Lost in Translation has looked at the worst film ever before, trying to work out how to remake Manos: The Hands of Fate. It’d be difficult, in part because the draw now, thanks to Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode that is a fan favourite. Manos, however, is the one film that got Joel, Mr. Mellow himself, angry. It’s not watchable without the efforts of the MST3K crew. Thanks to the MST3K episode, the movie has a cult following. There is now a prequel movie, a sequel movie, even a video game. And, in 2015, a novelization.

Normally, Lost in Translation treats novelizations as tie-ins, part of the franchise and marketing, instead of adaptations. However, there is an almost fifty-year gap between the movie and the novel. Plus, the novel won the Scribe Award for Best Adapted Novel in 2016. Who am I to dispute the International Association of Tie-in Writers?

The original film follows the fate of a family, Michael, Margaret, Debbie, and Pepe, on a vacation as they fall into the hands of the Master, his minion Torgo, both serving the dark lord Manos. Things don’t go well for the family at all. And there’s a teen-aged couple trying to find a place to park to make out and a sheriff and his deputy whose sole job seems to be to get the teenagers to move along. All filmed on a 16mm hand-wound camera that could only record thirty-two seconds at a time for the low, low cost of $19 000 (about $163 000 today).

MST3K riffed the movie during the show’s fourth season in 1993, giving Manos a much wider audience, one that would appreciate it, though not in the way the movie makers expected. Interest was renewed, or possibly newed, and Manos tie-ins appeared, leading to Stephen D. Sullivan writing not one but two tie-in novels – Manos: The Hands of Fate, the comedy version, and Manos: The Talons of Fate, the serious horror version. Today’s review will look at the comedic version.

Sullivan’s goal was to keep to the pacing, the awkward edits, and the dialogue of the original. In fact, all the dialogue is straight from the movie. All of it. John Reynolds’ Torgo can be heard while reading the pages. The narrator is another of Manos’ minions, one who is looking in on the Master and his victims. The prose is tongue-in-cheek, and the narrator has a lot of work to fill in some of the gaps, like the nine-minute-long car ride that begins the film.

Sullivan also calls out the mores of the era, the requirement to be manly and take charge despite being clueless, the requirement to shrink away from danger if a woman. From the scene where Torgo tries to fondle Margaret and she hits him:

Because this is the 1960s, rather than hit Torgo again — *knock ‘im down and keep ‘im down, I say! — Margaret would prefer to be rescued by a man. And since there aren’t any real men around, her husband will do.

Manos: The Hands of Fate, by Stephen D. Sullivan

The narrator is shameless, telling the story and speaking directly to the fourth wall, making references to the film and its limitations. There’s no confusion about who the narrator is rooting for. The prose is light and easy to read but isn’t fluff. And when things get into a lull, the narrator continues his spiel for Manos.

The novel did have to invent some details. There are only six named characters in the movie and that includes the dog. Sullivan had to provide names for the teen-aged couple, the sheriff and his deputies, the Master’s wives, and the hapless women who arrive at the lodge at the end. His solution was to base the characters’ names off their actors’. It’s a nice nod to see.

While it’s not a difficult bar to clear, the novel is better than the movie. Sullivan provides depth to the characters, even if the character is shallow. He builds sympathy for Torgo, gives a motive for Michael and his bad decisions, even provides some details about Manos. The advantage of the written word is to get into characters’ heads, even Pepe’s, providing an insight that the original movie couldn’t. It is also possible to read the novelization without having seen the movie, though some of the asides wouldn’t make sense.

Stephen D. Sullivan achieves the impossible with his novelization of Manos: The Hands of Fate. He makes the story accessible and readable, a far cry better than the original film.


This article was originally published at Seventh Sanctum.

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