In the General Reading Room, you’re not allowed to scream…

40 years ago, in May 1979, a film burst onto cinema screens which still terrifies and immerses audiences to this day. Following the unexpected success of Star Wars in 1977, Twentieth Century Fox wanted to follow it up with another science fiction film aimed at a more mature audience. They optioned Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett’s working script Star Beast which, after further rewrites and input from producers Walter Hill and David Giler, became… ALIEN.

ALIEN is now considered an iconic film. Fusing elements of both horror and science-fiction, its underlying themes and terrifying extra-terrestrial creature elevate it from being a mere haunted house movie in space. The film’s success was a springboard for the careers of its Director Ridley Scott and its young star Sigourney Weaver, whose performance as the ship’s redoubtable Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley subverted the established cinematic tradition of male leading protagonists.

Twentieth Century Fox had initially offered the film to several other Hollywood directors who turned the film down before appointing Ridley Scott. It was a bold move as, despite extensive and successful work in television and advertisements, Scott had only previously directed one cinematic release. His debut film was The Duellists, an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad short story – The Duel – about a feud between two French cavalry officers throughout the Napoleonic Wars. Although filmed on a modest budget, it proved a critical success and was awarded the Jury Prize at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival.

The Duel appeared in 1908 as the ‘Military Tale’ in A Set of Six, a collection of short stories
by Joseph Conrad.  

ALIEN would prove to be a much larger project than The Duellists. After being impressed by Scott’s early storyboards, Fox increased its original budget to over $8,500,000 and at the height of production over three hundred people were working on the film at Shepperton Studios during 1978. Among the production team were a number of artists and designers who had previously worked together on another ambitious project.

In the mid-1970s the Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky attempted to film a grand adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune but the project was ultimately abandoned. Among the artists and designers Jodorowsky assembled were American Dan O’Bannon, British illustrator Chris Foss, French comic artist Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, and Swiss artist H.R. Giger. Joined by concept artist Ron Cobb – O’Bannon’s collaborator from his own debut Dark Star – they would be reunited in 1978 as production of ALIEN began.

Many of Chris Foss’ artworks and Jean Giraud’s comic strips are available to view in compendium volumes within the Library’s collections.

With the shooting schedule looming, the project still did not have a suitable monster. Early designs had varied from a creature resembling an octopus, to a small dinosaur, with one even described as resembling a “Christmas Turkey”. Recalling his time with H. R. Giger on the Dune project, Dan O’Bannon showed Ridley Scott a copy of Giger’s Necronomicon, which impressed the Director into selecting the Swiss artist as the designer of the film’s monster. As well as the various stages of the creature’s life-cycle, Giger also designed the landscape of the planetoid on which the ill-fated Nostromo lands, the exterior and interior of the derelict alien spacecraft, and its long-dead pilot, the ‘Space Jockey’.

ALIEN received an ‘X’-Rating from the BBFC meaning that it was “Suitable only for those aged 18 and older”; however, even if you weren’t old enough to make it into the cinema to see the film itself, several publications made the movie easily accessible in print. For example:

The Book of Alien contains over one hundred sketches and behind-the-scenes photographs from the production of ALIEN, as well as interviews with many of the artists and effects designers. It also includes many images of designs which, for budgetary constraints, were not used in the final film.

Giger’s Alien offers a complete record of the design process and creation of his ‘perfect organism‘; it includes sketches, original paintings, photographs from the film’s set, as well as entries from the diary Giger kept during the production of ALIEN. Some of these entries suggest that the artist did not always find the experience making the film particularly enjoyable.

FUTURA Publications of London published several titles around the film, some of which offered graphic depictions of it. One was a novelization of ALIEN by Alan Dean Foster. A science-fiction author in his own right – having written Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, a sequel to Star Wars the previous year – Foster has written many novelizations of science-fiction and fantasy films. As with some of his other novelizations, Foster based his 1979 edition of ALIEN on an early working screenplay and so there are several differences between the novel and final filmed version of the story.

The American-based magazine Heavy Metal published ALIEN: the illustrated story, scripted by Archie Goodwin and drawn by Walter Simonson. It proved a major success in America and even appeared on the New York Times’ bestseller lists during 1979. The 1979 UK edition was published by FUTURA; in 2012, Titan Books republished it as both a remastered paperback edition and a special original art hardback.

