Novelizing Ferris Bueller 34 Years Ago Was No Day Off
It was January, 1986. The previous August my wife and I had moved our family into a creaky, drafty 100-year-old Victorian house in the suburbs replete with mortgage payments, real estate taxes, utility bills, and mouths to feed. The previous November hadn’t been too bad weather-wise, but in December it had gotten downright cold. When the Con Ed bill arrived in January, my wife and I thought there must have been a misplaced decimal point. The amount was higher than our rent in the city had been.
A HVAC specialist did an energy audit and said that it would be a good idea to have the house insulated… eventually.
“Why not right now?” we asked.
“Because right now,” he said, “you have a furnace that probably won’t make it through the rest of January.”
The next day I called my agent and asked what novelists did when they needed to make money fast. “Does it have to be legal?” she asked.
“For now,” I said.
“Novelizations,” she said.
These days most people understand the concept of a novel based on a movie, rather than the other way around, but back then it was a relatively new idea. I was completely unaware of them. A week later, my agent called and said she’d found a project that would pay $6,500, which in 1986 sounded like a fortune (come to think of it, it sort of sounds like a lot these days too).
“I’ll do it,” I said.
“Do you want to know what the project is?” she asked.
“No, I want to make sure my family has heat in February,” I said.
“All right,” she said. “But there’s one more thing. It needs to be done in two weeks.”
Two weeks to write an entire book? It was mid-January and the film’s release date was slightly less than five months away. Typically, it takes a year or more of editing and production (cover design and creation, interior design, printing) to turn a manuscript into a finished book. In addition, novelizations were generally released several weeks before the movie. Also, before editing and production could begin, the film company had to read and approve the manuscript. All of the above meant crashing the production schedule. There wasn’t a millisecond to waste.
Two weeks? At that point in my nascent career as an author of young adult novels, I’d written five books, each taking from eight months to a year to complete. On the other hand, $6,500 (minus 15% for agent’s commission) would net $5,525 --just about enough to cover the cost of a new furnace.
As Benjamin Franklin is said to have said, “There will be sleeping enough in the grave.”
The next morning a movie script entitled Ferris Bueller’s Day Off arrived on our doorstep. At that point I had not yet come to fully appreciate the genius of John Hughes. I didn’t know that he’d penned those hysterical National Lampoon Vacation films starring Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo. But I’d seen The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. As someone who also wrote for teens, I sensed his extraordinary talent for reaching that audience.
I immediately got to work turning the movie script into prose, adding descriptions of people and places (the movie company had enclosed some stills along with the script), combining the many short scenes common in movies into the fewer longer scenes we are more accustomed to in books, and introducing the necessary transitional moments needed to link scenes together. There were challenges. In the movie, Ferris may famously say that, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it,” but he then proceeds quite speedily to pack more into one day than most of us could reasonably accomplish in a week. To stay true to the story I somehow had to incorporate almost every scene into the book.
Most, like the visit to the Mercantile Exchange, Wrigley Field and to the Art Institute of Chicago were relatively easy. But Ferris’s appearance on a parade float singing “Twist and Shout” at the annual German-American Day festival? That, for me, was a problem.
In retrospect, much of the problem surely stemmed from my own naivety concerning what a novelization was supposed to be. It was my impression that the book I created should have plausible transitions from scene to scene. In a movie it’s perfectly acceptable for a character to be skiing down a mountain in one scene and relaxing on a beach in the next. But the readers of books are more inclined to expect an explanation for how the character got from point A to point B.
In the case of the German-American Day parade, I spent valuable hours wracking my brain for a logical justification of how someone even as clever as Ferris could manage to get on that float and sing that song.
“Excuse me,” Ferris said to the parade organizer, “but would you mind if I climbed up on your float in the middle of your parade and sang a song?”
“No problem,” said the organizer. “We always let strangers do that.”
“The band wouldn’t happen to know ‘Twist and Shout,’ would they?” Ferris asked.
“What an amazing coincidence!” said the organizer. “We’ve been practicing that song for weeks! And the person who was supposed to sing it didn’t show up this morning. Young man, you’re a Godsend.”
You get the idea. Finally, pressed for time as the deadline neared, I decided to skip the scene altogether. Maybe the film company wouldn’t notice.
Twelve mostly sleepless nights and days later I overnighted (no such thing as e-mail back then) to my agent two copies of the manuscript printed on dot-matrix continuous-feed paper. One copy was for the publisher and the other, for the folks at Paramount Pictures. If all went well, soon in the mail would come the money to pay for our beautiful new furnace.
