So Many Easier Ways to Hurt

Ander Monson

Sixteen minutes in and we’re confronted with the first unearthly horror of the film: a jump scare. It’s three of the guys the team is meant to rescue, hung upside down from trees and skinned. It’s a gruesome sight and a compelling effect. And it’s also inexplicable: as Paul Monette writes in the novelization: “Why strip a man of his skin? Why bother? There were so many easier ways to hurt.” The line from the novelization is echoed shortly after in the film. Poncho asks, “They skinned them? Why did they skin them?” Have I told you yet about Paul Monette? He wrote the novelization of Predator, released alongside the movie in 1987. The novelization is a critically unloved art form, meant to be consumed by people who want to read a movie, whatever that means, instead of or after seeing it. They’re produced on the fly, often from an early version of the screenplay. They are not released in hardcover with deckle edges and French flaps and blurbs from fancy writers. Novelizations are not meant to be artful or prestigious: they’re meant to be fast. If you had to wait until the script was absolutely finished before giving it to the writer, it wouldn’t be possible to get the book out in time to coordinate with the movie.

Paul Monette was best known as a poet, and eventually as a memoirist who would go on to win a National Book Award in nonfiction for Becoming a Man. He was also a gay man. I discovered Monette in a 1999 grad school poetry workshop in which we read books of elegies, including Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog, Rog being his partner who died of complications related to AIDS. The one big data point I remember from someone doing a presentation on Monette for that class was “and he also wrote the novelization for Predator.” Wait, what?

I didn’t make much of it at the time except as an odd fact, but it stuck in me somewhere. Writers gotta work, and work he did. This wasn’t Monette’s first novelization or his first Hollywood experience: he worked on screenplays for many years with his writing partner. He was probably best known as a screenwriter, in fact, until Love Alone. I loved and admired the poems in Love Alone, though what a twenty-six-year-old straight man got out that book was surely only a slice of what was happening there. What I remember from it was Monette’s enveloping grief and incendiary rage at his powerlessness and the world’s inability to do anything to ease Rog’s or his own suffering, all spliced into moments of great sadness and beauty. It’s a hard and good book to read. It holds up well.

What I would find out only later was that Monette wrote the Predator novelization as Rog was dying of AIDS, and as he was writing Love Alone. In fact he tells us that he was working on Predator while he sat beside his dying partner’s bed in a California hospital, trying to find something, even something big and dumb and stupid, to keep him occupied.

Love Alone still hits me hard, perhaps in part because it connects more deeply to me at forty-five than it did at twenty-six, being that I’m married with a kid and can imagine much deeper forms of loss than I could then. But I also now know a great deal more about Monette and the AIDS crisis and the US government’s refusal to look at it or talk about it or even name it for far, far too long. AIDS—and its effect on gay men in particular—was ignored by the US government, or at least those in power refused to look at it directly (and by so doing are complicit in the body count).

I didn’t read Monette’s novelization then (why would I read any novelization? I was in grad school, a Serious Art Person, or liked to front like I was around other Serious Art People, who may also in retrospect have been similarly fronting). I was not a great student. At that point I hadn’t discovered the pleasure of following weird questions about marginal phenomena as far as I could take them. I didn’t know nonfiction was even something anyone who wasn’t in their sixties wrote, much less about subjects as trivial and dumb as action films.

A decade later, I wondered: what was this award-winning, nationally renowned, now dead gay poet doing writing Predator?

In the film, when Blain calls the other guys “slack-jawed faggots” in the chopper scene, it wounds me a little now. You can see it on my face as the movie plays. I don’t know how it felt to hear it then, but it wasn’t unusual in the ’80s (not to the decade’s credit) and even in my social circle then, which, admittedly, consisted largely of teenage boys. We did not pay attention to the way the things we said wounded our friends—or wounded us. This is one of the only moments in the movie that reminds me what the 1980s were, and that reminds me of how much this was an artifact of its time. I mean, it doesn’t stop my watching, but it doubles it up: I’m watching 1987 and I’m watching me in 1987. I mean, I watch it all the time. But every time that one line comes up it pushes the needle a little deeper. It was in the script—it wasn’t improvised. In fact, it was in a version of the script two years earlier, back when most of the characters had slightly different names. In the 1985 script, Dillon is Dixon. Hawkins is Murphy. Mac is Williams (though in this version of the script, he’s meant to be even bigger than Blain). Poncho is Ramirez. Dutch is Matheny. Billy is Miguel. Blain remains Blain. But slack-jawed faggots remain slack-jawed faggots.

