It’s no secret that I love Star Wars and that I adore the saga’s most recent installment, The Force Awakens. Watching this movie (3 times at the theater, as of this article’s writing) has made me remember the joy of the original films, from deadly lightsaber duels to heroic starfighter dogfights to the struggle of trying to save a droid on a hostile desert planet. And being a bibliophile, I naturally needed to read the novelization as well. When I heard that Alan Dean Foster was writing it, I was excited.
But I was less thrilled once I started reading it.
(If you want a synopsis of the novelization, I’ll point you toward my actual review of the movie, wherein I give a short, spoiler-free summary. However, there will be one or two spoilers below for the sake of this review.)
Like any good novelization, this book takes the main events shown in the film and adds literary context to everything: how the characters think and feel beyond their immediate dialogue and actions, along with backstory and details that the movie wouldn’t otherwise include. In Foster’s treatment, you can read all the iconic dialogue that you hear in the screenplay, but he does have a tendency to add more than might be necessary.
Here’s one example. In the movie, after Rey, Finn, and BB-8 escape Jakku aboard the Millennium Falcon, a First Order officer has to deliver the news to Kylo Ren. When told about the escape, Ren is fuming quietly. Then he breaks out into a violent display with his lightsaber, only to go back to his calm, chilling demeanor a minute later. All his dialogue is sparse, and you feel the officer’s dread when he has to deliver each new piece of information, knowing he might lose his life in a second.
But in the novelization, we get this long, strange monologue from Ren before the officer can deliver his report:
“Look at it, Lieutenant. So much beauty among so much turmoil. In a way, we are but an infinitely smaller reflection of the same conflict. It is the task of the First Order to remove the disorder from our own existence, so that civilization may be returned to the stability that promotes progress. A stability that existed under the Empire, was reduced to anarchy by the Rebellion, was inherited by the so-called Republic, and will be restored by us. Future historians will look upon this as the time when a strong hand brought the rule of law back to civilization” (Foster p. 92).
I can see a few problems here. One is that this style of speaking is far too romantic for a sadistic Force-user like Kylo Ren, especially if he’s trying to emulate his idol, Darth Vader. Another is that this speech kills the dread building up from the beginning of the scene. A lieutenant has to tell his master that a Resistance droid escaped Jakku with help from a rogue stormtrooper, and he’s expecting to die just like any officer under Vader would. In the audience, we’re counting on that same event to happen. But one thing Vader would never do is stop to make a subordinate join in his navel-gazing. He cared about results and used his words sparingly, just as Kylo Ren does in the film—but not in the book.
To be honest, the author adds a lot of dialogue where it wouldn’t be needed, getting rid of some of the tension that screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and director J.J. Abrams built into those scenes. Another example is this gem from Poe Dameron:
“This isn’t about my life, or yours. I’m sorry, Finn, but there are far greater things at stake. Forces are in motion that must be dealt with. Unfortunately, I seem to be at the center of them. It’s a responsibility I can’t—I won’t—forget. I’m sorry you’ve become caught up in the middle of it, but I can’t do anything about that” (Foster p. 60-61).
This long snippet takes place while Finn and Poe are trying to outmaneuver the laser blasts of a Star Destroyer inside a stolen TIE fighter. I’m aware that the original scene had a lot of back-and-forth dialogue between the two men as they made their escape, with Poe explaining flight controls and his mission to Finn, but this kind of calm, reflective tone doesn’t feel right in what’s supposed to be a high-stakes, life-or-death situation. Not to mention the fact that Poe talking about being an agent of the largest cause doesn’t really clear things up with Finn.
In fact, two lines later, Poe tells Finn that his droid is carrying a map to Luke Skywalker. Again, just like in the movie, but the movie’s dialogue was about Poe trying to convince Finn to go back to Jakku while trying to outrun fire from a Star Destroyer. Time was a factor and every word counted. The abovementioned aside from Poe about dark forces in motion doesn’t help persuade Finn, nor does it heighten the drama of the scene.
Ironically, Foster’s treatment does work when he writes out the deleted or implied content from the movie. This includes Leia’s envoy speaking to the Republic Senate before their planet’s destruction, Poe Dameron’s dramatic escape from Jakku, and one last encounter with the junk dealer Unkar Plutt. Because these scenes weren’t included or alluded to in the final cut of the film, I think the author has a lot more freedom to play with them, so these sequences stand out compared to the rest of the novel.
I really want to like this book, but only because of the movie. I don’t think Alan Dean Foster is a bad writer at all; after all, I enjoyed the novelization he wrote for the first Star Wars film back in 1976. But it doesn’t have the same depth and tension that other authors brought to their take on Star Wars, like how James Kahn did for Return of the Jedi or Matthew Stover did for Revenge of the Sith (you can read more about the latter in my review of the book). Ultimately, if you want to gain a little more perspective on the events of The Force Awakens—or, at least, see a few deleted scenes explored to their potential—then I can recommend giving the novelization a read… but only so far.
Bibliography: Foster, Alan Dean. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (novelization). New York: Del Rey, 2016.