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A weekly column by Abel G. Peña, best known for his Star Wars work.

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THE PHILODOXER for 02/19/2006
Revenge of the Novelization

I love pop culture and the art that's sprung from it: comics, graffiti, break dancing, and even reality television in small doses. But as a writer, one of pop culture's most intriguing bastards is the novelization.

The novelization is like the cult of the bad movie. Generally speaking, the stuff is garbage, fun only in its brevity and simplicity, and the odd and new way in which it invokes a familiar film. But sometimes a novelization can defy expectations. Orson Scott Card's The Abyss, adapting James Cameron's screenplay for the 80s movie, is the classic example. My personal favorite is Julia Sorel's Rocky, a tiny book which is about as perfect a companion to a film as I've read. It's rare though, some say impossible, for any adaptation or translation to surpass the original in quality. Nonetheless, many Star Wars fans think Matthew Stover's novelization of Revenge of the Sith achieved just that.

Star Wars Revenge of the Sith

I've been a fan of Stover's Star Wars work since I read his first book Traitor, which is probably my favorite Star Wars novel. And I've read them all. His capacity for intelligent, non-dogmatic reasoning is evident, his ideas thought provoking, his prose poetic (if occasionally hyperbolic), and his action scenes kick ass. Above all else, Stover's stories defy predictability while his characters and the environments they inhabit remain maddeningly rational. It is a level of competence many storytellers would give their left nut to achieve. Of course, it's pretty difficult for the unpredictability factor to apply to a book adapting a movie you've already scene, and the basic storyline of which you've known for over twenty years. But Stover brings all of his other masterful storytelling skills to bear on his take on Revenge of the Sith.

Does the novelization surpass the film, then? No, definitely not. Maybe if Stover had written the novelization for The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones the adaptation could've been superior, but that kind of impossible speculation is hearsay. Well, is Stover's novelization at least any good? Yeah dude, it's very good. Too long for the tempo of the film, but the touch of a master raconteur is undeniable. The Revenge novelization joins the ranks of Alan Dean Foster's Star Wars and James Kahn's Return of the Jedi as one of the must-read Star Wars novelizations. It's a beautiful companion to the film, especially if you've already watched Revenge umpteen times and would like to get a fresh perspective. What was going through Anakin's mind when he threw a hissy fit after the Jedi Council refused to dub him a Jedi Master? Why did Obi-Wan just leave rather than kill (or even help) Anakin after dismembering him? What was Yoda thinking when he realized he wasn't powerful enough to kill Darth Sidious? These are just some of the intriguing questions to which the book provides answers.

Of course, no unfair comparison between an adaptation and its source material would be complete without mentioning the drawbacks. First, getting answers to some these burning questions isn't always in service to a story, especially when a story stands up just fine on its own merits without them. I actually didn't like some of revelations provided by the novelization, though this is hardly unusual, since folks don't always like my interpretations of things in my Lucasfilm work. But this disconnect between the answers I expected and the answers given in the book was especially jarring when the novel failed to reflect the subtleties of the actors' performances in the film. For instance, Hayden Christian's eyes seem consumed with a sedated lust for power throughout the film, of fulfilling his destiny as the Chosen One. Love for Padmé may be the agent by which the dark side is unleashed in Anakin, but in the film it's undeniable that the dark side is seething within Anakin. By contrast, the novelization has Anakin consumed with his love for Padmé, and the Anakin's inherent darkness plays second fiddle. The novel's interpretation is completely justifiable, but it just doesn't ring true at certain times in comparison. Of course, it's slightly misleading to call novelizations adaptations of films since the author mostly works from the screenplay and finishes the novel far before he or she ever watches the finished movie.

Also, while Lucas is infamous for his incapacity for natural-sounding dialogue, Anakin and Padmé's interactions in the novel remain cringingly robotic, somewhat disappointing since Stover has made it a point to mention that he asked George Lucas if it was necessary to use the dialogue from the script for his book. Maybe it's just a symptom of Stover's style, but no matter what I just can't help wincing when I hear your average character in the Star Wars universe say "metaphor" repeatedly or "epistemology." Another trademark of Stover is the gratuitous use of italics, which can really grate after a while. I think they work pretty well for Palpatine, since the character is so slimy here, but extended use across the board for all characters just makes it feel like you're being talked down to after a while. Admittedly, I've not read Stover's non-Star Wars books (though Heroes Die is on my to-do list this year), so these techniques of emphasis may just be an example of the author catering to a pop culture audience.

Interestingly, the strongest complaint I generally have about Stover's Star Wars books, the unsatisfying nature of his soft and almost moralistic endings, is (narrowly) avoided in his Revenge novelization. Needlessly sympathetic and overly expository, the endings to his novels Traitor and Shatterpoint do not do the preceding story any justice, backing off from the jugular at the last minute like Vincent Gallo in Buffalo '66 or Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn. This may be due to the demands of working in a shared universe like Star Wars, where you have to take into consideration limitations set on your story and characters by the works of other authors. At any rate, this problem is not present in Revenge of the Sith. Though Stover tries to end on a hopeful note, in doing justice to Anakin's error and destruction he saves the ending from a bleak optimism.

Writing a novelization is not an easy task. Stover himself called it some of the most difficult work he's ever done, and the challenge was probably at least part of the reason he took the job. In the end, I don't think anyone could have been better suited to adapting Revenge, and the novelization is an awesome companion to the movie. Ultimately, I would recommend one of Stover's other Star Wars books before I would recommend Revenge of the Sith, but few will be disappointed either way by the psychological realism of his character or the in-your-face style of his action.

Adios folks! See you next week!

-- Abel

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