Ever since the run-up to Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back a quarter of a century ago, I’ve always tried to purchase at least two tie-in products to get a taste of a new Star Wars movie before opening day – the novelization and the original soundtrack album. And with the exception of 1983’s Return of the Jedi, I’ve managed to observe this personal pre-release tradition, even though it’s become more expensive; the three “prequel” novelizations have been published first in hardcover, whereas the 1977-1983 Classic Trilogy’s adaptations were published as mass market paperbacks.
It might surprise most people that, for me at least, reading the novels (and in the case of Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the illustrated screenplay) doesn’t spoil the experience of seeing the movies on opening week. Oh, sure, I might already know the film’s basic plot and dialogue, but as soon as the previews end and the house lights in the theater go down further right before the 20th Century Fox logo comes up on the screen, everything I’ve read vanishes into a temporal vortex and I’m caught up in George Lucas’ space-fantasy set “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….”
Following in Terry Brooks (The Phantom Menace) and R. A. Salvatore’s (Attack of the Clones) footsteps in adapting a prequel to a novel, Matthew Stover has written an entertaining and insightful story that tells a story of a democracy’s transition into a dictatorship, the consequences – both good and bad – of a forbidden relationship between a Jedi and the woman he married in secret, the cold and deliberate seduction of Anakin Skywalker by Darth Sidious, and the tragedy of two friends suddenly turned enemies as a horrified Obi-Wan Kenobi realizes that his former Padawan has betrayed the Jedi Order and become Darth Vader.
Most Star Wars fans of the so-called 1977 Generation have known bits and pieces of Revenge of the Sith’s main ideas: the Republic will be transforned into the Galactic Empire, the Jedi Order will be decimated in one of the greatest acts of betrayal ever, Obi-Wan and Anakin will engage in a final lightsaber duel that will end with Kenobi going into hiding – as do the few Jedi who survive the new Emperor’s purge – and Anakin Skywalker will become, as Obi-Wan says to Luke Skywalker in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, “more machine than man, twisted and evil.” It’s also no secret to long-time fans that even though Revenge of the Sith is about the rise of the evil Empire, it also sets up the new hope heralded in Star Wars Episode IV.
As Brooks and Salvatore have done in their novels for The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, Stover (author of Star Wars: Shatterpoint and Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Traitor) uses Lucas’ original story and screenplay as a springboard for a deeply psychological and personality-based narrative that sticks closely to the source material but tweaks it by adding scenes and situations not present in the movie; there are allusions to events from Lucasfilm’s Clone Wars animated series as well as other Star Wars novels, including James Luceno’s Labyrinth of Evil.
The novel begins, unlike the other prequels’ adaptations, just like Lucas’ screenplay and finished film, with Obi-Wan Kenobi and his former Padawan Anakin Skywalker flying their Jedi Starfighters in the midst of a huge and spectacular space battle above the galactic capital planet of Coruscant. Their mission: to rescue Supreme Chancellor Palpatine from the Separatists’ ruthless military leader, General Grievous. Darting between battling starships and fighting deadly Trade Federation fighters, homing missiles, and buzz droids, the two Jedi Knights make their way into the docking bay of the Invisible Hand and attempt to snatch Palpatine from Grievous and the leader of the Separatists, Count Dooku.
Although Obi-Wan and Anakin suspect the whole setup is a trap, they don’t know that this is going to be one of the turning points in their lives. In the ensuing lightsaber duel that follows, the powerful Sith Lord Dooku incapacitates the more experienced Kenobi and taunts Anakin to use his hate and anger and thus bait him to tap into the Dark Side of the Force. But as the duel progresses and young Skywalker begins to lose his Jedi’s restraints and give in to the urge for revenge, Dooku realizes that his Master, Darth Sidious, has been using him as a sacrificial pawn to turn Anakin to the ways of the Sith. To his horror, Dooku is stunned when, after Anakin has literally disarned him, Palpatine urges the angry and confused Jedi to finish Dooku off.
“”Rage is your weapon. Strike now. Strike! Kill him!” Palpatine/Sidious tells Anakin, and the young Jedi, who lost his right arm to Dooku’s red lightsaber blade on Geonosis a few years earlier, does exactly that, even though he knows he shouldn’t.
Stover follows the screenplay’s basic storyline as faithfully as possible, considering that Lucasfilm had to give him an earlier draft with slightly different dialogue and scenes that were filmed or planned but eventually dropped, such as Padme’s meetings with the Senators who will be the leaders of the Rebel Alliance, and conjectural material that “introduces” such characters as Garm Bel Iblis (from the Expanded Universe novels) and future Imperial officer Lorth Needa from The Empire Strikes Back. (Needa is the doomed captain of the Star Destroyer Avenger; Darth Vader “accepts” his apology for losing the Millennium Falcon by strangling him with his Sith powers. But even with all the additional material, Stover sticks to Lucas’ narrative and delves into Anakin’s motivations for turning to the Dark Side…his inability to accept losses, his desire to keep Padme alive after seeing a Force vision foretelling her death during child-birth…his growing ambitions to become a Jedi Master and his frustration when the Jedi Council refuses to grant him that rank…his conflicting feelings about Obi-Wan…and his naive trust in Palpatine, who cleverly and steadily pushes Anakin away from the ways of the Jedi and promising to reveal secret knowledge that young Skywalker desperately seeks in order to prevent Padme’s death.
Although Stover’s literary depictions of Revenge of the Sith’s action scenes are exciting and extremely well-written, what I enjoy most about the novel is the ability to get into the characters’ minds and get a feel for their thoughts and emotions. I like the way the author explains, for instance, how Obi-Wan and Anakin are hailed throughout the galaxy as the greatest Jedi heroes of the Clone Wars:
Younglings throughout the galaxy know their names, know everything about them, follow their exploits as though they were sports heroes instead of warriors in a desperate battle to save civilization. Even grown-ups are not immune; it’s not uncommon for an exasperated parent to ask, when faced with offspring who have just tried to pull off one of the spectacularly dangerous bits of foolishness that are the stock-in-trade of younglings everywhere, So which were you supposed to be, Kenobi or Skywalker?
For an insightful interview with Matthew Stover in which he discusses how he adapted the screenplay into a novel, visit http://movies.channel.aol.com/feature/starwars/pagetoscreen/stover