“Down Here It’s Our Time”: The Outsider and The Child in James Kahn’s ‘The Goonies’

By Amy Mugglestone / August 14, 2017

If you grew up in the ’70s or ’80s, chances are you’ll have some movie novelizations hidden in a forgotten corner of your bookcase, or perhaps gathering dust in your parents’ attic. As movie merchandising gained momentum following the success of large franchises like Star Wars, novelizations became almost ubiquitous, and in many cases hugely popular, with some adaptations selling in their millions. Before the days of VCRs in every home, buying a novelization was, for many people, the only way to own a copy of a movie. “You’ve seen the movie,” the adverts said, “Now read the book!”

Novelizations could also act as an introduction to the Hollywood blockbuster for kids whose parents discouraged—or at least didn’t actively encourage—an interest in movies, perhaps fearing they would lead to superficiality, or insatiable demands for branded plastic, or, for non-US parents, that their children would begin speaking in an excruciatingly mangled approximation of an American accent whenever they played pretend. (I was guilty of this. “Oh my gaahd, you guys!”). Hollywood was a particularly rich seam for younger children in the ’80s (or perhaps, given the aforementioned branded plastic, it was the other way around), producing a string of adventure stories for, and starring, kids—E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial in ’82, Gremlins and The Neverending Story in ’84, Back to The Future in ’85, and Labyrinth and Stand By Me in ’86, to name a few. To an outsider looking in, the US seemed less another country than an alternate realm that existed somewhere beyond your TV screen, where everyone had a little bit more stuff than you, and was a little bit cooler than you, and had real adventures instead of just pretending their mate’s shed was a time machine.

My own introduction to all of this was James Kahn’s novelization of 1985 kids’ adventure The Goonies, a story about a group of friends who set out to find a hoard of pirate treasure so they can buy their homes from the heartless rich people who want to turn the neighborhood into a golf course. I don’t remember if I bought it for the aged pirate-map yellow of the cover, or for the skull in the dot of the ‘i’, or even to find to find out how a group of kids might end up in the improbable stalactite-topped column formation pictured on the front (spoiler: they don’t), but I do remember feeling that there was something new and exciting about it—to me, at least.

As a British child who liked adventure stories, I was perhaps inevitably raised on Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, dated but still popular post-war tales involving a group of middle class children outwitting working-class villains. And while there is actually a great deal about Kahn’s novelization that fans of the Five and other classic children’s adventures would have found familiar, here the genre is unceremoniously modernized, and to those of us living outside the US, it even seemed to have moved ahead a little. While the Five exist within a timeless, decontextualized countryside idyll, The Goonies is unmistakably a product of the ’80s, making constant references to US popular culture—Twinkies, MAD Magazine, Donkey Kong, Prince—all of which were pretty much a mystery to me at the time, but were clearly important to the kids in the film, infusing the story with that peculiarly American air of aspirational otherness. The Goonies are also more culturally diverse than the Five (it would be difficult to be less so), and, crucially, they seem to represent typical children, rather than exemplars of model behavior.

Both the classic and the Hollywood adventure feature groups of children negotiating obstacles and surviving dangerous situations independently of adult help, with much of the action taking place in hidden spaces like abandoned buildings or caves, giving the sense of a separate child’s world, where adults—or at least ordinary adults—cannot go. The child protagonists are even allowed to outwit certain adults, in the form of bumbling villains. But the ideology behind the formula is different. Classic adventures like the Famous Five—and for US readers, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, particularly in their earlier incarnations—come with a heavy dose of didacticism, a hangover from the colonial imperative to raise resourceful children who would grow up to lead other nations, and to reinforce the belief that they were entitled to do so. As such, successful adventuring is shown to be the result of correct behavior and being the “right sort of person.” Poor people and foreigners are almost universally dull-witted and villainous, and while the Five are occasionally aided by children from the Celtic nations, and, on one occasion, an American, it is made clear that these are inferior children who benefit from the patronage of our English heroes.

