Superman III 4.29: Kotzwinkle

So, get a load of this.

“Excuse me… sorry…” Engrossed in thought, Clark had stumbled against a woman in the street. She looked at him in disgust. “Watch where you’re going, you four-eyed moron!”

That’s on the first page of William Kotzwinkle’s novelization of Superman III, and it doesn’t get a lot cheerier from there.

By the time the Superman III book came out, William Kotzwinkle was well-known as the author of the 1982 novelization for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, the story of a strange visitor from another world with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. The film was a huge success, and the novelization was too, which doesn’t happen that often.

The appeal of the E.T. novelization is that Kotzwinkle does a deep dive into the mental and emotional lives of the characters, offering insight into their identities and motivations. The character of E.T., who hardly speaks in the movie, is given new dimensions by the way Kotzwinkle describes his observations and reactions to the alien world around him. Even the dog gets his own internal character arc.

The novelization shot to the top of the mass-market paperback best-seller list, and stayed there for quite a while, a testament to both Kotzwinkle’s skill and the public’s hunger for more E.T. content.

He followed in 1985 with an original sequel, E.T.: The Book of the Green Planet, which was the only other entry in the E.T. Expanded Universe. The book sold pretty well, but obviously nowhere near the original. In Green Planet, E.T. returns to his home planet, Brodo Asogi, where nobody really likes him very much, and he longs to return to Elliott, who’s grown into a teenager and is less receptive to his old friend’s psychic emanations.

The reason I’m bringing this up is that I found a contemporary review of Book of the Green Planet in the Washington Post, where the reviewer objected to Kotzwinkle’s cynical view of life on Earth:

“It does not take a very perceptive reader to see that underneath the layers of vivacious surface color is a brooding despair — a contempt, in fact, for the whole adult world. Spielberg knew better in E.T. than to show contempt for his characters. He poked fun at suburbia, but he also respected the gutsiness and independence of some of its inhabitants, including Elliott’s mother. Kotzwinkle sees her as aimless, manipulated, and in matters of the heart very nearly a cretin.”

Which sounds a lot like Superman III, actually. As I observed in yesterday’s post, the film doesn’t like its characters very much, finding humor in mean-spirited mockery and/or punishment of just about everyone on screen.

And in Kotzwinkle’s novelization, the film’s contempt for the characters is amplified like you wouldn’t believe.

It really is an extraordinary piece of work, so from here on, I’m just going to show you examples of the misanthropy on parade.

Superman hates himself

Clark Kent continued along, as the inner voice faded. He would accept insults from strange women with shopping bags, and from Lois Lane. He was just Clark Kent the creep, klutz and nebbish. (p8)

Did people need flattery? Fine, he’d flatter them. Did they need to feel superior to someone? Good, they could feel superior to him. He despised himself for all that mild-mannered stuff. (p52)

“I haven’t laughed like that since I can’t remember when.” “Neither have I,” said Kent, who would have eaten an entire case of Ken-L-Ration if it meant being liked. (p105)

“Call me,” said Clark, unable to stop himself from playing with her emotions. Did he have some sort of male-ego game going? Did he have to feel women were his for the asking, even though he’d sworn to avoid intimacy with them? (p106)

The Daily Planet characters hate each other

White chomped on his cigar, his lower lip in a cynical sneer. “Olsen, somebody oughta give you f.two in the mouth.” (p31)

“What the story is really about is how the typical small town has changed in the last fifteen years. Take me, for instance —”
“I do take you, Kent. Every day. Like medicine.” White cranked angrily on. (p35)

Lois looked back at him, wondering in what way he thought he was sophisticated. His glasses looked like he’d bought them at Woolworth’s and the cut of his suit was early Salvation Army. She spoke none of this, not wishing to hurt the poor boob’s feelings. (p36)

No, thought Clark, I must stand here with everyone laughing at me as I hold this crank in my hand, my mind going like lightning, reading every nuance of Perry White’s mockery. (p37)

