The Saddest Words: The Revenge of the Sith Novelization

Wow, Wednesday and I don’t have a piece of a short story to post. It feels odd; I think my decision to have another running story is December is possibly the right one. I’m going to make it seasonal – will talk about that soon. For today, I thought I’d take a break from navel-gazing about my own experience and examine something that I’m reading it. It’s actually pretty fascinating.

I’ve talked ad nauseum about the failings of the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy – see here, here, and here, but today I’m here to acknowledge something about the prequels that’s actually pretty damn good: The Revenge of the Sith novelization by Matthew Stover.

What’s that? A decent novelization? Nay, even a compelling novelization? Well, I kid you not – it exists. I recently watched the movie, and it was even worse than I remembered, and I had remembered it to be pretty bad. Shallow characterization, poor explanations for motivation, flat affect…I could go on and on, but we won’t rehash all that here.

I recently read a thread about the movie on the Something Awful forums and some posters mentioned that the novelization had turned out to be surprisingly good. One poster actually shared a segment that explained some of Count Dooku‘s motivations. As far as the movie is concerned, I was never even aware that Dooku (what an awful name, by the way) had a motivation. He seemed like a generic He Bad, as if they thought the fact that he was Christopher Lee would be enough. But it turns out that Dooku did have a plan, and was angling for something the whole time. I was shocked, and I had to read it.

Now that I’ve gotten into it, I still can’t quite believe what I’m reading. From Stover’s own words, much of this was not in the original script, but Lucas had a great deal of input: “His input did more than affect the characterizations. His input was the foundation of the characterizations. All I was trying to do was find literary language that would bring his characterizations to life in a book.” So, surprisingly, a lot of the details in the book actually come from Lucas, while Stover’s approach was his own. He explains it thus: “I didn’t set out to write a novelization so much as I tried to back-create, from Mr. Lucas’s story and script, a novel as I think it might have been if he had been making the film based on it, rather than the other way around. I wanted it to be not just a good novelization, but a good novel.” Genius! I like that quite a lot.

By taking that approach, he makes a lot of Lucas’s ideas work. It really makes me wonder what could have happened if a more competent writer had written the screenplay. In the film, for example, there is a scene where Anakin has been appointed to the Jedi Council by Palpatine. The Jedi accept this appointment, but refuse him the rank of Master. Anakin explodes, saying that it’s an outrage. He just seems kind of prideful and douchey – but there are reasons for this rage that were never touched upon in the movie. In the book, as it turns out, his attempts to save his wife Padme are tied to what he believes is secret knowledge hidden in the Jedi archives that allows one to prevent death. This knowledge can only be accessed by a Jedi Master, so in effect, he feels that denying him the Master role is denying him the chance to save his wife. Seen through that lens, the flare of anger makes more sense, and he’s a bit less of an asshole. I don’t know if this one was Lucas’s idea or Stover’s idea. I felt a twinge of sympathy, even if he does still come across as something of an asshole.

We also get a sense of Anakin as a media figure. There’s a lot of pressure on him as the hero of the Republic, the so-called “Hero With No Fear”. In reality, he’s full of fear. There are lots of references to a dark dragon that lives in his heart. Of course that’s a metaphor, but it’s tied all the way back to The Phantom Menace when they’re first questioning him in the Jedi Council and sense his fear. That wedge of fear – that he would never see his mother again – has grown into the anger and aggression that we see in him – his dark dragon.

Maybe it’s a little cliche, but I like it. Why was it never touched on in the movie? Got me. This is repeated over and over. Where General Grievous was a cackling, Snidely Whiplash character in the movie, here he is a ruthlessly efficient killing machine. Seriously – death is all he cares about, to the point that he’s completely dismissive of concepts such as money. This version is even physically incapable of laughter. I’m curious about where he changed, as this is closer to the version of Grievous presented in the original Clone Wars cartoon that aired on Cartoon Network. Both of these are inconsistent with the mustache-twirling villain of Episode 3. He still feels like a throwaway character in the book, but at least he has some sort of purpose and dimension. Maybe he’s 2D now instead of 3D.

There are some other nice moments, like Palpatine and Dooku discussing the plan of what Dooku thinks will happen once Anakin and Obi-Wan arrive. It could have been trimmed a bit, sure, but that’s what reveals so much of Dooku’s motivations. The foundation of the Rebel Alliance is written into the book, and while some of that was cut from the movie (I’ve never seen these cut scenes), it’s actually pretty interesting, as we see Padme torn between protecting Democracy and hurting her husband, who is basically a raging fascist who sits at the right hand of the newly minted dictator.

Stover also fills the story with a building sense of dread. Little things start to add up, and tension builds that something very bad is coming. By the time the book reaches the Rebel Alliance scenes, the boiling point is very, very close. The movie attempted to do this, and had some decent moments, but in general there wasn’t enough emotional involvement to pull it off.

I keep telling my friends that I wish they’d made this movie instead of the one that we actually got. I could quite easily see how someone could cut this down to a two-hour movie by removing some extraneous scenes and adding others.

So, keeping in mind that I’m about halfway through, I’m shockingly pleased. Stover’s style is a little lackadaisical, with copious, laughable adverb usage and some places where the language needed tightening, but we’re talking about a film novelization written with the barest bones of a script and a tight deadline. Considering all those, it’s pretty brilliant. If you’re a Star Wars fan and want to know what might have been, I recommend that you look into it.

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  1. OK, so now I feel like I have to read the book. I just attended Robert McKee’s STORY seminar where he discusses story, using movies for most of his examples. He mentions Empire Strikes Back numerous times, lauding it for both its story and screenplay, and deservedly so. I think the place where the third movie truly failed was in exactly the place you are saying: which would be establishing a sense of empathy with Anakin. You don’t have to agree with his actions, but you have to at least understand why he is making his decisions.

    Dooku had a motivation? Alright, you got me, now I have to pick up the novel.

    Great post.

  2. I’m in a probably unusual position. I have never watched through any of the prequel movies all the way, though I ended up recording them off cable a few years back and skimming through some of the interesting parts.
    But before that, I’d read all three novelizations via, and enjoyed the storytelling thoroughly. I definitely agree with you about all the ways that the ‘Revenge of the Sith’ novelization, (even the version I heard, which may have been abridged for audio, I can’t remember) was better than the movie.

  3. I didn’t care for the prequels either. Too much cutsey made its way into the Star Wars ‘verse.

  4. Pingback: Turn the Page: My 2011 Booklist | Shaggin the Muse

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