For a Hollywood adventure like The Goonies, however, while there are some implied moral lessons about friendship and cooperation, the focus is far more on entertainment value. Thus, the plodding pauper villains offered up for our contempt in the Five are replaced first by the heartless WASPs from the Country Club, who anticipate making the Goonies homeless with pantomime relish, then by the gloriously cantankerous Mama Fratelli and her squabbling sons, Jake and Francis, all of whom provide comic relief as well as being antagonists. The Goonies defeat their enemies because they cooperate, rather than acting selfishly, and while it might be possible to argue that the Fratellis represent an unflattering Italian-American stereotype, the existence of the equally reprehensible Country Club helps to mitigate any implication that villainy might be a specifically Italian trait.

The Goonies are allowed to have uncorrected flaws, which are presented more as endearing personality quirks than problems to be ironed out. Less-than-model behavior such as Chunk’s gluttony or Mouth’s lack of tact are presented as funny, rather than dangerous, and we are invited to root for them and hope they escape punishment—which they often do. There is an episode at the beginning of the story where over-enthusiastic inventor Data attempts to fly through a window on a clothesline zip wire, but miscalculates and crashes into clumsy fat kid Chunk, who stumbles and smashes a statue belonging to his friend’s mother. In The Famous Five, an incident like this would have ended with the children suitably abashed, Chunk vowing to be less greedy, and Data realizing the folly of playing with dangerous toys. In The Goonies, we are simply invited to laugh at the carnage—not least because Chunk breaks the statue’s dick off, then proceeds to glue it back on upside down—and give a sigh of relief when the damage goes undetected.

Of course, the creators of the Goonies are not acting purely altruistically. The aim is to give children what they want in order to extract money from them—or their parents, at least—regardless of whether what they want is good for them. There is a great deal of product placement, to which young minds are particularly susceptible (I remember a friend bringing me a Twinkie wrapper back from a holiday in Florida because she knew I liked The Goonies. She ate the Twinkie, though), and it could be argued that some behavior—such as Mouth telling a Hispanic maid her employers would lock her in a cupboard for doing a bad job—perhaps ought to be shown in a more negative light. Still, to a young child who had not yet learned to be concerned about consumerism—although I do remember feeling sorry for Rosalita—Hollywood adventures were undeniably a breath of fresh air.

The most striking difference, however, is that in The Goonies, childhood is not viewed solely as a preparation for what type of adult you will become. Here, there is not only intrinsic value in being a child, but also in doing things the way a child would do them. There is a sense, throughout, that the children’s parents are restricted in their actions because they are adults, and can only employ sensible, grown-up tactics to protect their homes. With all of these methods exhausted, it now falls to the children to save the day in a way that only children can. The central character, Mikey, is able to persuade his more reluctant friends to continue on the treasure quest by reminding them that this adventure is “our time“—a place where adult rules don’t apply, and children can do things their way:

Our moms and dads want the best of stuff for us, but they gotta do what’s best for them because it’s their game, it’s their time—but down here it’s our time. Our time and our adventure and our rules and plans.

Naturally, the children succeed where their parents have failed, their unique perspective and insight transcending the narrower scope of the adult world. It would be difficult to argue that The Goonies is particularly deep, but if there is a central message, then this is it.

The concept will likely be familiar to fans of Steven Spielberg, who wrote the story and executive produced the movie. The wisdom of the child is a common Spielbergian theme, already explored in alien-contact movies Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. (1982), wherein the empathy and receptiveness of children overcomes the cynicism and reserve of adults to reach an understanding with alien races. There is a sense, too, that the child’s exclusion from the adult decision-making process leads to a natural affinity with society’s outsiders. This is more overt in the earlier movies (after all, what could be more alien than an alien?) but the link between the child and the outsider is also evident in The Goonies—in the lower socioeconomic status of the kids’ parents, Chunk’s easy friendship with Sloth, Mikey’s almost psychic connection with pirate fugitive One-Eyed Willy—and this is explored in more depth in the novel.

