"How I Went to the Dogs And Wrote a Novelization"
By Steven Paul Leiva
On a cold and wintry night in 1997 -- no, actually this takes place in Hollywood, so it was probably a nicely temperate evening -- a cute seven year-old girl named Emma sat down to dinner with her mother and her father at one of their favorite restaurants. It may have been because Christmas was near and carols were playing everywhere (and had been since the day after Halloween), it may have been because she was bored with adult chatter, or it may have been because she had always been a bright and intelligent child, but Emma suddenly turned over her paper placemat and -- in a flash of inspiration -- re-wrote the lyrics to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” making all the various gifts different breeds of dogs. She, of course, titled it, “The Twelve Dogs of Christmas.”
Now her father, Ken Kragen, a producer and personal manager who had spent years guiding and showcasing such performers as the Smothers Brothers and Kenny Rogers, knew talent when he saw it and showed Emma’s re-working of the Old English classic to people he knew at Thomas Nelson, the publishing company in Nashville, Tennessee. They loved Emma’s work and by the next Christmas had published it as a picture book featuring photographs of cute dogs (are there any other kind?) going though the various paces Emma had put them through. There were Boxers boxing, Huskies howling, and Sheepdogs snoring. There were five golden Retrievers and a Poodle in a doghouse.
The book was a hit. And being seasonal continued and continues to be. So far, it has sold over a half a million copies.
But what does this have to do with my having written a novelization? Well, I’ll get there, right now it’s back-story time, so drink your milk and have a cookie, and all will be revealed.
Several years after the book had been out Ken showed it to someone at Sony Family Entertainment who thought SFE’s animation division should take a look at it. That’s when Ken gave me a call, as we were friends and he knew that I was a writer and had spent a number of years involved in animation. “Can you come up with a story for “The Twelve Dogs of Christmas,” he asked, “so we can pitch it at Sony.” I wasn’t sure I could come up with a story. The book was, after all, just lyrics, with no story inherent except possibly about someone infected with a really bad case of the Spirit of Christmas. And any story one could come up with had to get to the point where a bunch of people -- most likely kids -- get to sing “The Twelve Dogs of Christmas.” I wasn’t sure what that story would be. Plus, I had left animation and was concentrating on other things. So I told Ken I would think about it, but I wasn’t hopeful.
When the mind receives a challenge, though, it sometimes kicks in even when the spirit isn’t willing. Five minutes after I had hung up the phone I knew how to get to the final scene where a bunch of kids sing “The Twelve Dogs of Christmas.” I called Ken back and gave him the good news. He was thrilled and asked me to work up a pitch so we could meet with Sony ASAP.
These calls took place on the Friday before September 11, 2001. After which my mind was not totally on the dogs, Christmas, or the giving of gifts. But in Hollywood wheels never grind to a stop, and suddenly we had a pitch meeting set for real soon. I wrote furiously, came up with a thirty-page treatment, and we took the meeting where I acted out the pitch to the best of my limited thespian skills, and Sony love it. It looked like a deal was in the offering.
Then an axe fell at Sony Family Entertainment, people were out of work, and the powers-who-were-left decided they would only do animated projects based on properties they already owned. You know, like “Men in Black.”
So the dogs, so anxious to go out to run and play -- were caged.
So what was there to novelize? Did you like you’re cookie? Have another.
Several years later Ken showed my treatment to filmmaker, Kieth Merrill who loved it and wanted to make a live-action film out of it. Kieth’s enthusiasm for the project inspired Ken to secure the financing so they could make it independently. Since I was unavailable, Kieth wrote the screenplay. They filmed the movie on location in a lovely snow-covered (by Nature and, on occasion, by them) town in Maine. Although the film, “The 12 Dogs of Christmas,” had only a limited theatrical release, the DVD with minimal but smart marketing overseen by Ken sold a quarter of a million units in 2005, and was looking to do the same or better during the Christmas season 2006.
But where does a novelization come in? After all the film had been released, it was already on DVD. We all know that a novelization is written from a screenplay while the film is in production so as to be published as the film is being released. Well, that’s what’s makes this story a bit unique.
Late last year the publisher, Thomas Nelson, called Ken and said that they were still happy with the sales for “The Twelve Dogs of Christmas” picture book, but it was selling “a bit young” and they would love a book that they could publish for older kids. So, they asked, how about doing a novelization based on the film? Well, it made sense, didn’t it? For the title, whether “Twelve Dogs” or ”12 Dogs”, was now a pre-sold one with a certain recognition factor. Ken called me again, this time asking if I wanted to write the novelization.
At first I wasn’t sure I did. Kieth, in adapting my treatment, while keeping the basic concept and several major ideas, had made a lot of changes and had made it -- rightly so -- his own. But then something occurred to me. You know how people will read a good book and often say, “Wow, this would make a great movie!” Well, I’ve often sat through a film and said, “Wow, this would make a great book!” Seriously -- I would begin to narrate in my head the scenes flickering before me. Possibly a mental quirk, but as it has never brought harm to others or myself I’ve never worried about it.
So I said yes, and began the very interesting process of not just watching the film over and over, but immersing myself in the experience of the film. For what is it we try to write about? Our experiences. But we experience on so many different levels -- mental, physical, joyful, painful, the deeply felt, and the wonderfully shallow. And our experiences are not always necessarily direct, but ones deflected from some source other than the raw reality in front of us. We have certainly learned that by the joys of the suspension of disbelief when we watch live theater all the way through the oddly more realistic film and television to the hardly-any-need-to-suspend-your-disbelief of virtual reality video games.
What I needed to narrate and describe was the story as it flowed in the film, the characters as played by such actors as the funny John Billingsley and the formidable Bonita Friedericy, the moods and tones of the settings and atmosphere as captured by the cinematography, even the emotional underpinnings conveyed in the musical score. Imagination came into play when I needed to fill in back story, elaborate on mental states, add scenes and dialog to enhance the story, because in prose I had the time and space to do so. When you adapt a book into a film it is almost always a reductive process. But when you adapt a film into a book it can very much be an expansive process. For example, in the treatment I had set the story in the depths of the Great Depression, and Kieth followed suit in the film. He shot the film “period” conveying that fact through props and costumes. I needed to convey it by bringing information into the storytelling, such as having Hoovervilles make a brief appearance, and being able to create a scene at the end that not only resolved an issue between two of the characters that the film did not have time to, but also allowed me to do a nice riff on Jell-O, the introduction of Lime as a flavor, and Jack Benny on the radio. Such expansion, I believe, may be the core of the craft and art of doing a novelization.
Writing the novelization for “The 12 Dogs of Christmas” turned out to be a fascinating and wonderfully fun process. And I thought -- hey, I’m a pioneer! I must be the first person to ever write a novelization after a film’s release. Sadly I discovered that in the 1970’s Berkeley published a series of novelizations by one "Carl Dreadstone" of Universal creature features from the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Oh, well, not a pioneer, but maybe I can consider myself one of the first settlers.