Calling the shots: The book of the film of the book? Dinosaurs on everything? Tie-ins are now big business, but what are they doing to children's reading habits?

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WHEN the film of The Secret Garden opened in Britain last autumn, lovers of the book - first published in 1911 and still a healthy seller - were quick to spot every deviation from Frances Hodgson Burnett's original. Rather less critical attention was paid to a third form of the work, the new 'novelisation' by Jan Carr, one-twentieth the length of the novel and destined to sit brazenly on bookshop stands marked 'Film & TV Tie- ins'. Such novelisations are growing in popularity, but are they a cunning way of bringing children to literature, or are they junk food cynically designed to bypass the brain cells?

Novelisations have become big business. Boxtree, one of Britain's big four tie-in publishers (the others are Scholastic, Penguin and Transworld), has seen its turnover grow from pounds 700,000 in 1990 to pounds 6m last year. Penguin recently opened an office in Beverly Hills specifically to catch screenplays fresh from the studios. There can be big money for the writers, too. For transforming a movie script into a book - in anything between four days and six weeks - a writer can expect a handsome flat fee or, occasionally and even better, a percentage, which for a very big hit can mean as much as pounds 90,000.

They are somewhat shadowy figures, these novelisers. Most are American, and most are men. B B (Bonnie) Hiller is one of the few women at the top, responsible for the books of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1, 2 and 3, Ghostbusters 2, Bingo, Honey, I Blew up the Kid and all three Karate Kid films. She takes the work seriously, and she will often insert sly literary jokes and puns on lines from Moby Dick and Chaucer, as a treat for any parents who may be reading aloud. She also tones down any excessive violence she finds in the screenplay: 'I'm squeaky clean,' she told me.

Violence is a thorny issue. Londoner Dave Thomas, Corgi's Mr Tie-in, is responsible for books about Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Stingray and Knightmare. Having written television tie- ins for the Ninja Turtles series, he was asked to produce the British 'young adult' novelisation of the American movie and was dismayed by the brutality of the screenplay. He declined to include the nunchaku, a particularly nasty weapon made of two sticks linked by a chain, and felt vindicated when the British censor also baulked, and cut it from the film.

The ability to target a specific age group is essential. B B Hiller has sometimes written double novelisations - one version for seven-to-10s, a second for nine-to-13s. So has Todd Strasser (Home Alone, The Three Musketeers), a writer who, like Hiller, is helped by having children of his own. Even so, novelising is not quite as easy as it looks, especially when, as is usually the case, the writer is working against the clock. For Disney's The Three Musketeers, Strasser had time only to skim the Dumas original, though he was grateful to have got hold of an illustrated copy: lack of visual detail is conspicuous in most novelisations (especially those written before the film is finished) and a pitfall Strasser tries hard to avoid. He often finds himself consulting travel guides.

There are compensations, apart from the money. After Ninja Turtles, a reader wrote to tell Dave Thomas that he actually preferred the novelisation to the film because it described the characters' thoughts. Tactfully, Thomas's reply pointed out that the printed version might not be definitive; each reader was entitled to his opinion on the question of motivation. 'I believe in the post-structuralist approach,' says Thomas.

Such fastidiousness is by no means universal and Jan Carr, the American noveliser of The Secret Garden, is certainly in a lesser league. She writes clumsily, not helped by Caroline Thompson's screenplay, which diminishes and coarsens the relationship between the young heroine and the Yorkshire people who work for her uncle. The dialogue between them is distinctly rougher and nastier than in the book.

The very idea of tampering with a much-loved classic is, of course, anathema to many. Even Adrian Sington, publishing director of Boxtree, is sniffy about Fantail's 'as told in the movie' version of The Secret Garden. 'We would never do that,' he says. Yet for all its faults - and there's no point in pretending that Jan Carr's book will do anything to extend young readers' vocabularies - it wrung a few tears from me. It's a marvellous story that is impossible to ruin.

