Writing novelizations of films must be a special challenge, especially when the film has the blockbuster potential of a franchise installment like Terminator Salvation. If the book is published in advance of the film, which only makes sense, it spoils the plot and gives away the ending. If the book deviates significantly from the script, it isn’t a very true novelization.
Terminator Salvation, the novel, is actually two stories: there’s the struggle of the human resistance against single-minded killing machines; and then there’s the story of leaked endings, revisions and reshoots, and clandestine access codes. For all the breakneck, widescreen-ready action of the latest man vs. machine story contained in the novel, the second tale may be even more interesting.
The new film represents a fresh start after the disappointing Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which had a similar stultifying effect on this franchise as Batman and Robin had on the Caped Crusader’s. (In a one-star review, The UK Critic called T3, “so bad, so unengaging [and] dog ugly unprofessional.”) Alan Dean Foster is an experienced hand at action/sci-fi movie novelizations and an apt choice for this revival attempt. He juggles the two primary plot lines competently, keeps the pace appropriately brisk, and provides enough characterization and detail to keep this from reading like a barely fleshed-out script.
Unlike the first three films, or the current Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series, Terminator Salvation doesn’t involve time travel or warnings from the future, but is set in a near future after Judgment Day, the machine-orchestrated nuclear holocaust. An adult John Connor is now married to Kate and a leader in the resistance against the machines’ relentless campaign of human extinction. The other main plot follows Marcus Wright, a Death Row inmate as the book opens, who lacks memory of anything since his lethal injection, but has apparently gained some inexplicable new abilities (not the least of which being, you know, surviving lethal injection). Wright encounters teenaged Kyle Reese and a young mute girl, Star, and the three survive harrowing encounters with the machines by learning to trust and rely on each other.
Although there isn’t much to the story apart from a series of clashes with new varieties of malevolent machines (and a few familiar models), leading to the climactic meeting of Connor, Wright, and Reese in Skynet Central, the Terminator’s stronghold, it adequately conveys the humans’ struggle to survive and prevail. And while it’s not quite The Road (Cormac McCarthy’s bleak, post-apocalyptic masterpiece, which director McG had the cast read to prepare for this movie), Foster does evoke the ruins of our civilization sufficiently to retain the cautionary tone that’s been part of the better stories in the franchise.
The question of what constitutes humanity is also raised repeatedly throughout the book, right up to the end. Which leads to the second story here, the one beyond the book’s covers. As might be expected, with the near-certainty of more Terminator films building on this story’s foundation, the novel ends inconclusively. What is unexpected is that the book, as published, likely ends differently than the movie, if the book can truly be said to have an ending.
About this time last year, a credible source leaked the film’s ending (one that numerous fans savaged in forum postings), and recent interviews with McG both verified the leaked ending and indicated a new ending was reshot. The leaked ending is nothing like the conclusion of the book.
After the last page of story in the Terminator Salvation is a message that an “alternate” ending would be available, using the included secret access code, on publisher Titan Books’ Web site on May 21, the day the film is released. (If the length of time it took to successfully access Titan Books’ site in the early morning hours of May 21 is any indication, the code was a widely-known secret.)
The “alternate” ending runs roughly 23 pages, and is more accurately an ending, as the story continues beyond where the book ends to a conclusion that has similarities to the film’s leaked ending, but is entirely opposite in tone. It won’t be surprising if the Web-only ending is, in fact, identical to the movie’s, given the lengths Warner Brothers and Titan went to protect it. And, while the subterfuge was entertaining, publishing books minus their conclusions is probably not a trend we should encourage.