Clark Kent, seated beside Jimmy, stared blankly at him, as if he were a talking fish.
“… He says the stuffing should be cooked outside the bird…”
Clark could not help feeling that somehow Olsen had been cooked outside the bird, long ago. (p44)

Gus is a racial stereotype

Once Gus gets some money from the half-cents scheme, he wears what I guess are supposed to be pimp clothes: a Day-Glo shirt (p146), alligator skin pants (p75), suede socks and “a tasteful little belt made of boa-constrictor lips,” (p77) plus a “pair of rhinoc’ros boots.” (p177) He dreams of “a proud little boat filled with tradition and five tons of marijuana.” (p163)

Here are a couple more examples:

Gus faded in behind the ski slope. “… not my fault things didn’t work out. I did what I was supposed to do. But that’s always been the way, even in school. Teacher accidentally back into an open switchblade, who took the rap? Gus Gorman…” (p132)

Windows be flashin’ by me… Owing to the velocity of his fall, Gus’s perceptions were heightened and he had certain spiritual insights: … fine-looking secretary bendin’ over that desk‘nother one crossin’ a tough pair of legsToo bad I won’t be roun’ at coffee-break time. (p134)

The one nice thing is that absolutely none of that is in the movie. Gus talks the way that Richard Pryor talks, and he doesn’t wear tasteless pimp clothes. This is 100% Kotzwinkle.

Brad is baffling

This is a weird one. During the high school reunion scene, the narrator establishes that Brad sells terrible beer:

Brad was, in fact, distributor of a local beer; the taste of this brew, resembling boiled gym shoes, was popular with the bums around the courthouse square, and in cellar taverns where old athletic supporters went to die from drinking it. (p59)

This is particularly mysterious, because Brad’s occupation is key to another sequence later in the film. This is how Kotzwinkle handles that:

Were any of the local sports fans there, they might have found the rolling gait of the watchman familiar, for it was that of Brad Wilson, former golden boy, who’d lost his beer franchise and was now employed by Wheat King, owing to the kindness of the owner, Eddy Roebush. Roebush had been Wilson’s tight end back in the past, and was frequently tight in the present, down at a Smallville gin mill called the Sportsman’s Club. Many sportsmen had been clubbed there, with chairs or anything else that might be handy. Having shared a good many such occasions with Roebush, it was only natural that Wilson should come to him for employment. And so, only a few nights before, he’d begun work, with a solemn promise never to drink on the job. (p114)

Kids are terrible

These revealing photos spit out of a slot in the machine, where they were immediately grabbed by a perverted child. (p17)

They were just Smallville kids, and like so many boys their age all over America, were sadists. (p79)

But watch out, terrible kids, because there’s a weird little subplot about Ricky gaining super-strength from flying with Superman for a few seconds:

At the same time, the grand musculature of Superman’s own form sent intense pulsations of power into Ricky, putting grace, elasticity, and physical prowess into the boy’s frail anatomy, so that he could successfully defend against his cruel friends in future and in fact kick their ass if he so desired. All this happened in the space of an instant, as Ricky’s cry of joy rang in the sky. (p110)

Every scientist is a mad scientist

Elsewhere in the building, a white-coated mad scientist stood in the center of a windowless laboratory, where he’d created, with government grants, the most devastating chemical substances imaginable, for use in baby food, drinking water, and perfumed towelettes. (p47)

The mad scientist paced back and forth in front of his cannisters. He’d spent years here, perfecting his secrets and, owing to recent government legislation which would allow him to dump thousands of tons of chemical waste into a nearby river, was on the verge of yet another significant breakthrough. (p48)

The mad scientist turned back toward his lab; he’d made many strange things for Ross Webster and sometimes it was better not to know what their use would be; this was obviously one of those times. In any case, he could now return to his research work on a nutritionless loaf of whole wheat bread made entirely out of recycled paper bags. (p146)

Superman was escorted by a grateful staff into the laboratory of the company’s mad scientist who, deeply engrossed in a study of bread mold growing on his own thumb, hardly noticed the Man of Steel behind him. (p207)

