Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Neglected Gem #63: Matthew Stover’s Revenge of the Sith

Film and TV novelizations are often maligned, and rightly so. It’s hard to view screen-to-book adaptations as anything more than a merchandising ploy, and in many cases that’s exactly what they are: cut-rate rehashes of material that’s better suited to the screen than the page. It doesn’t help that novelizations crop up most frequently in the SF and fantasy spheres, devaluing the public legitimacy of those genres. Look at it this way: nobody ever turned Citizen Kane into a book.

Helped in no small part by filmmaker George Lucas’ moneymaking acumen, Star Wars remains one of the most exploited intellectual properties in media history. Seldom have such finite film sources generated such a large volume of extra-curricular material, from games to toys to books. But with so many adaptations, some diamonds are bound to stand out in the rough, and can sometimes even surpass the source material in quality. Matthew Stover’s novelization of the 2005 film Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is based on the screenplay penned by Lucas, but it provides both a more compelling version of the film’s story and a glimpse into what makes Star Wars such an enduring (and lucrative) media franchise – which is something the film utterly failed to do.

The novelization more or less cleaves to the narrative established in the film, which chronicles the fall of Anakin Skywalker (Canadian actor Hayden Christensen, whose career has never recovered) from the Jedi Order and his subsequent transformation into Darth Vader. Where the book differs is in its presentation, breathing life and character into the film’s stunted dialogue, and providing the motivation and pacing that was sorely lacking onscreen. Gaps in narrative logic are also filled in, making the novelization a far more coherent experience. In the film, Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side of the Force is precipitated mostly by premonitions that lead him to believe his wife Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) will die in childbirth – represented by smudged and indefinite dream sequences featuring her weeping face – and this allows the scheming Palpatine, late in the film, to suggest she might be saved through special Force techniques unknown to the Jedi. Based solely on this unconscionably vague information, Anakin proceeds to kill Jedi Master Mace Windu (a pitifully miscast Samuel L. Jackson), butcher innocent Jedi students, many of whom are children, and betray his Master and best friend, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, who does his best with the material given to him). Their excessive climactic confrontation is meant to act as the coda to an epic space opera tragedy, but falls flat on its face due to the lack of clear motivation for Anakin. Stover’s book, however, is injected with additional dialogue between Anakin and his friends, and insight into what’s happening inside the doomed young Jedi’s head – from intimate and revealing scenes with Padmé, to genuine and affecting affirmations of friendship and shared experience with Obi-Wan, to a pivotal original scene in which Palpatine demonstrates the limitations of Jedi dogma by offering Anakin anything he wants, anything, from a brand new speeder to the star system of Corellia. Awakening the young man’s inclinations toward greed and self-service – exposing him to the mere idea that he is entitled to, and can take, anything he wants – are surface-level steps towards his assured destruction, which the Sith Lord follows up with a full deconstruction of Anakin’s psyche, making precision strikes at his greatest weakness: his fear, represented symbolically in the novelization as a dragon, coiled in a womb of ice within his chest. By the end of the story, Palpatine has warmed and melted the ice entombing the dragon, and encouraged it to wrestle free as pure and white-hot rage. The novel’s version of Anakin is brainwashed bit by bit into believing that the Jedi Order is holding him back and wilfully denying him the knowledge that will save his wife. By the time he is capable of the murder of Mace Windu, he is psychologically broken, and Palpatine’s hold on him has more to do with straightforward emotional manipulation than any act of the Force. Mace’s death at his hands is an act of human weakness – not only motivated, but heartbreaking. And the further atrocities he perpetrates are the actions of a man who has totally lost control, not simply the histrionics of a villain who kills because he’s the bad guy and that’s what bad guys do. Stover’s novelization is the tragedy that Lucas undoubtedly wanted his film to be.

Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor in Revenge of the Sith
Anakin, though he is the protagonist and is given the lion’s share of narrative focus, isn’t the only character to receive an overhaul. Obi-Wan plays a negligible role in the film, following the Jedi Council’s nonsensical instructions to take a wild goose chase across the galaxy which mostly results in colourful and consequence-free CGI action sequences. In the novelization, Kenobi is given his due as a true master of the Force and as a kindhearted and selfless human being, worthy of the gravitas that Alec Guinness brought to the Jedi’s elder screen incarnation. Of particular interest are Stover’s descriptions of the way Kenobi uses the Force – or, rather, the way he allows the Force to use him. Stover notes how a Jedi empties themselves of emotion and attachment, allowing the Force to fill them and guide their actions, and how Sith, by contrast, grip the Force in a stranglehold and bend it to their will (as one character observes, “They allowed the Force to direct them; [he] directed the Force.”). One of the novel’s finest scenes is the early confrontation between the team of Anakin & Obi-Wan and the Sith Lord Count Dooku, which demonstrates the ways that, rooted in differing philosophical doctrines, the Force can be used to wildly different ends. This fight also touches on some Expanded Universe material, established outside the canon of Lucas’ films, which identifies some of the seven different forms of lightsaber combat (Dooku being a practitioner of an ancient one-handed fencing style, and the Jedi pair shifting between different forms in an attempt to confuse their foe). This martial-arts flavour, combining athleticism and philosophy, adds an element of interest to what might otherwise be a rote and disposable action scene – which is precisely what the audience is treated to in the film.

This fight scene also acts as a microcosm for the host of improvements the novel makes to the film, the most prominent being its distinct and arresting sense of style. Stover writes with flair and an urbane sensibility that lends as much emotional weight and credibility this unbelievable tale of space monks and laser swords can bear. The fight takes up a whole chapter from Dooku’s point of view, and since he is an aristocratic nobleman, he views the conflict as a literal farce. Stover peppers the scene with theatrical metaphor and allusions to opera and dance, comparing the movements of the Jedi in combat to what the Sith sees as low comedy. Stover describes Kenobi as “luminous, a transparent being, a window onto a sunlit meadow of the Force,” and Anakin as “a storm cloud, flickering with dangerous lightning, building the rotation that threatens a tornado.” Dooku makes cutting remarks throughout the fight, chipping away at Anakin’s fragile ego; Kenobi answers for his partner with gently wry jibes that belie his deadly skill. Stover puts characterization first and foremost in this scene, as in the rest of the book, with the action almost an afterthought. In the film, there is a two-minute choreographed sword fight against a green screen with little to no dialogue – a veritable galaxy of difference.

Simply put, with his novelization Stover does what Lucas didn’t (or couldn’t, or wouldn’t, depending on your point of view). To read it is to understand why Star Wars has enjoyed such a rich cultural legacy: it is a universe that, when populated with rich characters motivated by human interests, has nearly limitless potential for great storytelling. Stover’s novelization realizes that potential, and is a – you’ll have to excuse me – forceful reminder of what the Star Wars prequel films might have been in the hands of a less controlling and more broadly competent director. It behooves any Star Wars or SF fan to experience it. After all, it’s not very often that the transition from screen to page is better than the other way around.

 Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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