When days passed with no news about the novelization, I naively mistook silence for approval. So, it came as a bit of a surprise a week later when, around noon on a Friday, my agent called and said some people at Paramount urgently needed to speak to me.
“About?” I asked.
“What you’ve written,” she said, adding that I could expect the call within the hour. Time was of the essence. If the publishing company was to have any chance of getting the book out on schedule, the manuscript had to go into production the following week.
The folks at Paramount may not have told my agent why they urgently wanted to speak to me, but I had little doubt. It was the missing “Twist and Shout” scene. After all, it was one of the biggest and most memorable moments in the movie, probably one of the most expensive to stage, with a cast of thousands (After local radio stations announced that extras were needed for a film shoot in downtown Chicago, roughly 10,000 people showed up). I began rehearsing my answer to the inevitable question: How could I have left that scene out of the novelization?
A little while later the call came. The caller identified himself as one of the movie’s producers. I forget his name, so let’s call him Cecil. He sounded cordial when said he was happy with the novelization in general, but that he also had some concerns. I braced myself for the parade question, but the list of issues he brought up focused instead on changes in locations and dialogue, and additional character descriptions for some of the lesser players -- Ben Stein (the attendance-taking teacher at Ferris’s school), Charlie Sheen (described in the script as WASTED TEENAGE BOY), the garage attendants -- who hadn’t been included in the stills I’d originally been sent. We agreed that more stills would be overnighted and I would make those adjustments, as well as adding the new locations and dialogue. Meanwhile, I foresaw a weekend of cancelled plans, caffeine, and NoDoz.
Then Cecil asked if there was anything I could do about Ferris’s younger siblings, seven-year-old Todd (no relation) and twelve-year-old Kimberly?
Do in what sense? I asked.
“They’re not in the movie anymore,” said a second person whose voice was deeper and gruffer than the producer’s.
A moment passed while I adjusted to the idea that there was more than one person on the other end of the line, probably on an extension. Just for fun, let’s call him Harvey. I then explained that I could remove the kids from the novelization (although hints of them would remain in the movie … in a family photo and some childish crayon drawings taped to the Bueller’s refrigerator), but that this work would certainly add to the amount of time I’d need to make the revisions Cecil had already asked for.
At that point a female voice joined the conversation, suggesting that perhaps getting rid of the younger kids wasn’t crucial. And thus, I discovered that there was not one, nor two, but three people from Paramount on the other end of the line. While they discussed among themselves the pros and cons of eliminating the younger siblings, I adjusted my thinking to a scene of them sitting around a table on a speaker phone. To me, she sounded like an Angelina.
Ultimately, the decision of whether to jettison Todd and Kimberly came down to the question of time. When I said I would need at least a couple of days (i.e. the weekend) to revise the manuscript incorporating Cecil’s list of changes and eliminating the younger siblings, there was a pause, and then Angelina said, “Well, before we decide on that, let’s to talk him about the other business.”
Here it comes, I thought, glancing down at the notes I’d quickly made to support my argument regarding the difficulties of including the parade scene.
“She means the swimming pool scene,” said Cecil.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m not sure what—”
“Toward the end of the movie,” said Angelina. “They’re in Sloane’s backyard. Ferris and Sloane are in the hot tub.”
Here’s what the script says:
Ferris and Sloane are in Sloane's parents' Jacuzzi. Their clothes are tossed around the deck. Cameron's been placed in a patio chair at the edge of the Jacuzzi. He's still catatonic. He's mumbling softly. Ferris is drinking a beer. Sloane's eating Oreos.
You feeling any better, Cameron?
The water's really nice.
I wish you'd come in.
Staring into space.
Then a bit later:
Cameron falls out of the chair and splashes down, face-first, into the water. Sloane screams. Ferris leaps for him.
Ferris struggles with Cameron's lifeless bulk.
She's screaming. Ferris thrashes around in the water.
Ferris grabs Cameron's collar and rips him out of the water.
Ferris sits Cameron on the edge of the Jacuzzi.
“There’s no mention of a swimming pool,” I said.
“There is now,” Harvey said, gruffly.
Cecil then explained that the scene had been changed. Ferris and Sloane were still a hot tub. Cameron was still comatose, only was he now sitting in a chair at the end of a diving board over a pool adjacent to the hot tub. Thus, instead of falling into the hot tub, Cameron falls into the pool.