And then there’s the strange case of Minnie Bannister, from the school reunion scene:

“You really have grown,” Minnie said, her eyes remembering nothing, the most fragmented person Clark had ever known. She’d been certifiably mad during his four years at Smallville and legend had it she’d always been openly psychotic — yet here she was, teaching high school English still. (p54)

Characters who already hate each other somehow hate each other even more

Gus swiveled his head toward Vera, as she spoke: “Somehow,” she said, “your twisted little mind should be able to figure out how to tap into the main computer at the Aerospace Center and reach Vulcan.” (p97)

While Lorelei’s hand was inside the desk drawer, Vera took the opportunity to ram her formidable hip against it, thereby pinching Lorelei’s fingers in the drawer. Lorelei winced but made no sound as she couldn’t let Ross know that his toad of a sister had scored a point. (p99)

“Oil?” asked Lorelei, rubbing some on herself to promote a healthy tan. “You’re such a hedonistic little slut,” said Vera, who did not tan, owing to a tendency toward pink blotches. (p128)

Throughout their childhood, Vera had shown little aptitude for electronics, other than as a living transformer whose toenails glowed when Webster plugged her into house current. (p194)

Craziest of all is the revelation that Vera deliberately iced the ski slope, in order to kill Lorelei:

Vera called for one of the maintenance men, told him to pour a few gallons of water on the ski slope. “But that’ll turn it into a sheet of ice. Anybody gets on that they’ll go sailing —” The maintenance man looked toward the distant edge of the penthouse terrace. “Don’t ask questions,” said Vera, for it would soon be Lorelei’s turn to take a little ski trip, twenty stories to the street below. (p127)

Everyone is a swindler

The penguin salesman had stolen his penguins only the night before, off a boxcar in a little-used siding by the river. (p10)

Clark Kent forked over the money and continued along with his burnt bird. Taken again, he reflected, as we all so often do in great Metropolis. (p13)

As he strolled into the employee’s cafeteria, money was still on Gus’s mind. People were standing on line, waiting for the regular company fare — some plastic french fries and a piece of rubber cake. Gus added a piece of vulcanized bread to his plate. (p43)

El Super Comerciante!” cried a local entrepreneur who, owning the crater and all the land adjacent to it, could now open an overpriced resort. (p130)

“… we had fifteen more dancing lessons comin’ to us,” said Mrs. Stokis to no one in particular, referring to the Autumn Harvest Dance Program she and Mr. Stokis belonged to in Metropolis, at a local dance studio noted for swindling middle-aged couples into paying exorbitant prices for learning the tango. (p140)

Mayor Ed Fogarty was not looking for honors either. Having recently been indicted by the grand jury in a price-fixing scandal, and with much to hide as regards certain construction contracts he’d recently awarded, Mayor Honest Ed Fogarty sought only to draw attention away from himself. (p148)

The citizens of Smallville snapped to attention, including Mayor Fogarty, who’d served with valor during World War II, lending money at 200% interest to fellow soldiers stationed in New Jersey. (p150)

Every random character is given a relentlessly negative backstory

Reading the book, it’s quite breathtaking to see the scope of Kotzwinkle’s generalized misanthropy. In addition to the swindlers and the swindled listed above, every character who comes to the narrator’s notice is incompetent, suicidal, filthy or worse:

They walked over to the DJ table, where the turntable was spinning, under the eyes of a discophile whose collection of bad music went back twenty years and more. He scanned his discs now, looking for one of those great old tunes, sung off-key by several aging delinquents. (p55)

The driver of this machine, a bored and possibly dull-witted farmhand, was lazily dreaming of corn liquor and sex. Naked damsels as featured on the calendars at the local garage came to him, bearing large jugs. (p109)

The driver’s mouth fell open and his cigarette dropped into his filthy overalls. “Holy-o-corncakes,” was all he could say. It would have been a day without pay had he threshed a good hound dog and a boy. There’d a-been ‘splanations to make, and he hated ‘splanations like hell-fire. (p109)