Which is just as well, since a screen-dominated view of the world has already triumphed. British cinema audiences are burgeoning, up by as much as 10 million last year, thanks in large part to Jurassic Park, not so much a movie as a phenomenon, with tie-ins ranging from chocolate dinosaurs perched on Marks & Spencer cakes to the original book by Michael Crichton, genius jockey of the Zeitgeist. The novel, inspired by new research into DNA and by the international Genome project, was aimed at adults and played (as did Star Wars and Crichton's screenplay for Robin Cook's Coma) on dark subconscious fears and preoccupations. When, as with Jurassic Park the Movie, an adult sub-text is combined with massive child appeal, the marketing spectrum is complete.

Jurassic dinosaurs have made all the licensees 'very happy', says MCA Marketing, who were responsible for selling the UK licences, in a masterly specimen of understatement. The agent for the book deals was Judy Martin, who sold the 'reading' (as opposed to the 'activity') package to Random House's Red Fox imprint. They produced: a film storybook for seven to 10- year-olds ( pounds 3.99); Gail Herman's 'junior' novelisation for over- nines ( pounds 2.99); the non-fiction Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park for children of six and over ( pounds 3.99); and Raptor Attack, aimed at a slightly older audience ( pounds 3.99). It was the old sales strategem - move the customer from 'shall I buy?' to 'which shall I buy?'. The novelisation outstripped the others, selling more than 250,000 copies in a few months last year. Publishers have to pay the agent a non-recoverable advance (sometimes well into six figures), but even so Red Fox made a profit. The same company has recently bought four American tie-ins with The Flintstones. This is to be Steven Spielberg's next blockbuster, and it opens here in July.

The commercial machine, reassuringly perhaps, is not infallible. Super Mario Brothers was a moderate failure, Howard the Duck an all-time turkey, and it's not just publishers who have to keep a nervous eye on the ratings. There are all those video games and cuddly (or, in the case of Jurassic Park, spiky) toys too. Copyright Promotions Ltd is the biggest character agent in Britain, managing creatures ranging from Judge Dredd (played by Sylvester Stallone in the forthcoming movie) to Yogi Bear. Thanks to television, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Sonic the Hedgehog have all been riding high lately.

But it's the books that tend to induce the most anxiety in parents. Educated grown-ups revere words; children who read good books, the theory goes, acquire rich vocabularies. Emaciated versions of classics, such as Jan Carr's The Secret Garden, seem to them like sacrilege. On this score they are probably worrying needlessly. Oldthink can't bear a classic to be replaced by a potted version. Newthink has realised that the characters (in the old sense) and plots, raised from the dead electronically, can change and live for ever: the original authors would surely be proud of the vitality of their creations. To a young child a book is not a work of art but a friend, a beguiler and secret teacher. Until puberty, it's not the words but the plots that really matter. In this respect, parents need to view with caution some recent inventions - particularly the 'battle-hardening' plot.

For instance - in The Karate Kid, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters and Home Alone - the plot typically goes something like this: the blameless hero/heroine, or band of heroes ('our side' tends to be a gang, not the single figure of fairytales), is attacked by a brutal gang of a different race or age group, and this justifies the good guys becoming as violent and ruthless as the bad guys, leading to battles in which fatal damage is inflicted - except that the 'fatal' blow has little impact and no apparent long-term consequences. There is no attempt to settle the dispute by discussion or logic, no suggestion that the 'enemy' might himself be vulnerable or have some reason for his hostile behaviour. Girls, if present at all, serve merely to support the male fighters.

As a child develops, stories play different roles. The psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim showed in The Uses of Enchantment how fairytales help children to grow by depicting situations in which a young protagonist goes through adventures, receives help from animals, plants, strangers or fairies (Piaget demonstrates how children under seven or eight anthropomorphise everything) and surmounts dangers which are metaphors for a child's worries. The hero/heroine escapes enemies but does not take revenge - the baddies are punished by falling into their own trap. This, indeed, is broadly the plot of The Secret Garden.

