About Act of Valor Part 3 – About the Novelization

Like many movies, there is a novelization attached to Act of Valor.  The book, Tom Clancy Presents: Act of Valor, a Penguin Premium Paperback, by Dick Couch and George Galdorisi was published in January (Penguin printed 400,000 copies, unusually high for a novelization, but anticipating that Act of Valor would “open big when it was released), six weeks before Act of Valor was released.  Tom Clancy Presents: Act of Valor has enjoyed several months on both the New York Times and Publisher’s Weekly mass market paperback best-seller lists, rising as high as #4 on both lists and moving into its second printing only six weeks after its initial publication date.  How the novelization came to pass is a unique story unto itself.

In April of 2011, co-author Dick Couch and I were invited by the principals at the Bandito Brothers film company to visit them at their Culver City studio and see a screening of their new film.  After the screening, we were sitting with one of the directors, Mike “Mouse” McCoy, composing ourselves after the event.  “Composing ourselves” isn’t an overstatement or hyperbole.  Act of Valor is an emotional film and a moving one, and we were, at once, completely riveted and blown away by what we had seen.

We talked with Mouse McCoy and Bandito Brothers COO, Max Leitman, about our impressions of the film and talked about some other initiatives related to the film, as well as about some of Bandito Brothers other projects (the day we visited they were in the middle of filming a commercial for the new BMW X6).  There was a slight lull in the conversation and I turned to Mouse McCoy and asked, “So, who’s writing the book?”

“The book?” he replied.  “No one.  We’ve been so busy making the movie we hadn’t had time to think about that.”

“Well, would you consider having Dick and I do that?” I said.  And with that, the novelization of Act of Valor was underway.

By the summer of 2011 we were well-embarked on a novelization.  Working with the Kurt Johnstad script and a pre-release DVD of the movie, we created a back-story of all the major characters; the Navy SEALs of the Bandito Platoon (the informal name of the SEALs who starred in the movie), SEAL family members, the villains the SEALs needed to defeat, as well as other characters – major and minor. While the movie implicitly addressed core values such as honor, courage, commitment, character, nobility, sacrifice, family values and others, for the novelization, we needed to walk the reader through these explicitly and show how the success the U.S. Navy SEALs have enjoyed in missions throughout their history has been critically dependent on these core values.

A novelization is a different and unique undertaking.  In a novel, the writer comes up with a high concept for the story, originates a plot and a story line, introduces and develops the characters, and drives the action – lots of action if the novel is to be successful.  When a writer really gets into writing a novel, the characters can take on a life of their own and start to drive the action themselves and you find yourself asking, “Well, what would this person do now?”  If you really get cranking on a novel it can feel like you’re just a reporter watching the action and writing down what you see the characters doing.

But in a novelization, that’s not what happens.  In Act of Valor, the story had already been developed by the Bandito Brothers team and the characters brought to life on screen by the directors.  And in film, it’s all visual and aural – we watch what the characters say and what they do.  In Act of Valor, like most movies, we learn a little bit about what the characters are thinking through the directors’ use of voice-over.  But the rest the film viewer has to intuit.

To turn a movie into a novelization, it’s all about the text.  Our job in the novelization of Act of Valor was to take a 97-page screenplay and an approximately one hundred minute film and turn them into an 87,000-word book.  Among the challenges we faced with this project were issues of characterization and white space.  In a film, you can see the characters, and in Act of Valor, they are introduced visually and colored in by using a few sentences of dialogue and sometimes a voiceover.  In the novelization, we used that as a starting point.  We then had to give each character a physical description, history, and a dozen other characteristics real people have.  We had to, in text, give each of them a personality and individuality.

The issue of white space is a huge one.  Films use what we call white space quite liberally.  They can have an action or scene taking place on a ship and the next one taking place on land thousands of miles away, with the same characters and very little transition.  In doing the novelization, we had to take the reader from one place to the next and provide texture and information as to how and why a character went from one location to another.  This often involved adding scenes and dialogue just to make this happen.  We had to account for how they got to where they were going.  They couldn’t just materialize somewhere.

Our production of the manuscript for Tom Clancy Presents: Act of Valor was on an accelerated timeline in order to get the book (a Penguin premium paperback priced at $9.99) into production for a January 10, 2012 release date.  From the first viewing of the movie in mid-April to completion of the writing in early December, the novelization was completed in eight months. At one point in the production process, Dick Couch and I, to use the old Godfather phrase, “Went to the mattresses,” and in the space of ten days we created the final 40,000 words of the book. Needless to say, we were eating our meals in front of our computers (and probably weren’t the most sociable human beings on earth during that time).

We turned the novelization in on time, which we are very proud of. We were getting e-mails from our editor with subject lines titled MEGA, MEGA RUSH. NEED ASAP. The editor would typically say something like, “Here it is, and I need it back by tomorrow.” We were getting e-mails from New York at 2 am their time.  It was a fast-paced several months to complete the book and shepherd it though time-critical rounds of editing, re-editing, and copy-editing, but it was a privilege to turn celluloid film into prose and tell this story with the granularity to enable the reader to experience what he or she might have missed in an action-packed, 100-minute movie.

We believe we were largely successful in producing a novelization that does justice to this phenomenal film.  Best-selling author Larry Bond put it this way in a post on this website earlier this month:

There are the two words that best describe the novel Act of Valor. It’s exciting because it pits a lot of really interesting good guys (the SEALs and their friends) against some very nasty narco-thugs and terrorists. The action ranges from Costa Rica to Somalia to the Pacific Ocean, and as hairy as it gets, the danger they face is nothing compared to the danger they’re trying to prevent. There are lots of fights, and lots of good story between the fights.

It’s authentic because not only do we see the SEALs with their wet suits and M4 rifles, but we see them before deployment, as family men. The authors create complete, realistic characters who have decided to take on the most challenging duty in the armed forces. At the same time it’s showing us the tremendous demands SEAL duty and missions place on these men, it shows us what kind of men are capable of performing them.

And while the story in Act of Valor is fiction, thanks to the news we know there are other stories out there that are not. Even if you’re planning to see the movie, buy the book.

Tom Clancy wrote a Foreword to the book that includes a link to the Navy Seal Foundation website at:  (http://nswfoundation.org/) and we are honored we are able to help support that incredibly worthy effort.

Finally, the SEAL and SWCC community continue to endeavor to recruit “the best of the best” and anyone interested in learning more about becoming a part of the SEAL and SWCC communities should go to the official Navy SEAL + SWCC website at: www.sealswcc.com.


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