Just outside that bank, a man was withdrawing his plastic bank card from his pocket and walking toward the Instant Cash machine in the bank wall. He had exactly fifty bucks left in his account and was about to withdraw it in order to engage in one last bout of reckless spending before jumping off a bridge with a horse-weight tied to his ankle. (p118)

Superman turned immediately upward, shocked by the shouts, the cheers, the banners, the cacophonous blaring of the band, which had placed next-to-last in a six-state musical contest only the month before. (p147)

This cumbersome and useless object was presented to Superman along with a little gift from the Ladies’ Auxiliary — a spiral-bound edition of their cookbook, whose recipes went back to the Revolution and had sped countless Smallvillians into high blood pressure, gout, and early baldness. (p149)

The lynching at the end of this book

To wrap up, check out what Kotzwinkle does with the coal miners:

“Take it easy, Superman,” Gus said. “You’re a fine dude… even though you lef’ me here in West Virginia…”

He turned towards the coal miners, who had arms like coal shovels and little squinty eyes like cave bats’.

These are some hard-lookin’ crackers.

Probably crack me.

Carryin’ shotguns, no doubt, ‘cross the back of the cab in their truck.

Use an individual like myself for target practice in the mornin’.

“Well,” said one of the miners, “you got good references. So if y’all want that job —”

“Thing I actually want is the bus station,” said Gus.

4.30: As the World Turns


The “Special Edition” badge is on about half the copies of the novelization on eBay; I think that they’re special because they’ve got a 16-page insert in the middle of black and white photos. The copy that I got also says “Not For Sale”, which was probably a good idea.

4.30: As the World Turns


— Danny Horn

17 thoughts on “Superman III 4.29: Kotzwinkle

  1. Kotzwinkle! This really is a whacked-out book. Thank you for devoting a post to it. There’s even more cynicism than what you captured here, though I think you got a lot of it, and more than enough to make the point that Kotzwinkle may have been in need of some psychiatric counseling and perhaps medication to make him feel better about the world.

    Incidentally, I also own and have read his E.T. novelization and I don’t remember anything like this level of contempt for human society or the story’s characters. It is indeed a pretty upbeat and earnest book. Flipping through it now, nothing really stands out as odd except for Elliott’s divorced mom being remarkably horny.

    The weird thing is that the E.T. book is copyrighted 1982 and the Superman III book is copyrighted 1983, so what went wrong in Kotzwinkle’s life in that brief timespan to make him so world-weary? I suspected that he’d joined the Elliott’s Mom Club, but a glance at Wikipedia says that he’s been married to the same woman since 1965.

    Here’s an alternate theory: A lot of the (attempted) humor comes across as an emulation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, except not funny. The first HHGTTG book hit the States in 1980/1981, so it’s quite possible that Kotzwinkle read it after writing E.T. and decided to try his hand at satirical comedy. The results were… not great. Not everyone can be Douglas Adams.

    Liked by 6 people

      1. Yes, I suppose that’s the most likely explanation. Apparently everyone associated with this movie, from the Newmans to Lester to Kotzwinkle, thought they could be a comedian.

        By the way, one more mean streak in the book: the fixation on telling us just how ugly Vera is. This is the basis of a couple punchlines in the movie, but the book is especially thorough on the subject, repeatedly mentioning that she looks just like Stalin but without the mustache.

        Liked by 6 people

      2. Could be you’re both right- Kotzwinkle thought that a novelization of the movie called for an acerbic wit, couldn’t achieve much acerbity on his own, and so looked for a model to copy in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

        Liked by 3 people

      3. I don’t enjoy mean spirited comedy and it is especially out of place in a superhero movie.

        It occurred to me that Superman III in particular feels like an Adam West Batman story but without earnestness or charm. The characters all like each other in the Batman series, and Gothamites are depicted as nice citizens worthy of Batman’s protection. You’ve mentioned the almost bored “oh, it’s you” way that people treat Superman here.

