Monday, July 15, 2013

Script, Performance, and Authorial License: Alan Dean Foster’s Novelization of Star Trek: Into Darkness


Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of Star Trek: Into Darkness gives readers insights into the film’s script, the actors’ performance, and the author’s own development of iconic characters. In particular, this novelization offers a slightly different interpretation of Khan even from the screen version—one much closer to Benedict Cumberbatch’s description of his role during the many press interviews surrounding the film’s many international premieres.

As Foster mentioned in an interview, he wrote this novelization at a time when e-publishing permits changes to be made nearly to the last minute before official publication, which gave him the ability to merge the script and information gleaned during filming and post-production with his own take on the story. In particular, characters could be significantly expanded in print—a film audience usually isn’t privy to a character’s innermost thoughts or interior monologue.

Of course, I chose to study Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of John Harrison/Khan, but Foster also gave him special treatment in the novel. As Cumberbatch restated during publicity for Star Trek (but perhaps said best in the Rolling Stone interview), “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Putting his character in a more favorable light, the actor noted that “The care he has for his people, his crew and his family is a complete parallel to Kirk.”

In his novel, Foster expanded upon this idea, not only in descriptions that go beyond script direction or elements of Cumberbatch’s performance. At eight separate points in the novel (I can share page numbers if you’re as obsessive as I am with documentation), the author referred to Harrison/Khan as a savior, whether his actions save a child or a Captain. Harrison/Khan’s “gifts,” ranging from extra firepower to the ability for cellular regeneration, are also mentioned several times. This language balances the portrayal of the story’s villain (although I’ll still quibble that a certain Admiral is actually more villainous). Instead of making Khan only a bad guy, the novelization supports Cumberbatch’s performance that Khan is capable of doing great harm, but he also can use his considerable learned skills, as well as his genetically enhanced body, to save others.

Not all characters accept Khan’s beneficence at face value, however. Both Spock and McCoy caution Kirk about Khan’s possible motivation for saving Enterprise crew members [i.e., McCoy: “If he saved your lives, he did so because he saw something in it for him” (p. 162); Spock: “A man like Khan does nothing without a reason” (p. 221)]. Foster followed the script in providing these warnings, but he repeated savior, save, and gift to remind readers that Khan is not a one-dimensional villain.

Harrison/Khan may seem godlike by deciding who lives or dies by his hand (or blood), but Foster emphasized that his actions are decidedly driven by love of his own crew and desire to be reunited with them, just as Cumberbatch discussed in the Rolling Stone interview. The novel, much more than the film, explains the Spock-Khan chess match late in the film that determines where Khan’s crew ends up. The author’s license to explain actions and motivations in greater detail is a benefit to Khan’s character development. Once the Enterprise is (temporarily) safe, McCoy’s page-length speech elaborates on Khan’s decision to beam his crew aboard the appropriately named USS Vengeance. This monologue provides a great deal of insight into Khan’s reasoning, actions, and time frame for decision making, all which would have slowed the movie’s pace as it built momentum toward the final fights. In the novelization, Khan errs primarily because he is in a hurry; in the film, this mastermind seems suddenly stupid in underestimating Spock. Although I can’t condone Khan’s violence—he is, after all, efficiently ruthless in getting what he wants—I appreciate Foster’s ability to layer Khan’s characterization in print as much as Cumberbatch layered it on screen.

Foster, as readers might expect from such a masterful author, excels at precise word choice. Although Spock’s voice also is emphasized during key scenes when he must be in command or exceptionally emotional, Khan’s is the voice “heard” most forcefully throughout the novel. As in the memorable trailer that introduced audiences to Cumberbatch’s character, readers “hear” his voice before they read a physical description. What Cumberbatch termed Khan’s “scalpel precision” of thought and speech is personified through Foster’s careful selection of descriptors, with verbs like snarl and roar and tones that, at different emotional high points in a scene, are pitying, condescending, firm, sharp, relentless, matter-of-fact, unshakably confident. As Foster illustrated through a crew member’s dialogue, “Listen to him too long, and he’ll have you believing anything.”

Foster’s novelization underscores the nuances that make Cumberbatch’s portrayal of a summer blockbuster villain more than just the typical psycho or megalomaniac. Throughout the novel and film Khan is a man with a plan, one that only hints at the depths of his focus and determination to mold the world according his personal vision. This character could have been one note, but, especially by highlighting Khan’s vocal qualities in this novelization, the author referenced Cumberbatch’s alluring voice, which is key in bringing audiences or Captains under Khan's spell.

What is particularly interesting about this novelization is its close connection not only to the finished film but to specific aspects of an actor’s performance, most notably Cumberbatch’s. This novel is the first book (not script) to incorporate Cumberbatch’s performance in the text’s discussion of the way a character sounds or behaves. Although Sherlock scripters probably write more toward the specific talents of Cumberbatch or Martin Freeman in series three than they did in the pilot, Cumberbatch’s previous roles on film, television, or stage were written long before casting. The novelization was written simultaneously with the film’s production/post-production, and specific aspects of Cumberbatch in the role of Khan, from physical appearance [“His face was narrow, his eyes remarkably penetrating” (p. 36)] to performance [“the tear that ran down his right cheek” (p. 93)], have been included. Wherever the character of Khan goes next in the Trekverse, this novelization clearly blends Cumberbatch’s performance with the scripted characterization, as well as Foster’s own insight into the character. In fact, given Foster’s description of writing a novelization as “work for hire,” far fewer of his original ideas make it into this type of writing than in one of his original works. Thus, Cumberbatch’s performance gains even more weight as a source for this print “adaptation” of the film.

Certainly Khan’s physical appearance mirrors Cumberbatch-as-Khan in the recent teaser cover of IDW’s forthcoming (in October) six-issue comic book series. Star Trek: Khan should provide more than a rebooted backstory for this character—it also may rely more than a little on Cumberbatch’s interpretation from Into Darkness. If so, Cumberbatch will have more of a direct influence on the rebooted Khan, on screen or in print, than he may have imagined when he first signed on to play one of the most interesting Star Trek characters of all time.