Assume for a moment that you’ve never seen the movie. Pretend that someone tells you that a comatose young man is seated in a chair at the end of a diving board over a pool.
Now imagine that it is your job to explain how he got there.
Sadly, the next part of our conversation wasn’t taped. I’m sure it would have made for amusing listening. I’ve done my best to recreate it:
“So, should I write that before Cameron became comatose, he carried the chair out to the end of the diving board?” I asked.
“No, that won’t work,” said Angelina. “Cameron became comatose before that, in the Ferrari on the way to Sloane’s house. It happened when he learned how many miles were added to the odometer that day.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “Because his father kept track of every mile. And would know it had been driven. So, I guess we have to assume then that either Ferris or Sloane put the chair on the end of the diving board and then guided Cameron out to it?”
At this point, Angelina snorted lightly, the way someone who suddenly encounters absurdity will. Perhaps she also thought of the two additional questions that had come to my mind:
1) Even aided, can a comatose person walk?
2) If they could, why on Earth would you put such a person at the end of a diving board?
“Oh, God, there’s something else,” Angelina said as if she’d just remembered. “You know the red Gordy Howe jersey and khaki slacks? He’s not wearing them.”
“So … they changed his clothes while he was comatose?” I guessed. I mean, at that point, why not?
“Stripped down to his underwear,” she said.
“Boxers,” Cecil replied after a moment.
“Know what else?” Angelina said in a mildly conspiratorial tone. “He’s seated facing outward.”
“Outward?” I repeated. Could Sloane walk the newly stripped-down and seriously comatose Cameron out to the end of the diving board while Ferris followed with the chair? But then, once Cameron was seated, how would Sloane get off the diving board?
Cecil chuckled. “She’d have to climb over Cameron and the chair to get back.”
“While balancing at the end of a diving board,” I said.
“Or she could do a backflip into the pool and swim,” added Angelina.
At that point three of us shared a mild laugh. Everyone’s had those moments under stress when something ridiculous acts as a release on the pressure valve. I pictured Sloane doing a back 2 ½ somersault and a table of judges seated beside the pool holding up score cards. Farfetched, you say? Any more so than Ferris performing “Twist and Shout” on the German-American Day float?
But there was one of us who didn’t find the situation humorous. Because, I imagine, he didn’t possess a sense of humor. I picture Harvey’s face turning red, his lips pursed so tightly they’d become bloodless. All resulting in him angrily blurting, “Damn it! Forget all this bullshit and just cut to it!”
When Cecil came to my rescue and suggested that Cameron could sit at the side on the pool, fall in, and still be rescued by Ferris, thus preserving the continuity of the scene, Harvey eventually relented. I thought this demonstrated Cecil’s understanding of one of the crucial differences between movies and novels, but it soon turned out that he had an ulterior motive. Editing, like so much of life, is a negotiation. Moments later I discovered that Cecil was willing to give up the diving board to get what he really wanted -- the parade scene. And when I brought up my logistical concerns relating to Ferris getting onto a float and singing “Twist and Shout,” Cecil quickly brought the debate to a close. “It has to go in, Todd. Just do the best you can.”
And that, as they say in the film business, was a wrap. No sooner did I get off the phone that Friday afternoon than I went back to work, making the easy changes first while saving the more difficult for later. The revisions took most of the weekend and it wasn’t until around dinner on Sunday evening that I finally faced the parade scene. I was bleary by then, and so caffeinated that my hands were jittery. And still the questions loomed: How would I get Ferris onto the parade float? How would I explain him singing “Twist and Shout?”
Valuable minutes passed while I ruminated, aware that even once I finished the manuscript, more time-consuming toil remained – printing two copies of the manuscript at what seems today like the ridiculously slow 1980s dot-matrix pace (though back then it felt miraculous compared to hand-typing), followed by the equally ridiculous task of separating the strips of sprocket holes from both sides of each page. And that would be followed by actually separating the pages from the continuous roll that had been fed into the printer.
As I sat hunched before the small pea-green monochrome screen of my Toshiba T1100 laptop with its floppy disks, no hard drive and 256 kilobytes of RAM (Today’s Apple watch has 1 gigabyte of RAM -- nearly 4,000 times as much computing power) pondering the parade problem, my thoughts drifted back to the phone call with the Paramount producers. Strangely, the moment I kept returning to was gruff Harvey’s “Damn it! Forget all this bullshit and just cut to it!”