        In the Adam West series, Bruce and Dick would’ve had an enjoyable discussion about chess or something on the way to the emergency. You’d never have a joke where Bruce is bored silly listening to Dick.

        The series is overtly goofy at times but it doesn’t have a sinister undercurrent.

        Liked by 4 people

    1. I was curious about what happened between E.T. and Superman, too. Wikipedia says he won the World Fantasy Award in 1977 and he’s written many children’s books both before and after Superman III, though based on these examples, I might be cautious in handing out his books to children without reading them first. Maybe he was going for Roald Dahl? He also wrote the screenplay for “Nightmare on Elm Street 4.”
      His latest novel was published in 2021.
      Maybe Spielberg had final approval over the E.T. novelization and no one cared about Superman III?

      Liked by 6 people

    2. Yeah, satire is a hair trigger weapon–if you don’t know how to fire it exactly it’s going to hit the wrong target.

      I remember reading the ET novel as well, and that ET had a crush on Elliott’s mom, calling her “willow creature.” Also that they stole the Fuzz Buster police radar detector out of her car, (“That’s the only thing of Dad’s that Mom has left. She’s very attached to it”) and she gets a ticket as a result.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. By the way, my copy of the book is also the Special Edition, but it was for sale! (Not sure if my photo will embed but I’ll give it a try…) I’m guessing what’s special about this edition, whether for sale or not, is that it has a small photo section in the middle with black-and-white stills from the movie, but who knows.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Oh, I guess now you mention it, they mostly say “Special Edition” without “Not For Sale”. That would make more sense. 🙂 It’s just mine that says Not For Sale, and the one nice pic of the cover that I could find.

      I would have scanned my copy, but it arrived in crumbling-to-pieces condition. No wonder this book wasn’t supposed to be for sale, it dissolves on contact with a reader.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. My copy is definitely “much loved” too, though it’s holding together. I probably picked it up in a thrift store in the early ’90s and have been keeping it safe in my library ever since, alongside other madcap collectible items such as Maggin’s “Superman: Last Son of Krypton”.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. “Not for sale” might have indicated a review copy sent to various newspapers and magazines, meaning “you don’t get to sell this on and make a profit.”

        Liked by 2 people

  3. When I saw the cover for the E. T. sequel at the top of this post, I thought “Oh yeah, maybe I should read that.”

    And then I read this post and decided I definitely shouldn’t.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. In all the confusing and unstintingly negative things you pointed out in this novelization, the one I found hardest to take was the metaphor “arms like coal shovels”. I even Googled ‘coal shovel’ in case I had mistaken what one looks like.

    Can it be that this novel was only written to cash in on Superman III? Do they DO things like that in Hollywood? 🤔

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Don’t forget this sentence about Lois Lane which I quoted a few posts ago:
      “Like all newswomen she had the veneer of a mass-produced coffee table, and did not like anybody getting ahead of her” (p34)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Like most novelizations, this one was probably written by some nameless hack. Kotzwinkle may have had a couple of hours to polish the MS, or the studio may have slapped his name on it sight unseen.

    It’s sad that the public will buy millions of copies of stuff like this based on the cover while ignoring excellent books like “Gravity’s Rainbow” (released fifty years ago today, hooray!).


  6. Excellent column, as usual, Danny.

    If I may suggest a column topic for you: comparing “Superman III” to the movie “The Toy”.

    The two movies were released less than a year apart, both starred Richard Pryor, and the “The Toy” had numerous, curious links to the Superman franchise: the director was none other than Richard Donner, and it co-starred Ned Beatty.

    “The Toy” is arguably even more slapsticky than “Superman III”. I feel like, in some alternate timeline in the multiverse, Richard Lester directed “The Toy” – which would have been a better fit for his comedy sensitivities – and Richard Donner gloriously reassumed control of the Superman franchise with “Superman III”.

    I think both movies would have benefited from the director swap.

    Liked by 1 person

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