I think this moment is an attempt to caricature Blain, the biggest of the big boys, as particularly macho, really trying to prove something, even amidst these obviously apex macho dudes, all of whom will have their shirts off at some point during the next one hundred minutes. The more dudes are in the movie and the more shirtless they all are, the more the movie needs to suggest that this isn’t as homoerotic as it obviously is.

In the script, the moment is described like this: “It’s an old gag but they obviously care for [Blain] in a big way.” The novelization doesn’t reproduce this remark. The whole interchange is mostly affectionate, I guess, like a lot of what some presidents refer to as locker-room talk. Lots of bad shit gets cloaked in affection, a lesson I keep having to learn myself. I definitely called friends faggots—affectionately, I want to tell myself: they were my friends. Wait, were they my friends? Was I their friend?

A few years after I first watched Predator my family moved to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for my dad’s job. He was working for the American government as an economic adviser to the Saudi government for something called JECOR: the US–Saudi Arabian Joint Commission on Economic Cooperation. I never thought it odd at the time, but in retrospect it sounds a little bit—and my wife and I have definitely entertained the thought—like a cover for some kind of CIA situation. Was my dad in the CIA, or “in CIA,” as the CIA puts it? I’ve never asked him (not that he’d tell me if he was, at least if he was any good at what he was doing), and I don’t think so, but the fact is that we spent several years in Riyadh, a city and country about as far away from forested, snowbound, rural, white Upper Michigan as I can imagine another place being.

We lived on an American and international compound, and my brother and I were friends with a bunch of the kids there, and we fucked around doing whatever.

