Here it is: the book we’ll be reading together.
I found in a box of my brother-in-law’s old stuff: he had the complete trilogy in novelization form, which is frankly awesome. All I had in novelization form was Ghost Dad, and to be fair, I remember it being awesome.
“Back To The Future: A Robert Zemeckis Film” (this seems to be the title of the book, judging by the cover) is a fascinating book for several reasons. One, the author was working off of the screenplay, but clearly a version of the screenplay that was not the final one. Two, the author (George Gipe) seems to not have had an editor, as there are sections of the book that are crazy loco. And three, after putting out this book in 1985 to coincide with the release of the film, he was stung to death by bees (this can happen) and was dead in 1986. The other two novelizations were written by a different author and are not nearly as insane/interesting.
I’ve read this book last year and dog-eared all the parts that caught my fancy. In this blog we’ll be hitting the dog-eared pages and you’ll get the experience of reading “Steven Spielberg Presents: Back To The Future: A Robert Zemeckis Film: The Novel by George Gipe based on a screenplay by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale” (full title?) without actually having to read “SSP:BTTF:ARZF:TNBGGBOASBRZABG”
The cover uses an off-model version of the logo (look at the “B” and “A”) and what’s very nearly an off-model version of Michael J Fox. Also rather than the iconic trail of fire between his legs (ladies), there’s just - white light behind him?
I find it fascinating because all of these design choices seem to shout “first draft!” before they were shined up for the movie release, which is probably exactly what happened. Here’s the (familiar) copy on the back of the book:
HE WAS NEVER IN TIME FOR HIS CLASSES…
HE WASN’T IN TIME FOR HIS DINNER…
THEN ONE DAY…
HE WASN’T IN HIS TIME AT ALL.
Both an exciting novel and a high-spirited adventure film, BACK TO THE FUTURE is the unforgettable story of a modern time-travelling teenager whose journey to the past risks his very own future when he discovers surprises he never could have imagined.
I wouldn’t quibble with this except the phrase “high-spirited” sounds like your grandfather wrote it, and “modern teenager” doesn’t help matters. Anyway! Stay tuned for surprises Marty McFly never could have imagined!
If you were writing the first words of a novel version of Back to the Future, how would you do it? Maybe you’d introduce the concept of time being important, like the film did with all them crazy clocks. Maybe instead you’d introduce Marty and Doc, show who they are and what their relationship is. Well, anyway, you’re totally wrong!
The correct answer is to KILL EVERYBODY.
Here, in the living room of a peaceful house in the suburbs, a typical family sits quietly. Dad reads the evening paper, unaware that disaster is about to strike. Mom cleans the dinner dishes, oblivious to the fact that in a few seconds their world will be reduced to a whirlwind of splinters and atomized debris. The children are in their rooms, doing their homework, little knowing that only a few moments of life are left to them, that they will never have to worry about homework again. The mightiest force ever created by man is about to be unleashed on them and there is nothing on earth they can do about it…
A second later, there was a flash of white and the unnamed family were enveloped in a surge of power that tore their tiny frames to pieces, bending them curiously out of shape before separating bodies from heads, arms from torsos, legs from abdomens. The solid-looking house simply crumpled into thin shreds of pulp and instantly ignited into raveling avalanche of flame. A wind-tunnel effect then whisked the body parts and wreckage of furniture and plaster into a horrible whirling mass that was sucked into the tortured atmosphere.
I didn’t cut anything out here. This is how the book opens, with tortured bodies bent curiously out of shape before their heads fly off. HAH HAH HAH WHAT
The next scene shows us that this is actually Marty watching a film, so really everyone didn’t die on the first page. This is awesome (the idea of killing everyone off on the first page is awesome; there can be no argument here) but also awesome crazy, because here’s a spoiler alert: NUCLEAR BOMBS KILLING EVERYONE NEVER COMES UP AGAIN. EVER. WHAT THE HELL. I mean, later on Doc does promise to build a bomb, but that’s just so he can get the plutonium, and that’s exactly zero justification for this scene unless it’s supposed to remind us that… Doc is a hero because he didn’t kill everyone? Even though he lied and said he’d facilitate that?