When children become members of a group of friends or classmates, stories form part of the process of socialisation and tend to be about friendships, self-sacrifice or heroism to help the group. The message now is about the world, not the psyche. Some recent films and their novelisations are disquieting because they are posited on paranoia - 'them and us'. Two Boston academics, Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane Levin, have likened them to war films for children.

For one of their three books on the subject, Who's Calling the Shots: How to Respond Effectively to Children's Fascination with War Play and War Toys, published in 1990, these two authors polled teachers in 19 American states. Eighty-nine per cent claimed that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had had a bad effect on children's behaviour and relationships, encouraging aggression and downgrading females. The authors point out the connection between these violent films and tie-in merchandising: more than 1,000 products bore the Turtles insignia. This market opened up in America after 1984, when the deregulation of broadcasting made it easy for the toy and television industries to work together. Within a year, the 10 best-selling toys were

related to television shows. Sales of war toys shot to over

dollars 1bn, following such hit shows as Masters of the Universe and

GI Joe. Is it entirely coincidental that between 1987 and 1991

the number of teenagers arrested for murder in the US increased by 85 per cent?

Multi-media marketing not only costs parents and children a lot (thanks to the 'serial buying' that results when the same items are relaunched year after year with some small but essential change), but also, according to some teachers, deprives the imagination. The fictional characters define the way children play with the products, whereas ordinary toys change roles as the child changes games. (This is not a new observation: parents have complained about these aspects of toys for centuries.)

The British clinical psychologist Oliver James (whose special subject is male violence) has a different explanation for the success of the paranoia plot. He thinks it appeals because it resembles the random, inexplicable violence and arbitrary rewards and punishments that many children, especially those in highly stressed low-income families, experience in their own lives. The upbringing of children in middle-income families has also become more erratic. Children have fewer guidelines at home. They fear attacks, are attacked, and grow up wary if not actually paranoid. Oliver James thinks films like Ninja Turtles are popular because, in a familiar violent milieu, the children (Turtles) win - as they don't in real life.

In Britain, the connection between the screen and children's merchandise is slightly lessened by the Independent Television Commission's code on advertising, which does not allow commercials for merchandise based on children's programmes to be broadcast within two hours of the programme concerned. The ITC code of programme sponsorship (drawn up in 1991) says there can be no 'product placement' or 'undue prominence' of merchandise. A programme maker can receive money for the right to merchandise products based on the programme, provided: no actual product is featured on the programme; there was no collusion when the programme was developed; the programme is not funded, 'wholly or in part, by the product licensee'. The code also applies to programmes acquired from abroad, and to cable and satellite channels. EuroDisney received a warning for breaching the rules.

British television characters are doing well in the wider world. The Animals of Farthing Wood, a BBC/European Broadcasting Union series based on English writer Colin Dann's books but animated with money from 26 countries, reaches 60 million on European screens. The latest series is accompanied by at least six books, all by Colin Dann himself. This author needs no noveliser. One of the new titles published this spring, Battle for the Park, is well written and relatively gentle, although it does follow the battle-hardening plot.

But Farthing Wood remains an exception: the giants of the tie-in industry are all American. When Jurassic Park belatedly arrived in France last year, there was much grumbling about a monstrous new form of cultural imperialism. Will American creatures with their goggle eyes and dentistry burst into the hearts and homes of the world, serially - Little Brother is watching you? It may be that such pessiminsm is ill-founded. Perhaps the unremitting exposure to more characters will eventually breed discrimination. At the moment, the bland consensus of taste exhibited by middle-class parents and children delights the merchandisers.

The writers and publishers of novelisations and tie-ins remain convinced that they are doing good. Sue Cook of Transworld emphasises how much classroom-related material is concealed by the format. The main character in the new Ghostwriter series, for instance, does not speak, but communicates by leaving messages in unlikely places such as on street signs. The children have to read. The claim for tie-ins in general is that they bring more children to reading, particularly children who are not brought up surrounded by books. Faith in the importance of the oldest medium still burns. -