Predator is a bad movie. Don't get me wrong–it's also great. If Predator was on right now, I'd watch the hell out of it. It's cool-looking, explody, Schwarzeneggered nonsense enlivened by the stellar, inimitable creature effects of Stan Winston. All that oily definition, floating arm wrestling, action movie catchphrases, and explosions go a long way to obfuscate any semblance of story or character – the equivalent of slathering ketchup all over a finely done steak. Beneath the excess of the action movie conventions, though, there actually is a decent, salvageable story, as the contemporary novelization by respected poet, National Book Award winner, and activist Paul Monette reveals.
While they haven't completely disappeared, the movie novelization's heyday occurred between the inception of the blockbuster and the eventual ubiquity of home video. It's hard to imagine (considering you're probably in the middle of watching a movie in a browser window concurrent with reading this) but there was a great good while there where you had no or limited access to your favourite film once it left theatres. A novelization, like action figures or soundtracks or video games or whatever other attendant tchotchkes, was a way of accessing that world, in whatever small way.
For the most part, these novelizations were (and still are) written by established or at least talented writers. Oftentimes, if a novelization reads poorly, it probably has more to do with turnover (deadlines of just two weeks to hand in a complete novel sometimes) or studio restrictions (authors get given an unreliable amount of reference material, ranging from just the shooting script with maybe a frame or two of the film to full consultations with the filmmakers) than with the capabilities of the writers themselves.
Paul Monette, author of Predator (which is based on the screenplay by James E. Thomas and John C. Thomas), published Borrowed Times: An AIDS Memoir the year after this novelization came out. About the memoir, Publishers Weekly wrote:
Monette applies admirable candor and control to the task of chronicling the suffering endured in the months between the diagnosis and death of the man with whom he had spent over 10 years. Monette brings to the narrative a poet's eye for the telling image or metaphor, and makes this far more than a simple compendium of medical disasters: the memoir transcends the particulars of the AIDS epidemic to stand as an eloquent testimonial to the power of love and the devastation of loss, the courage of the ill and the anger, fear and dedication of their loved ones.Three years later, he won the National Book Award for Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story, a coming out memoir that "details the half-life of a talented and attractive boy who is smart enough to see that his own nature is something he needs to disguise and sensitive enough to try to heed the culture's message by denying it." (LA Times)
All of which is to say that the author of the more-merchandise-than-literature Predator is no slouch. And while Monette's novelization is not great literature it does manage, given the hurried and limited conditions it was no doubt composed in, an enviable amount of depth with material that, up on the screen, is hard to taste for all the ketchup on it. Because, beyond circumstantial encumbrances, the basic fact working against the quality of this sort of translation is that just because something seems good on screen doesn't mean it will be effective on the page.
That's Predator's challenge. The actual plot and themes of the movie are camouflaged in the noisiness of the action and spectacle like the titular alien disappears itself into the foliage and babble of the jungle. What's going on looks good enough that why it's going on isn't really a concern. Here's the story: A cadre of elite, renowned commandos are summoned to Central America to liberate officials taken hostage by guerillas. The group soon discovers that they've been bamboozled by their government. Just as the double-cross is revealed, the commandos become aware that they're being stalked by a predator working with ethics and means that's wholly foreign to them. One by one, the commandos are picked off until it's just Schwarzenegger left.
Stripped of the cacophonous imbroglio of gun fire, explosions, and the whip crack of musclemen shaking hands, told with an economic, sufficient amount of psychology, Predator actually has the makings of an interesting movie. At it's barest bone, it has the feel of a classic Twilight Zone scenario. Essentially, it executes a generic switcheroo akin to Psycho's famous twist. The first half is a Rambo-y movie, where burly boys blow stuff up. But then – as with the murder of Marion Crane halfway through Psycho – an alien hunter shows up in the middle of Rambo, derailing the direction of the set-up. It's a switch that's clunky and underexploited in the movie, but one which Monette pulls off with something like elegance in his novelization.
In a meta reading of the story, these commandos operate in their lives as though they were the protagonists in their own war movie, coming out unscathed and triumphant over the seven years they'd been operating as a unit. And so the shock of reality, or the shock of another story colliding with theirs, should be a major event. However, when, in the movie, the first member of the untouchable unit dies, the world disrupting implications of it don't much register, lost as it is in the gory anonymous body count so far. But the first protagonist death in a novel which has already seen loads of ancillary death comes with a pause of intelligent realization in Monette's book, gets treated like the fundamental pivot it is: "Until this moment [the commandos] were in some real way invincible. And now there was a break in the line, and anything could happen."
In the first half of the book – in the combat narrative – the moral conflict exists between the commandos and the government which employs them. These men represent a group that still sees valor and honour in war, a respect both for life and the destruction of it that seems to have been abandoned by both their opponents and their employers. "Dillon," the former commando, now pencil pusher for the government, "simply couldn't understand why Schaefer still held to an old code that a new kind of war had left far behind. For his part Schaefer was feeling as if he had enemy troops coming at him from both sides – or was it two very different kinds of enemy, one inside and one outside...?"
In the second, sci-fi half of the book, that eschewing of war's antique mores is mirrored by the alien predator's merciless, inhumane disposal of humans. For men who have seen all manner of carnage, what they begin to find in the jungle appears as a betrayal. "None of them had ever seen such barbaric treatment by an enemy... Deep down they still believed that between enemies there was an unwritten code, setting limits to the degree of torture inflicted, at least among so-called professional soldiers. This was so far beyond code that they didn't even have any context for it. Why strip a man of his skin? Why bother? There were so many easier ways to hurt. It was like some demented autopsy."
With all its awesome melee and muscle, it's difficult to say what exactly the movie Predator's about. It's cool and it's fun and that's fine. But without time spent on establishing character motivation, it's essentially a movie about killing as a means of not being killed. Monette's novel, however – as rushed as it might be – manages a cogent conversation about the flexible worth of human life and the absurd systems of justifications put in place. It actually utilizes the strengths of the sci-fi genre that the movie curiously ignores beyond the presence of an alien, using an impossible character as a mirror to reflect the befuddling behavior or man. Even by giving some simple, blunt motivation the alien, Monette brings the theme of the story to life. In our thorough cruelty and seeming disharmony with nature, the intergalactic game hunter sees mankind, specifically these soldiers, as a curious and worthy opponent: "It could not understand yet what the purpose of these creatures was. Every other species seemed to fit in the scheme of things, and the invader had traveled throughout the universe to study that scheme... Not man. Man was other, like the alien itself. It was as if the universe had finally dared to think up a proposition equal to the alien's capacity for wonder."
Reduced to its essentials, Monette's novel is about men who navigate their gritty world by a constellation of codes and morals being forced to deal with a chaotic force indifferent to the flimsy dignity of life. Indeed, aware of both Monette's other work and biography, this throwaway 200 page piece of merchandise becomes sanguine with very real and personal emotion. Consider that Monette dedicates Predator to Roger Horowitz, the partner he lost to AIDS just a few years earlier. "Achilles was not such a warrior," he inscribes, "nor so mourned by his comrade-in-arms." By casting his partner as such, by using the language of war to refer to a battle with and death by AIDS, Monette leaves the door open to another level of depth. Suddenly, the cheap-ish story of a tight-knit group of men who don't exist, as far their government is concerned, battling an invisible enemy which slays them with profound mercilessness and indignity becomes a parable for the horrifying, devastating, and – at first – utterly mysterious obliteration of (predominately) the gay community throughout the 80s.