In a time before the widespread availability of home videos, DVDs or the Internet, ‘Movie Novels’ proved popular, transferring entire films into book format. Published by FUTURA and edited by Richard J. Anobile, the ALIEN MOVIE NOVEL is composed of over 1,000 colour photographs of frames from the original cinematic film – some of which are particularly graphic. Accompanied by transcriptions of excerpts from the script, this effectively recreates the entire movie onto the printed page.

ALIEN opened in American cinemas on May 25th 1979, but had no official premiere. The first showing of the film in Britain came during the 33rd Edinburgh International Film Festival. There were two gala premieres at the 33rd Film Festival – the first was Woody Allen’s Manhattan at 7:30pm on Sunday, 19th August, and the second was Scott’s ALIEN. The ALIEN premiere was a special midnight showing in the Odeon on Saturday, September 1st 1979. The first formal run of the film began at the Odeon Leicester Square in London on September 6th, but it did not receive a UK-wide release until January 1980. By that time, it had become the 4th highest-grossing film of 1979 and, rather than a deterrent, stories of audiences reacting hysterically to the visceral horror merely fuelled the film’s reputation as a ‘must-see’ film. The film’s visual style was so effective and memorable, in April 1980 Carlo Rambaldi, Brian Johnson, Nick Allder, Dennis Ayling and H.R. Giger were awarded the Oscar for Best Visual Effects for their work on ALIEN at the 52nd Academy Awards.

Despite its impressive box office-taking, initial critical response to ALIEN was lukewarm. For example, in the Autumn 1979 edition of Sight and Sound, the magazine’s film guide described the film as:

S-f hokum about spacecraft with an unwelcome extra passenger. Impressive special effects and a gruesomely convincing monster fail to offset the increasingly tired plot. A sort of inverse relationship to Howard Hawks’ The Thing invites unfavourable comparisons.”

However, it is now considered a classic of modern cinema and has spawned numerous cinematic sequels and prequels, as well as novels, comics and video games. Given the many themes within the movie, it has also generated much academic discussion and analysis of audience reactions. As a result, the film has been well documented in printed form and so our display on the General Reading Room’s mezzanine level shows a selection of books which has helped ensure the film’s enduring – and chilling – popularity.

Ian Nathan’s Alien Vault (2011) included detailed reproductions of original designs, storyboards and screenplays.

Some authors – such as Joey Spiotto in his Alien Next Door – have even offered an alternative side to the monster, as it “tends to Jonesy the Cat” and “endeavours to keep his house cleaner than the Nostromo”!

You will find the following books referenced in this blog within the Library’s collections – those marked with an * are currently on display in the General Reading Room:

• The Duellists by Gordon Williams (1977) [Shelfmark: NPB1.78.158]
• A Set of Six by Joseph Conrad (1908) [Shelfmark: U.24.f]
• 21st Century Foss by Chris Foss (1979) [Shelfmark: H8.205.0408]
• Moebius 4: The Long Tomorrow by Jean Giraud (1988)  [Shelfmark: HP4.89.1186]
• H. R. Giger’s Necronomicon (1978)  [Shelfmark: 7.184]
• Sight and Sound (Autumn 1979) [Shelfmark: P.169]
The Book of Alien by Paul Scanlon & Michael Gross (1979)* [Shelfmark: HP3.81.887]
Giger’s Alien by H.R. Giger & Mia Bonzanigo (1989)* [Shelfmark: EL.1.204.054]
Alien Vault by Ian Nathan (2011)* [Shelfmark: HB5.212.2.21]
ALIEN: the illustrated story by Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson (1979)* [Shelfmark: HP3.80.818]
ALIEN: the Movie Novel by Richard J. Anobile (1979)* [Shelfmark: HP3.80.819]
33rd Edinburgh International Film Festival Programme (1979)* [Shelfmark:]
BFI Classics: Alien by Roger Luckhurst (2014)* [Shelfmark: PB5.214.1191/19]
Alien Next Door by Joey Spiotto (2015)* [Shelfmark: HB1.216.3.66]
Alien Audiences by Martin Baker et al (2016)* [Shelfmark: HB2.216.1.506]
ALIEN by Alan Dean Foster (1979)* [Shelfmark: NPB1.80.509]