Probably for self-preservation, my memory obscures a lot of who I was then, but I clearly remember two things, both of which make me feel like an asshole now. I was friends with this kid named Alejandro, but for some reason I decided (maybe it was we, but I think it was I) to call him Bucky, which he didn’t like. I was able to convince a bunch of our friends and even his dad to start calling him Bucky, which I thought was very entertaining (but was surely just bullshit bullying). And I made up a dumb (even then I knew it was dumb) rap about another friend, Amr: “Yo my name is Amr, I’m a major fag; if you don’t believe me, just look at my tag. See: Amr? See: fag. Huh huh huh huh huh. Told ya.” It’s superbad on so many levels, and I find it very embarrassing to write it here now, one reason I’ve never told anyone or written about it. I don’t know why I even retain this particular piece of my own assholery. I’m sure there were plenty of others. Kids—well, maybe boys? White boys? White boys growing up in Michigan? Or assholes like me? I’m unsure how far to extrapolate from my own experience—kids do accumulate these instances of assholery. I was the object of many of them myself, not being, let’s be honest, the most masculine boy in any room pretty much ever. If we’re lucky, we forget these instances as we discard parts—or whole shells—of who we used to be. It may be that I remember these two things because some part of me wants to remember them, to remind myself of what an asshole I was. I mean, sure, I was thirteen; it’s not a great age for nuance and empathy. But that was also a year I watched and rewatched Predator, so it hit me where I was then, back when, oh baby, I was having some fun tonight, whatever that meant to me then. I was having some fun. I was shooting some guns. The more I replay that fun, though, the less fun it seems. Maybe I’m making too much of a dumb joke in a movie. The Internet Boy Trolls sure tell me so. But I don’t wish it wasn’t in the movie: Predator might be a more comfortable movie for me without it, but our cultural artifacts are ours, and my assholery is mine, and we ought to own what we watched and listened to and said and made, and part of what I’m watching when I’m watching the movie is us (is me), and it does feel good (it’s odd to say) to be reminded that this is where we were, even if to some degree, this is also where a lot of us still are. Other than that joke, Predator mostly wears its age well enough. Sure, it relies on ethnicity and race to characterize. But, like many ’80s movies, it also has good roles for actors of color, and it doesn’t draw undue attention to its diverse cast. Richard Chaves, playing Poncho, is actually of Cherokee descent, IMDb tells me. Sonny Landham, playing Billy, a character whose “spiritual connection” to the world rests a little too easily on received ideas about Native Americans, was in fact part Cherokee and Seminole, not that the writers probably knew the difference. There are multiple Black characters: Mac, played by the glorious Bill Duke, gets maybe the best role in the movie, and Carl Weathers gets plenty to do as redeemed antagonist Dillon. You can’t say a lot about the roles for women in the film (with only one role this is never going to pass the Bechdel test), but Anna, played by Elpidia Carrillo, is one of only two characters who will survive, and she’s no simple victim either. That these characters all seem to have some depth, that they feel lived-in and relational is one of the things that makes the movie work as well as it does. These characters don’t feel like caricatures. This is very unusual in action films (it’s unusual in most films, actually), and it portrays intimacy between the men in particular in ways that feel to me real, even thirty-three years later. Rereading Monette’s Predator novelization at thirty-eight was an odd experience. Sure, he did it for the money, but he also did it for the glory, at least in part, since it was Hollywood. His partner was fucking dying in front of him while the world—or the public American world, anyhow—refused to even acknowledge that HIV and AIDS were real, much less existential threats. Maybe it felt good to concentrate on something seemingly mindless like Predator. But how could he have avoided the obvious comparison? Like the protagonists in the film, Monette, his partner, and nearly everyone in his life were also being pursued by an invisible and unstoppable predator, one officially unacknowledged by authorities. They, too, were on their own, no backup, in their fight. The fight would be to the death for most of them, and like Predator it was all about the men. The novelization form dates back at least to the late nineteenth century, though it became much more popular in the 1910s with the rise of cinema as a popular art form and the advent of the movie serial (an evolution of narrative prose serials in periodicals) as opposed to the longer “feature.” As literature was a popular commercial art form at the time and film was still relatively inaccessible, many films in this time were accompanied by prose re-caps published in newspapers and magazines designed to entice the public to return for the next chapter of the film serial, according to an article by Ben Singer in Film History. Sometimes these serial re-caps would be collected into books and sold, and eventually, these narrative recaps would skip serialization and be published as books, as with 1915’s Les Vampires, one of the first book-length novelizations of a popular film. As film supplanted prose as the most popular form of entertainment, this relationship shifted, with serials moving from prose to screen and novelizations now serving as ways of capturing those films in print, since films moved quickly from theater to theater until their reels wore out. A century later, there is still a significant commercial market for novelizations of popular films. Even knowing that there are often significant differences between films and their novelizations due to novelizers’ having to work from preproduction scripts, I was struck by how different the Predator book is from the movie in crucial and at times unsettling ways: for instance, in the novelization, the Predator can actually assume the physical form of other creatures, or at least any creature without a soul, Monette tells us. And because it can’t assume a human form (presumably on account of our having souls), it’s fascinated with us and our behavior, and tries to understand, and that (at least partly) is why it kills and collects us, in search of understanding, you know, like how trophy hunters explain how their work is really conservation or science or whatever. I was also surprised by how beautiful Monette’s novelization is, on its own, but also how it illuminates the source material, that source material being the screenplay and script, not the movie, which he had not, of course, seen when he wrote it. Reading it I understood what a poet saw in Predator, watching and reimagining it from the inside. Here are some of the passages I love best, presented as a list that I had to end early, or else it would be half the book:

Unstated of course, perhaps not even conscious, but these guys were always proving something. You didn’t drink a pint of whiskey if somebody else was packing away a fifth.

They were only alive in action, and they needed one another the way they needed guns.

Now and then out here a thing got so gigantic it grew unearthly— an orchid, a grasshopper, sometimes a frog.

It [the Predator] was like a lost soul searching for a form in which to flower.

And twined through it all like the grip of a vine in a cottonwood tree was the certainty of death—their mates’, their enemy’s, their own. A match had been lit deep in the mine, and the fuel that would feed the fire might turn out to be the whole dark earth itself.

It surveyed Blain and Mac with its heat-seeking vision, their bodies outlined in luminous aureoles.

I could go on with this all day. I’ve transcribed more than twenty pages of my favorite passages. I mean, there’s lots of bad writing in there too. He relies way too much on race and ethnicity to orient us to character. We’re told over and over that Mac and Duke are Black, that Poncho is Chicano and “from the Barrio,” and when we get to Billy, well, we’ll talk about that later. I chalk a lot of this up to 1987, having to work from the script, and not getting to see what the film actually does to bring these stereotypes to life.