It’s like opening Star Wars with Luke getting lectured on the importance of always making sure the phasers are clear of debris, lest they misfire and destroy your ship. ”Wow,” you’d think, “Maybe Luke will use it that information to sabotage some Tie Fighters later on. Or MAYBE his attention to clean-phaser details will save him at a critical moment!” And then the lecture ends and nobody ever mentions it and they don’t even use phasers in Star Wars anyway!
Oh yes also in this video Luke watches on how to keep your phasers clean, people’s heads fly off of their torsos as their skin burns / eyes boil / dismembered bodies fly around a fiery inferno.
A CONFESSION: I’m being a little unfair, because the background of the film’s development does give some justification to this opening. In the early drafts of the film, the time machine was a freezer, not a DeLorean - the switch was made when they were worried kids would crawl into their freezers and DIE - and instead of a bolt of lightning, a nuclear test was the source of the power. Even when the switch was made to a car-based time machine, the “we need to sneak into a nuclear test site to power the flux capacitor” angle was still in the script for a while, which makes sense, because where else are you going to get the 1.21 gigawatts of power that makes time travel possible?? WHERE ELSE? DON’T SAY LIGHTNING YOU NEVER KNOW WHERE IT’S GOING TO STRIKE DUH
This scene would fit perfectly (well, except for the insane difference in tone from the rest of the movie) if they used a nuclear bomb to send Marty back in time, and I’m pretty sure it was left over from a draft of the film where that’s exactly what happened. We have two possibilities: either for some reason they gave George Gipe a screenplay version with this scene in it and he was like “welp, guess they know what they’re doing!”, OR, alternatively, he saw his script was missing a good everybody dies opening and wrote it in, loose cannon style. Either way, who wins?
Yes. It’s you, the reader.
These are early pages, where we’re meeting the characters. I promise that EVENTUALLY these recaps won’t be longer than the pages themselves??
Okay, so while the 50s hygiene film about nuclear bombs killing everyone is going on we meet Marty, who has been bopping along to his headphones during the film, ignoring it. Marty is described as:
Marty is so into his song that he belts out the lyrics, “Let’s have one more dance!” but UT OH the movie has just ended and he sings it out to the entire class without realizing! Because this is a thing that happens in real life! Mr. Arky (social studies) says “What was that?” and Marty says “Nothing, sir, I was just saying I hope we all have one more dance.” Mr. Arky falls for it and replies “Indeed.” which should tell you all you need to know about Mr. Arky.
Mr. Arky is the first original character in this book (not counting Nuked Dead Family) and even has his own Futurepedia page, which I found when looking up the crazy name “Mr. Arky” to see if it had ever been used in real life before. (PRO TIP: It turns out that “Mr. Arky” is a secret phrase you can type into Google Image Search to get miles and miles of interracial gay porn, I do not know why this is the case but I have friends who work at Google, I will see what I can find out about this sexy mystery).
Unfortunately for us, after this scene Mr. Arky leaves the story and BTTF canon forever, so enjoy him while he’s here.
“Mr. Arky was Marty McFly’s social studies teacher. He wore glasses. On October 25, 1985, his class was learning about nuclear power.”
What else happens? Jennifer is introduced as an “attractive 17-year-old” who sits next to Marty, and they exchange sly smiles after he sings, so clearly there’s SOMETHING going on between those two kids!!
In these pages Marty gets called out of poor Mr. Arky’s class to go to the office for an emergency telephone call! This is it, everyone! THE PLOT IS BEGINNING.
Marty’s mood vacillates (this is the word Gipe uses, and I gotta give him props: it’s a great word) from the joy of getting out of class to the concern that there really IS an emergency, so he thinks of the worst emergency he can imagine - band audition being cancelled - and gets so scared he says “No! Don’t let it be that!”, out loud, and breaks into a “near run”.
Hold tight to that memory of Cool Marty from the movies as you try to reconcile him with the image of a teen who says “No! Don’t let it be that!” while busting out some speed walking.
We get a paragraph on how Marty’s band is really important to him, even more important than Jennifer (playing music is an “out-of-body experience” and gives him “the sense of courting disaster and somehow coming away not only unscathed but also glorified”, which makes me think, man, I was doing clarinet wrong) but all this is lead-up to what is clearly the best sentence of the spread:
Jennifer was terrific, of course. He was quite taken by her, even felt that he “loved” her in the most adult sense.
That combination of “I really for REAL love you” but with “love” in “quotation marks”? This is me kissing all the fingers on one hand at once, turning that hand away from me as I open it, and saying “Magnifico!”