James Kahn’s novelization is adapted from Chris Columbus’s screenplay, and as well as retaining scenes that were edited from the final movie, Kahn alters some events, expands on others, and even adds passages of his own invention, all with varying degrees of success. In general he is fairly successful at fleshing out what is essentially an action-based movie. It’s still very much a light-hearted adventure story, but where the movie maintains a fairly frenetic pace throughout, the novel is a little more thoughtful, and we feel we have gotten to know the characters a little better.

A good example of this is the scene where Data falls into a pit, which, while initially startling, is not likely to provoke much of an emotional response in the movie. It seems like the child actors might have been told to improvise in some scenes, and here they rhubarb phrases like “No, no,” or “He’s dead, he’s dead,” all at once, until Data shouts up to tell them he is okay. In the novel, however, there is a genuine sense of pathos in the few moments before we realize he has survived, with the kids mourning their friend, and Mikey remembering the death of his grandmother:

Mouth was shakin’ his head. ‘He just went down. I could’ve grabbed him – I was this close …this close…’ he held his hands a foot apart. ‘He’s really…’

‘Gone,’ Brand said quietly.

That was it for me. I mean, it just happened so sudden, it was like one second Data was right there with the rest of us, and the next second he was history. And it was totally final, like no asking to do it over. I remember when Grandma died when I was a little kid and I asked Dad when she was comin’ back and he said not ever and it was too sad to stand that I wasn’t ever gonna see her again, so I ran away to cry. And now it was the same thing only I couldn’t run away.

So I just cried.

Where Kahn really excels is characterization. He has an ear for realistic speech and is able to provide authentic voices for every character, down to the prison guard who is duped by Jake Fratelli’s fake suicide at the start, here called Emil Yonis: “He looked dead as a jack-rabbit road-kill to me,” Yonis tells the newspapers, and you can almost see the man’s exasperated shrug as you read it.

The most important voice in the novelization is Mikey, who Kahn uses as first person narrator. This does cause some logistical issues—if Mikey is narrating a scene he wasn’t in in the movie, he has to say he was told later by other people, which is sometimes a little clumsy—but to me, when I was seven, it was a game-changer. I had never read anything in the first person before, and to have a child on an adventure talking to you as a friend was pretty much everything I wanted from a book.

Mikey is quite a chatty narrator, given to digressions and anecdotes, and it is the seemingly irrelevant snippets of information he gives when introducing his friends that really bring them to life. Thus we learn that Stef “once punched out Lenny Dole, “Mouth “used to get Ds in conduct all the time,” and, on a darker note, that Chunk’s parents had applied to join the Country Club but been rejected because they were Jewish. Crucially, what makes them interesting is also what makes them different—Chunk’s cultural heritage, Mouth’s rejection of authority, Stef’s atypical femininity. The Goonies are outsiders, and we like them because of that, not despite it.

Mikey is not the only character who speaks to the reader. Kahn contrives various ways to let each character briefly speak for themselves, including a neat little set piece towards the end of their journey where they have to cross a vast underwater lake (luckily, there is a convenient raft), and as they drift towards the center, with no walls in sight, they tell stories to pass the time. Catholic girl Andy tells of her fear of authority figures—her dad, “the nuns,” and of punishments that might await her after death, including a Dantesque frozen hell where “your skin sticks to the ice and pulls off in little bits when you try to stand up,” while fisherman’s daughter Stef tells of her love of the ocean, of scuba-diving off a coral reef, and the brightly colored fish that remind her of punks, including “a Cyndi Lauper fish” (Lauper contributed a song, “Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough,” to the movie soundtrack, the video for which is playing on Mikey’s and Brand’s TV at the beginning), and a “Eurythmics fish,” “all glidin’ around to some special underwater fish beat that I couldn’t hear.” Purists might take issue with Stef’s definition of punk, but it’s a fun image, nevertheless.

