Last week, I read Jonathan Maberry’s movie novelization of 2010’s Wolfman remake, based on the screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, which was based loosely on the original Wolfman motion picture written by Curt Siodmak and starring Lon Chaney, Jr.
Full confession: I freaking love Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman. The film holds up as one of the best Universal Monster pictures, and Chaney’s performance is spot-on. It’s moody, fun, and sad. When I saw the remake in the theatres back in 2010, I was underwhelmed by the flat story and overuse of CGI. So, when I recently learned that Maberry had written the movie novelization, I was pretty excited. After all, as much as I love werewolves, solid lycanthropy tales are hard to come by!
Maberry didn’t let me down. Contained in those pages was the story that the movie should have been. As viewers, we missed out on a great tale. Fortunately, as readers, we can still be immersed via Maberry’s writing in a brilliant tragedy with great characters, intense action, and enduring themes.
The funny thing is, the core plot points don’t vary widely between the book and movie. Still, there are many reasons why the book tells a more satisfying tale—better pacing and more believable characters, among them. But the one I want to focus on today is setting.
In the novel, Maberry paints a wonderfully vivid picture of the Talbot Estate and its surrounding wilderness. We are immersed in a world rich with history, myth, and lore. As Larry returns to his childhood home, we can imagine the adventures and tragedies that he faced there. When he hunts the werewolf (or later, as the werewolf) in the countryside, we prowl with him in an ancient land, where the moon is a powerful force and extinct civilizations long ago erected a kind of mini-Stonehenge to track the comings and goings of the Goddess of the Hunt.
In the movie, though, the Talbot home has as much depth as a wooden theatre set. Likewise, the woods are just props—the standard moody fog, creepy trees, and glowing fake moon. There’s no life in these settings. They might as well be made out of cardboard. And the mini-Stonehenge just comes off as a conveniently creepy setting with no real context.
And here, I think, is one of the strengths of the written word. There’s that old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, that may be, but a few hundred words can paint more than a picture; they can tell a whole story within that picture.
As writers, we have the opportunity to make the settings of our stories as vividly alive as our characters. Just like a good protagonist, a home can be welcoming and reassuring. Or like a wicked villain, a wilderness can taunt and haunt our characters. How do we do this? Of course, rich description is important, but in addition a place has to have stories. Be it the stream where young Larry played with his brother or the mini-Stonehenge where ancient peoples paid homage to the moon, a place needs history. It needs backstory.
That doesn’t mean you have to necessarily tell all of those tales, but with deft description you can hint at them. You can make reference to a place’s history and let the reader fill in the gaps. Just give the reader a hint of depth, and their imagination will do the rest of the work for you.
And this isn’t just a tip for genre fiction. Another great example of a brilliant setting coming alive in a book and falling flat in a movie is the city of Savannah in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In John Berendt’s novel, Savannah is a quirky yet gritty town with all manner of history and culture. The city is as much a character as anyone in this wonderful novel. But somehow, the book didn’t quite translate to the screen, and I think a lot of the reason has to do with the screenplay not effectively portraying the city as a character. The viewer could see the city on the screen, but couldn’t feel it… couldn’t know it.
So as you craft your stories, give your characters real settings—places with depth and history—in which they can flourish. The characters and the setting will take new life, feeding on each other like a ravenous Wolfman.