Burke’s Law


Good popular writers are hired to be chameleons. The downside is that they go unnoticed. They write short films, books and stage plays sponsored by products, or performance pieces to show off actors’ ranges. One such fellow was John Burke, who had the oddest of all writers’ jobs – he’d take an original film and return it to a source it never had as a novel.

In the past, not all authors were determined to produce a roman a clef that would make sense of their lives. Many were simply available for hire and would turn their hand to just about anything. This was not an easy way to make a living, because the writer’s prose was not allowed to possess its own identity. Jobbing authors were required to submerge their stylistic quirks in the service of the product.

Occasionally, though, an author would come along who managed to combine both skills. Sussex-born John Burke (b. 1922) worked under at least ten names, also writing Victorian Gothic romances with his wife Jean beneath the pseudonym Harriet Esmond, but he specialised in the lost art of film novelisation. His paperbacks for Hammer each contain four condensed movie novelisations and are now highly collectable. His backlist reads like a summation of postwar pop culture.

He wrote versions of ‘Look Back In Anger’ (which must have been odd for John Osbourne), ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ (likewise for Roald Dahl), ‘The Entertainer’, ‘The Angry Silence’, ‘The Jokers’, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, ‘Privilege’ and ‘Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors’, before turning to TV spinoffs like ‘Dad’s Army’ and ‘UFO’. Often, his narratives feel more structurally cohesive than the works upon which they were based, and have a clearly identifiable style that marks them with the author’s imprimatur.

But Burke has another identity, as an excellent short story writer. Some of his most chilling works were collected in a single volume by Ash Tree Press, entitled ‘We’ve Been Waiting For You’. He produced books on the history of England, its counties and its music, science fiction novels and thrillers, and television series. Burke was not an innovator but a safe pair of hands. It kept him in work for a lifetime.

9 comments on “Burke’s Law”

  1. Martin Tolley says:

    Today David Hewson (a pretty nifty mystery writer on his own account) has done some similar stuff – he converted the Scandi TV series “The Killing” into a novel (and changed the ending very effectively) and he has written the novels of “Macbeth” and “Romeo & Juliet”. I think that’s brave.

  2. snowy says:

    This reminded me that an occasional commentator here, [AB], wrote a piece based on her experience of producing a film novelisation. [With names and scenarios changed to protect the guilty!]

    It was rather fun, I wonder if I can find it again?

  3. snowy says:

    Found it! [Admittedly by going the long way round! & !!]

    It was called ‘How-to-write-a-novelisation’, [perhaps I should have started my search there!] Here is a tiny snippet from near the start.

    You are already aware that good books do not necessarily make good films. You begin to realise that bad films do not necessarily make good books. You thought it was going to be a breeze, but your creative flow is getting gummed up on the following sticky considerations…

    [If you would like to read the entire piece, get clicky/tappy with your finger on my screen name, it will take you directly…. into the archive.]

  4. Helen Martin says:

    I think both Dahl and Osbourne had legitimate cause for complaint. If you saw the movie (and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was great fun) and want to read the story, then go to the source and read the original book. I just find the idea of taking a movie (already probably destroying the author’s idea) and writing a pared down version of the story for people who have difficulty remembering even the main plot points of the film to be insulting to everyone involved. If I weren’t just back from the dentist I’d be grinding my teeth. Am I wrong to find this process terribly wrong?

  5. Wayne Mook says:

    Alan Dean Foster is another one who did many a faithful-ish novelisation. Tim Lebbon a more interesting author has done a number as well. An odd one was Ramsey Campbell’s novelisation of Solomon Kane (better then the film) and he did some of Universal monsters in the 70’s as Carl Dreadstone (he did not do them all).

    One of the oddest novelisations I have is Song of the South by horror schlock meister Guy N. Smith. (I agree with Stephen King that he gave one of his books the best pulp title, ‘The Sucking Pit.’)


  6. Ian Luck says:

    Of course, although the cover said ‘George Lucas’, the novelisation of ‘Star Wars’ was by Alan Dean Foster. He also wrote the first ‘Star Wars’ sequel, ‘Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye’, which is far better than any of the recent Disney attempts at a ‘Star Wars’ movie – although the house of mouse have ‘borrowed’ a lot of elements from it.
    1979 was a good year for Mr Foster – novelisations of ‘Alien’, ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’, and an incredibly bleak novelisation of Disney’s ‘The Black Hole’. A book for children it is not.

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    The Black Hole is an odd one, even the film has a really dark side, it’s got cute robots but the rest is not really a kids film. Also the black hole was seen as a wormhole which was the scientific main paradigm. I remember when the gravistar was floated as the reason for black holes and it was roundly derided. On the quiet it seems to have become the accepted reason for black holes.


  8. Ian Luck says:

    Wayne – someone once referred to ‘The Black Hole’ as “A haunted house in space movie.” I can see their reasoning, but really it’s a film about obsession. Obsession to the point of madness, with Reinhardt’s psychopathic treatment of his crew being one of the things that every good Disney movie needs. I don’t think.And for a movie it’s creepy. The crew quarters still full of their clothes and belongings. The ‘Humanoids’ holding a funeral for one of their own. The limping ‘Humanoid’ gardener encountered by Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine), who tries to get some answers:
    BOOTH: Can you talk?
    The HUMANOID is silent. BOOTH looks into it’s mirrored ‘face’.
    BOOTH (resignedly): No. That would make you too human, wouldn’t it?

    Later, we get to see what’s under the mirrored facade; a dead, grey, empty face, horrifying in it’s blankness. Wiped clean of everything that made it a person, by Reinhardt. When I saw the movie when it first came out, there were gasps from the audience at this point. It’s so unexpected. And the end of the movie, which is very close to the ‘Night On A Bare Mountain’ sequence from ‘Fantasia’, with Maximillian standing in for the daemon Chernabog. It’s very dark indeed, taking the viewer through the fires of Hell, no less. Images from that scene have stuck in my mind for many, many years. It’s one of my all-time favourite movies. It’s beautiful, terrifying, daft, creepy and dark. And made by Disney. Guaranteed to give your younger kids nightmares for months, or your money back. And I love it.

  9. Wayne Mook says:

    Agreed Ian, I had the a book filled with stills from the film, some of the sets were wonderful. In ways it is more a gothic thriller with an obsessed scientist than a haunted house film. Event Horizon is like a sequel, when the ship came back, though not as good and a lot gorier.


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