Perhaps most interesting is Data’s story—an outline of his plans to create an underwater utopia, contained within a bubble made of “Space-age plastic, the kind the NASA guys developed,” anchored to the bottom of the ocean, and using outside propellers to source energy from underwater currents. Kahn is clearly at home here (he also wrote an original sci-fi fantasy, “The New World Trilogy,” as well as the novelization of Return of the Jedi), and it is interesting to see him dip into another genre for a moment. For the most part it is an old-school, optimistic vision of the future, with Data’s childlike enthusiasm for new technology and belief in the possibility of a neatly-ordered society, but there are also hints of the harsher realities of the 1980s. Data is aware of the importance of clean energy and sustainability, and the bubble is to be at least a mile below sea-level, where it cannot be affected by nuclear fallout or germ warfare.

Mikey’s own character is explored in more depth too. In the movie, he loosely adheres to the nerd/dreamer type, something that is signposted in a mainly symbolic way—his braces and asthma, Brand referring to him as “wimp”—rather than via any on-screen soul searching. In the novel, we get a window on his thoughts, and Kahn provides a fairly realistic portrait of a sensitive, imaginative child who is beginning to become aware that he is not compatible with traditional ideas of masculinity, particularly compared to his cool older brother.

Brand says it’s not that I’m short for my age, it’s that I’m short for my size. He cracks himself up with that one. Mom just says I’m ‘slight’. I know what they’re talking about, though. It’s about how I’m not on any of the teams like Brand is, and I’ve got braces, and asthma, and I get colds a lot, more than most of the other kids, especially in the fall.

In both the movie and the novel, Brand acts as a foil to Mikey, as the cool kid to his little brother’s nerd, and also as a quasi-adult figure, who feels responsible for the younger kids and is skeptical about embarking on any adventures. As such, he initially acts as the leader of the group, but as the Goonies descend further into the child’s world of underground caves and pirate treasure, Brand’s adult authority and in-group caché begin to seem irrelevant, and Mikey increasingly takes over this role. The novel adds an extra element to this dynamic in the form of Brand’s claustrophobia, which renders him literally incapacitated—at times to the point of becoming a liability—in the subterranean tunnels of the child’s world.

This leads to a moral dilemma for Mikey, who is briefly tempted to emulate his brother’s alpha male qualities, seeming not to understand that it is what makes him different from Brand—his childlike empathy and outsider’s perspective—that allows him insight into the mind of One-Eyed Willy, and makes him the more effective leader. With Brand showing increasing signs of vulnerability, Mikey tries to style himself as the fearless, responsible brother, telling Andy about the time Brand “freaked out” in a stuck elevator, and he had to take charge of the situation. Of course this backfires immediately, with Mikey confiding to the reader that he feels guilty for telling Brand’s secrets, and reflecting that Andy probably thinks less of him for it too. Eventually Brand himself opens up about his claustrophobia and the childhood incident that sparked it, and his friends—Andy, most importantly—are impressed by the courage it took to admit it, rather than seeing it as a weakness. Thus, while Mikey loses out by attempting to present an image of conformity, Brand gains by the acknowledgement of his childhood and his idiosyncrasies.

Mikey’s “relationship” with Andy is more problematic. It appears partly to be a symptom of his attempt to usurp Brand’s alpha crown, but Andy also seems to function as a reward for success—whether she likes it or not. Probably the least successful element of the novel is the decision to expand on the already awkward episode in the movie where she mistakes Mikey for Brand in the dark and kisses him. Presumably this is supposed to symbolize Mikey’s initiation as leader, as well as providing wish-fulfilment for young adolescent boys with crushes on unattainable older girls, but there is still something a little disturbing about what is essentially a young woman making out with a child. The filmmakers seem to be aware of this, and are at pains to highlight the fact that it is accidental on both sides. Instead of showing the kiss itself, we see Mikey’s shoes dragged along the floor, indicating that he might have had little time to explain his identity, and once he has left, Andy, evidently perplexed, tells Stef that she thinks Brand was standing in a hole. In the novel, however, the kiss is described in some detail, and Mikey tells us that he didn’t move his hand around too much because “I was afraid she might get mad and make me stop,” suggesting that he is making the most of Andy’s temporary ignorance.