Marty goes to the office to take the call and who should be waiting there but Mr. Strickland! YES. I LOVE THIS GUY.
Only here he’s not “Mr. Strickland”, but “Gerald Strickland” (WHAT), and his job is specified outright: he’s School Disciplinarian. ”He takes his job as seriously as any prison warden,” we’re told, which is great, only I’m pretty sure that unlike them his job only exists in movies. This is his job: hang out in the halls and look for slackers. He gets paid by the state to do this full time.
Can I just say again how much I love Mr. Strickland? He is a strict guy whose name sounds like Mr. Strict Land. His entire role in the films is to roam the land and be strict. You guys, he is basically the best?
I searched for other Stricklands because I was convinced the name was made up, but it turns out there are a bunch and one was even the governor of Ohio, which is too bad, because I had a great joke lined up about how no Strickland has ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley but OH WELL.
Up next: MORE “GERALD” STRICKLAND
Here’s an email I just got (without any names because I forgot to ask for permission to post it, so now it is ANONYMOUS)
YES. I’m currently trying to learn Portuguese [and, coincidentally,living in Portugal], and some time last year I picked up a copy of the Back to the Future book translated into Portuguese. Haven’t read it yet, but I just saw your tumblr post about the first page and went and checked mine…and it also has the generic family getting ripped to shreds! In Portuguese! This makes me even more excited about using this book to learn Portuguese. I’m going to read it and also follow your posts and count them as study guides.
Thank you! Against all odds, this tumblr has somehow become… EDUCATIONAL??
We get some more great description of Mr. Strickland on this page. Mr. Strickland:
DID YOU KNOW: the more the narration subtly shifts to Strickland’s POV the happier I am??
So Mr. Strickland steals a page from this guy (in a just world / my fanfiction, they are colleagues and meet yearly at Teen Discipline Enforcement Camp):
and picks up the phone at the exact same time Marty does to listen in on the “emergency” call without being noticed.
”Marty, it’s me” he hears the other voice say. And Marty replies (yes, here it comes):
This is the first time Marty yells “Doc!” and I’m going to try to keep track because he yells it a lot in the movie and I don’t remember if he does it here or not. Anyway, it’s great.
DOC! COUNT: 1
Mr. Strickland hears this and feels a new sensation: doubt! Could it possibly, truly be a real medical emergency?? If this were the case, Strickland realizes, it would “be a severe setback to his own confidence in his ability to combat deceitfulness”.
Let us pause here to reflect upon our own personal abilities to combat deceitfulness.
But then Mr. Strickland thinks, and I quote, “How many teenagers call bona fide adult physicians ‘Doc’? No, it was too familiar. Doc, whoever he was, was a personal friend.”
Let us pause here to reflect upon why the author thought “adult” was a necessary adjective to add onto “physician”.
The page ends with Strickland realizing he was right to suspect Marty, and the words “Strickland, the moral bloodhound, was on the right track after all.”
I <3 Mr. Strickland
So earlier I suggested Strickland’s job of “School Disciplinarian” was a thing that only existed in movies, but it turns out, people make careers out of this! Zith sent me this:
Long-time reader, first time writer. Reading B^F and thoroughly enjoying it (BTW, I’m reasonably confident that was the first time in my life I ever spelled “thoroughly” correctly on the first go.) I just thought you might like to know that “school disciplinarian” is, in fact, a real job; it’s my Aunt Therese’s job.
NO WAIT it gets better. She works at a Catholic school or something and her actual title is “Mistress of Discipline.”
NO WAIT it gets better still. She lives in modern-day New York state and not, as you might expect, centuries in the past or the setting for some kind of pornographic film.
In all fairness, she might also actually teach something, I’m not 100% sure here. But now you know!
“Mistress of Discipline” is the perfect Catholic school system title for this: sexy AND AT THE SAME TIME entirely oblivious to basic human sexuality. Big ups to the Catholic school system, you have never let the fact it’s sexy dissuade you from naming things / designing uniforms (that last link goes to the video for All The Things She Said, it is my friend Pat’s #1 favourite song, the video features women in Catholic schoolgirl uniforms kissing in the rain, some people like to watch that I guess??)
There’s a new page going up at noon; I’m thinking I might post these at noon from now on in the proud tradition of the late great Saved By The Bell Quote Of The Day.