With the most pressing of deadlines out of the way – at least for the moment – I’ve got a bit more time for more leisurely pursuits, and that includes yammering about various favorite topics. Among those are waxing nostalgic about books of old, and that includes film and TV tie-ins. It was this love of such fondly remembered tomes that made me start this irregularly recurring blog feature, “Tied Up With Tie-ins.” It goes like this: every once in a while, I take a look back at a favorite series of movie or TV tie-in books. More often than not, this means something from those thrilling days of yesteryear with novels based on The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, Planet of the Apes, and Space: 1999 among others. I’m also up for taking a gander at more recent entries to the genre if the mood strikes, like a recent entry in which I babbled at length about novels based on one of my favorite TV series of the 2000s, 24.
For this latest installment, I’ve decided to change things up a bit by flipping the formula, beginning with a novel that spawned a popular feature film, a legendary television series, and more novels of its own: MASH.
Under its formal title, MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, was written by H. Richard Hornberger and W.C. Heinz under the pen name “Richard Hooker,” and introduced us to Hawkeye Pierce, Duke Forrest, and Trapper John McIntyre: three young doctors drafted into military service and sent to Korea in the early 1950s. The book was inspired by Hornberger’s actual experiences as an Army surgeon assigned to the 8055th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. According to various sources, Hornberger worked alone on his manuscript for several years, and his attempts to find a publisher met with failure until a chance meeting with journalist and famed sportswriter Heinz changed the book’s trajectory. Hornberger asked Heinz to collaborate. Heinz came aboard and helped to polish Hornberger’s manuscript, which he described as “…just a succession of operations and techniques and humor. The only thing that holds it together is the characters and the familiarity that the reader comes to have with them.”
(Come to think of it, that’s actually a very accurate assessment not only of the novel, but also the film it spawned.)
MASH was published in 1968 by William Morrow and Company, and it didn’t take long for the book to attract Hollywood attention. Screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. adapted the novel into script form and while there are several deviations from the book it’s by and large a pretty faithful translation. The film, MASH, directed by Robert Altman was released in 1970 and was a critical and commercial success for 20th Century Fox. It was nominated for and won numerous awards, including winning a Golden Globe for best film. Lardner’s script was nominated for its own Golden Globe but also won a Writer’s Guild of America award as well as an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The film’s success eventually led to the 1972-1983 television series M*A*S*H, which is still regarded as one of the finest TV series of all time. Indeed, from its initial broadcast on February 28, 1983 to the point I’m writing this, the show’s final episode still holds the record as the most watched episode of scripted television. What a lot of people don’t know – and it’s something I learned while pulling together notes for this blog entry – is that the series came about in part because an attempt to film “Richard Hooker’s” sequel to the original novel, M*A*S*H Goes to Maine, was unsuccessful.
And hey! It’s the books we’re on about here, right? Right.
As indicated above, Hornberger and Heinz teamed up to write M*A*S*H Goes to Maine, which follows Hawkeye and Trapper back to the states in the years following the end of their respective service tours in Korea. Other characters from the first novel (and film, but excluded or eventually phased out of the TV series) end up joining them as they practice medicine and other antics in picturesque Maine. The new book also introduces a slew of local denizens, which in hindsight come with a sort of Northern Exposure flavor…if Northern Exposure aired on HBO rather than CBS.
The book, published in January 1972 and almost nine months before the TV series premiered, did well enough, but the TV series’ growing popularity after its first season likely played a larger role in the writing and publication of additional M*A*S*H novels.
Author William E. Butterworth III, already an accomplished novelist writing under his own name as well as a handful of pseudonyms, was tapped to pen the first follow-up novel, M*A*S*H Goes to New Orleans, published in 1974. Though this novel and the eleven which followed carry a by-line of “Richard Hooker and William E. Butterworth,” they were actually written by Butterworth himself. For those wondering why Butterworth’s name might ring a bell, I suspect many of you will perhaps be more familiar with one of his more prominent aliases, W.E.B. Griffin, under which he wrote such popular novel series as The Brotherhood of War, The Corps, and Badge of Honor among numerous others.