No, I told myself, we novelists don’t just “cut to” scenes in novels. We foreshadow to prepare the reader, and then proceed with (hopefully) logical transitions, showing and not telling. If writing a novelization was as easy as just cutting to every hard-to-explain scene, then why even bother? Why not publish the movie script and be done with it?
Oh, wait. Could the answer be as palpable as the warmth emanating from the old cast-iron radiator in the corner of my home office? As tangible as the children playing in some other part of the house without being bundled up in sweaters, hats and fingerless gloves? And what was a novelization anyway? Basically, one more piece of merchandise to sell along with the tee shirt, the coffee mug, the hoodie, the poster, and, if today you happen to have a spare $750 rattling around in your pocket, the Nike Dunk SB High Ferris Bueller basketball shoe.
As the distinguished 18th century British poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor, and lexicographer, Samuel Johnson once said, “Only a fool writes for anything but money.” I wouldn’t say I’ve always agreed, but on that on Sunday evening, with the manuscript still unfinished and hours of printing and page preparation to go, I suddenly got his point.
Remember when Ferris, Sloane and Cameron were in the cab stuck in parade traffic and they discover Mr. Bueller in the cab next to theirs? They sneak out of their cab and then get separated in the parade crowd. From there, I wrote:
It was Ferris’s voice. They looked through the crowd but couldn’t see him.
“No, guys. Over here!”
They turned around. Ferris was up in the German Beers float holding a stein of beer and tossing pretzels into the crowd. “Here you go.” He tossed one to Sloane as he rode past.
Cameron started jogging alongside of the float. “Ferris, how—”
“My last name’s Bueller, right?”
Cameron stopped and stared at him as the float rolled away down the street. “You’re German American?”
“Someone in my family must’ve been,” Ferris shouted.
So not exactly a “cutting to”; more of a slight-of-hand, a patch to cover up the fact that I still couldn’t provide an explanation for how he got onto the float. As the parade continues on, Sloane and Cameron stroll along with it, discussing reincarnation, the future and, of course, Ferris. They turn a corner and find that the procession has come to a stop and Ferris is finishing up his lip-synced “Danke Shoen.” (Credited to Wayne Newton but sounding, at least to my ear, nearly identical to the Brenda Lee version. By the way, to hear Ferris sing a bit of the song himself, cue the shower scene).
From there Ferris launches into the famous “Twist and Shout” scene. (According to various sources, Paramount forked over $100,000 in 1986 dollars for the right to use the Beatles version, then added a brass section to sync with the marching band.)
It was somewhere around 10 p.m. when I finally completed the task, pressed “print,” and was serenaded into a brief and restless repose by the grating song of the dot matrix printer (Imagine a beaver on methamphetamine gnawing at unimaginable speed through solar panels). By midnight, copies of the manuscript were snug in padded manilla envelopes, one addressed to my agent, the other to Paramount Pictures. All that remained was to call FedEx in the morning and arrange a pickup.
As a screenwriter, director, and producer, John Hughes was the single most prolific and influential creator of movies for teens during the last two decades of the 20th century, writing and directing more than 25 films, including the National Lampoon Vacation movies; Weird Science; The Breakfast Club; Some Kind of Wonderful; Sixteen Candles; Pretty in Pink; Planes, Trains and Automobiles; Uncle Buck, and the Home Alone trilogy before quietly taking leave of Hollywood. He died of a heart attack in 2009 at the age of 59. By odd coincidence, I was invited the following fall to speak to the students at his alma mater, Glenbrook North High School, about my young adult novels. Many of the teachers at the school knew who Hughes was. After all, quite a few of them had grown up watching his films. But sadly, a surprising number of the students had no idea.
So that’s the story of the book for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and of my introduction into the briefly lucrative world of novelizations. (It wasn’t long before all pretense about quality and literature was dispatched and publishers started having editorial assistants write them. It wouldn’t surprise me if by now there’s a novelization app that lets you scan scripts with your phone).
It's early June, 2020 now and hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear from someone, via email or social media, asking about the novelization. This is without doubt because so many of us have spent the past three months sheltering in place and scouring our homes and devices for things to read and watch. I’m glad the movie and my book have helped some of you get through this time and prepare for whatever comes next. It reminds me of the message Ferris left on his house intercom: “Thank you for stopping by. I appreciate your concern for my well-being. It will be remembered long after this illness has past.”