In spite of that, if you read the novelization you’ll see there’s plenty of glory for Monette. He didn’t need to make it beautiful; he only needed to make it fast. Yet he did both things. Did he find the story itself beautiful? Or did he find a way to locate beauty in the story? Maybe as a poet he couldn’t stop himself from orienting toward beauty in whatever guises he could find it.

Monette wasn’t only a poet, of course, but a gay man, attuned to watching men in ways I was not attuned to watching men (there is plenty more of that breathless male-on-male gaze like you see in the last quote). And, what’s more, reading Predator, I saw what a poet—one whose partner was dying from an invisible and unstoppable disease at the very same time he was trying to work on this dumb book—saw or was able to find in a dumb action movie.

“Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what,” Bruce Weigl, another poet, writes. I think that’s right. I believe it: look closely enough at a thing and it is beautiful, because it’s you seeing it that makes it beautiful. Or maybe you’re made beautiful by seeing it clearly. It’s what that thing—however dumb or pointless it may seem to others—reveals in you that matters.

A few years back, I interviewed Jacob Slichter, memoirist and the drummer from the ’90s band Semisonic (best known for their massive hit, “Closing Time,” which is in my view still a brilliant song, even if it’s not the best song on that album; I’ll take “Singing in My Sleep” every day). As part of that conversation I was playing him some ’90s songs I was thinking about at the time, and how they resonated with me, and he got very pumped up when I played him Joan Osborne’s song “One of Us”:

In spite of its clunkiness, it’s too awesome to deny. It’s like Chicago. “Question[s] 67 [and] 68” by Chicago. You’re embarrassed by the lyrics, and yet it pulls something out of you that—you know—is just too . . . it’s more important that that thing gets pulled out of me than the fact that I’m embarrassed that it happens.

Now, I know the band Chicago only in passing, and from their not-great ’80s ballads, largely, so I did cue up the song after, hearing his obvious excitement for it. What was this song that so turned him on? I have to say it left me cold. There were a lot of horns and I’m pretty sure Peter Cetera, whom I can’t take seriously after his ’80s cheese, even if he did wear a Bauhaus shirt in the video for max-cheese “You’re the Inspiration.” This Chicago song did have some prog-rock shifts that I guess are kind of fun, but it felt like music for a movie I had no interest in ever seeing. It’s a generational thing, I’m sure. Slichter is a few years older than me, and we all know how the things we loved at fourteen imprint themselves upon us.

The things we loved at fourteen were made by and of the world we inhabited at fourteen. If that world has embedded itself in us, then it’s embedded itself in a whole generation of usses. Let a couple of decades go by and you get a world shaped by and around—for better or worse—the things embedded in us and in the rest of us in thousands of ways, only some of which are visible, even if you look.

I believe that if you look hard and long enough at what you loved best at fourteen and how you lived then and what you saw in the world, it will reveal both the world and you. Or maybe you’ll exhaust it, or it’ll exhaust you.

This is my fear, my friends: that after all of this, eventually Predator will leave you cold.

Actually, that’s not it: my fear is that Predator will eventually leave me cold.

Or maybe what I really fear is that, like my mother, Predator will leave me in the cold.

But the alternative to the Slichter equation is unpalatable: it’s more important that the thing gets pulled out of me than the fact that I’m embarrassed it happens. I can’t simply leave it there unexamined and hope it goes away. It’s embarrassing to admit that I’ve seen the movie 146 times, to write so much about Predator, to show how much it means to me, to explain how much I learned about masculinity by watching it, to demonstrate how deeply it has wounded me, and to share with you how much it gives me joy every time I think of it. I mean, I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have to.

Writing this it’s hard not to flash back to the famous facehugger scene from Alien, and more specifically the panic after: what is the thing that attached itself so powerfully to us, and why did it drop off right after? What did it leave of itself inside us? And where did it go? What will it do to us the longer whatever’s inside us remains interior?

Excerpted from Predator (Graywolf Press, September 20, 2022). Copyright © 2022 by Ander Monson.

Ander Monson is the author of LETTER TO A FUTURE LOVER; VANISHING POINT, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and NECK DEEP AND OTHER PREDICAMENTS. He edits DIAGRAM and the New Michigan Press. He lives in Tucson, where he teaches at the University of Arizona.