Whereas the television series carried on for its entire 11-year run chronicling the events of the 4077th MASH during the 3-year Korean War, the “M*A*S*H Goes to _____” novels followed the lives, adventures, and shenanigans of the surgeons and their post-war lives. This, despite having nothing at all to do with the characters and situations from the show other than characters sharing names and somewhat similar background details. In fact, Hornberger reportedly had no love for the way the series and Hawkeye’s character in particular deviated from what he’d originally envisioned.
The stories get weirder, almost to the point of unrecognizability or any tangible connection to what fans might be looking for from a M*A*S*H story. Indeed, the previously established characters increasingly take a backseat to the roster of characters Butterworth develops over the course of the books. Butterworth’s 12th entry, M*A*S*H Goes to Montreal, published in January 1976.
Then, things got seriously weird when Richard Hornberger returned to the fold with one final novel. Published in January 1977 and written by Hornberger working alone, M*A*S*H Mania essentially ignores all of the Butterworth installments and is instead a direct follow-up to M*A*S*H Goes to Maine. Hawkeye, Trapper, Duke, and the gang are all back center stage, almost as if Hornberger said “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Pump the brakes, y’all. I was away for awhile but now I’m back, and here’s what really, really happened with those characters I created all those years ago.”
Bear in mind that the TV series is still going strong at this point, well into its fifth season and having already endured two major cast changes without missing a beat. Not that the books were competing with the show, of course, but it’s fair to say this last M*A*S*H novel didn’t enjoy the success of Hornberger’s original tale or even M*A*S*H Goes to Maine.
After the TV series ended in 1983, I know I wanted to see or even read more about that version of Hawkeye, BJ, and the gang and what they might do after the war. The closest we ever got on that front was Trapper John, M.D. (1979-1986), which picks up the character 25 years after his time in Korea (and the show itself – developed and presented as a drama rather than a sitcom – has much in common with Lou Grant, a more serious spin-off of The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and AfterMASH (1983-1985), a 2-season series that depicted Colonel Potter, Klinger, and Father Mulcahy working at a stateside Veterans Adminstration hospital. There also was W*A*L*T*E*R (1984), which was intended to focus on Gary Burghoff’s character, Radar O’Reilly, but that project never made it past the pilot stage. We’re probably well past the point where we might see anything featuring any of the other characters, at least on screen, but I’ve learned to never say never when it comes to the print front.
M*A*S*H has served as inspiration for a variety of non-fiction books over the years. For the most part I tend not to include such references in these “Tied Up” retrospectives, as I prefer to focus on a given property’s “fictional universe.” I’m going to make two exceptions this time, the first one being Suzy Kalter’s The Complete Book of M*A*S*H. Part memoir and part time capsule, this oversized hardcover offers a brief look at the original novel and film before diving into the 11 seasons of the TV show. Much of the book is devoted to a rather unconventional series guide, with the episodes recapped in the voices of the various characters either as letters home, “official reports,” and other anecdotes. It’s as close to a “novelization” of the episodes as we’re ever liable to get.
My second exception-slash-honorable mention goes to Secrets of the M*A*S*H Mess: The Lost Recipes of Private Igor. Suicide might be painless, but consuming chow at the 4077th was an exercise in sheer agony, amirite? Written by actor Jeff Maxwell (Private Igor himself!), the book is exactly what it purports to be: a collection of recipes inspired by the meals/inhumane torture inflicted upon the personnel of the 4077th during the Korean War. Yes, there’s even a recipe for the famed “Cream of Weenie Soup.” There are also quite a few dishes you pointedly did not see served during the show (perhaps the sorts of things Igor would totally have cooked if someone would have just recognized his untapped culinary genius and given him a chance) , so in all the ways that matter this truly is a real, functional cookbook. While the recipes are presented in straightforward fashion, the book also includes “letters home” along with sidebars and call-out quotes from Igor, and every photo from the show is captioned as if from our favorite mess private’s point of view.
I suspect we won’t be seeing any more fiction-based tie-ins to M*A*S*H in any of its forms, that is….unless someone in Hollywood acts on an ill-advised notion to reboot the property as a new film or TV series (Note to Hollywood: DON’T). However, for those of you who know M*A*S*H primarily through the show, the original novel and the film it inspired are definitely worth checking out.