Kahn even goes on to insert another, similar incident where Andy asks Brand to hold her hand—again, in the dark—and Mikey rather implausibly hands his brother a starfish and takes Andy’s hand himself because “this was my adventure, not Brand’s.” The fact that Andy wanted to hold Brand’s hand is evidently not important. Of course, the novel is neither the first nor the last to treat female characters as prizes for the deserving, but to have an otherwise relatable and engaging protagonist learn about women by fooling them into intimacy is particularly jarring.

Kahn also develops the idea of the Goonies as outsiders, conveying the sense of helplessness the kids feel in the face of their adult-world problems. In both novel and movie, Mikey has constructed a Rube Goldberg machine to open his garden gate. In the movie, this acts as a taster of the pirate booby-traps to come, but in the novel, he explains to us why he enjoys building things like this:

Goonies are into stuff like that. I think it’s because we can’t control anything else about our lives, or the world, like nuclear war or famine or toxic dumps or where we might be living next week or what’s for supper, but we can control every last detail about some contraption we build, or joke we tell, or in-between-meal-snack we snatch.

Mikey appears to be concerned with his lack of autonomy, and there is a certain hierarchy to the things he feels he can’t control. Nuclear war, famine, and toxic waste are issues that most ordinary people feel somewhat powerless to prevent, while the impending eviction of the Goonies’ families is a problem specific to low-income workers who lack the resources to buy their homes. At the bottom of the hierarchy we have the kids themselves, who still worry about the bigger problems—nuclear war, their homes—but who cannot even control small things, like what’s for supper. As such, it might be expected that children would have a natural affinity with the excluded and the dispossessed.

Chunk is given a chapter of his own, recounting his adventures with Sloth in his own words, and we see here how easily the child and the “monster” get along. In particular, there is a scene where Chunk empathizes with Sloth over his frightening appearance, admitting—a rare moment of honesty for Chunk—that he wears a sweatshirt when he goes swimming because he is embarrassed about his weight. Of course, it might be expected that Sloth, who appears to be mentally disabled, would find it easier to engage with children than with adults, but as with the children themselves, his sub-adult mentality can sometimes be an asset. In fact, Sloth is the only adult that is of any use to the children at all, his easy acceptance of his new friends and unquestioning participation in the adventure meaning that he is on hand to provide some much-needed adult muscle. Kahn also adds romantic flourishes to the character, taking him beyond the “gentle giant” type of the movie. He provides musical accompaniment on a jaw harp as he and Chunk follow the others through the tunnels—apparently having taught himself to play the advert jingles and theme tunes he hears on the TV set that is his only companion in his basement prison—and has become skilled at swordfighting through watching Errol Flynn movies. It is as though Sloth’s lack of adult cognition and isolation from the world have forced him to use his imagination and to improvise, uncovering talents most people would never realize they had.

Likewise, the restrictions placed on the children seem to have pushed them into discovering their own creativity and resourcefulness—as Mikey says, he built the Rube Goldberg contraption as a way of taking back control. He refers back to this when claiming One-Eyed Willy—perhaps the story’s most intriguing outsider—as “the first Goony.” In the movie, his reasons for saying this are not really explained, although we do see him lift Willy’s eyepatch, exposing the smooth bone underneath, implying that the pirate-hero was born with one eye, rather than losing it in battle as one might assume. In the novel, it appears that Mikey feels kinship with Willy, both in terms of the disadvantages he faced, and how he used his ingenuity to overcome them:

He’d turned a handicap into a down-card. Into a thing of romance.

