks in the UK got those…

  • ShadowWing Tronix

    There were similar changes in Marvel’s adaptation. I wrote about that one.

    https://bwspotlight.com/2014/02/15/scanning-my-collection-robocop-adaptation/

    As for what to read next I didn’t see it there but I recommend Phillip Dick’s Total Recall adaptation (the original movie). He ditched the ambiguity of dream versus reality by giving characters backstories and introducing the creators of the oxygen machine and a hidden subplot that come into the true purpose of the machine. It’s an interesting read, but be warned that he makes Quaid into a mild pervert.

    • It’s so weird how these novelizations seem to bring a lot more sex into the stories, even in books like E.T. and the Goonies. Crazy. I’ll have to look for that novel. Also, heading over to check out your comics adaptation…

      • ShadowWing Tronix

        ET being turned on by Elliot’s mom. I forgot that part. That had no point.

        • Right?! It gets worse in the sequel book too. Kozwinkle was a weird writer for sure…

          • ShadowWing Tronix

            I never read the sequel book and I’m not sure I want to. I mean that doesn’t help but the story was told. What else is there?

          • The big reveal in the sequel is that you get to finally see E.T.’s home planet (which is what the weirder stuff in the ET ride at Universal is based on.) Other than that? Just a bunch of ET emotionally and psychically stalking Elliot…

  • Logan

    I loved the comic adaptation of Robocop, which I read before I saw the movie.

    I used to have a list of 70’s / 80’s / 90’s movie adaptations (novelisations / comic adaptations) which I was trying to make more or less a complete list. But my PC died this year, and wouldn’t you just know it – I never backed up my documents (kept meaning to but didn’t). So it’s now gone for good!

    However – that’s a great book-shot at the end. I might use it as a basis for a new list! I have a question for you though: What’s the book on the bottom of the left-hand pile (under Innerspace) and the one under Big (also left pile). I can’t make out the titles!

    • I should update this picture, I have a whole third stack now ;) The book under Innerspace is Arachnophobia, and the one under Big is Nightmare on Elm Street Parts 4 & 5. The NOES books are weird in that they condense the films plots into a combined story. There are two books, one for Parts 1-3 and one for part 4-5…

      That’s a bummer about your list. I found a couple of cool reference books on novelizations that helped a lot. I also have a pretty big collection of Marvel movie adaptations in comic form from the 70s and 80s. Hit me up with your e-mail and I can send you a list…

      • Logan

        I’d love to see the updated pic! I wonder what would be in the third stack…
        Were the NOES books released after the movies, as in when the movies had become a franchise? Maybe they just merged the stories to play catchup?
        I had no idea there were reference books for novelisations! That’s great! I collect comic and paperback adaptations, storybooks, and movie magazines. Though due to space issues I’ve had to downsize to just the movies I really like (given the space and money I would have many more). I think you summed it up best when you described these things as ‘special features’ before we had DVD’s. It’s true, these things really were like that before the internet and instant information. But as with everything else before the digital age – it was tactile and you could interact with it in real time and real space, and there’s something about that you just can’t replace.
        I’ll send you an email for that list…