And then I thought of all the goony contraptions he’d made to keep people away, and how they were just like the contraptions I made to open my gate, or Data made to keep away bullies. And I thought of how he was one of society’s rejects, and of his sense of humor, and his fold-in map. And I thought of his bad eye, and my bad lungs.

We learn more of Willy’s background in the novel, too, including his real name, Willam B Pordobel, and his humble beginnings as a court jester (“banished from five Spanish courts because of his off-color stories and practical jokes,” according to Francis Fratelli). But perhaps most thrillingly of all, the reader gets to hear Willy’s voice, straight from the pages of his personal journal, found on the ship in front of his skeleton. Kahn negotiates this quite cleverly, so while the reader is given a glimpse of Willy’s thoughts, some things remain obscured, and Willy is able to maintain the air of mystery appropriate for a pirate legend. For example, Mouth has to translate the journal from archaic Spanish, and there are gaps where there is a word he doesn’t know. Plus, we only get to see one page of the journal—when Mikey tries to turn the page, the book disintegrates, and the rest is lost forever. Willy is a suitably romantic figure, part wistful, tragic dreamer, part ruthlessly bloodthirsty tyrant, and his account of how his men, trapped underground with fortunes they could never spend, gradually turned on one another is gruesome and baroque:

We all were kings and still they fought. Three I beheaded to teach them ( ) and of Jilbahr I had to eat his heart for breakfast, to teach the others.

It is clear that Willy also feels the link between childhood and his outsider status, and even appears to reciprocate Mikey’s feeling of kinship, despite writing three-hundred years (to the day, in fact) before they “met.” In a strange passage towards the end of his journal, Willy speaks to the child within himself, in language that seems uncannily like a direct address to Mikey:

For since there be here now none to hear me, so I will speak to thee – thee in me that I have lost. Thou, thou Boy, hast taken sail from my soul, and it is to thee that I appeal for my redemption and my ( ). Be thou strong before the mast, and rejoice in thy bold youth – but then return to me, thou, that I may at last rest. And when thou hast returned, and returned to me that boy who wast me, then to thine own manhood mayest thou go.

Of course, as movie themes go, the American-dream reinforcing narrative of the little guy conquering the odds is a fairly common one, and not without issues. The implication that poverty fosters ingenuity is an oddly positive spin on social inequality, especially given Mikey’s skepticism about movies where good people win through despite it. (“Stuff like that only happens in the movies,” he tells us, and I remember reading this as a child and going, “but it is a movie!,” unsure whether to be outraged or delighted. There wasn’t much irony in The Famous Five.) It suggests, ultimately, that the system works, and that dissatisfaction can be overcome through passivity—believing, dreaming—rather than looking to see what can be changed. On the other hand, it champions creativity, imagination, and empathy, vital human qualities that, perhaps increasingly so in the commodity-obsessed world of the ’80s and beyond, are often overlooked due to their lack of immediate practical value.

To me, it seems that Kahn’s novelization is a worthwhile expansion of the movie, with extra content and more fully-realized characters. In truth, though, it is impossible for me to be entirely objective about something so inextricably enmeshed in my childhood. It was the first book I read where the characters spoke directly to the reader, and it gave me my first crush on a fictional character. Certainly it was the longest book I had read at that point, so perhaps the first with any claim to be called a novel. In some ways, it was my introduction both to books and to movies—to US culture even—a heavy burden for a medium that was only ever supposed to be supplemental to the main event, but one that I don’t think entirely crushes it. For all its limitations, the book is like a pop-culture parent to me—perhaps fallible in hindsight, but it helped raise me, and I’m grateful.


Amy Mugglestone is co-presenter of the Willard Price Adventure Podcast, and occasionally writes things. She lives in the British Midlands with zero pets and a human man.

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