When it first came out, I liked Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I thought Jar Jar Binks was funny.
I’m going to now step back and allow the internet to collectively spazz out and vomit a little before explaining.
I was 8 and the perfect match for Lucas’s delusion of the movie’s target audience. I was a kid that liked watching the old space adventures with my father, was impressed by the new CGI, and thought the explanation for midi-chlorians and the Galactic Senate scenes were interesting because it made sense to my burgeoning understanding of biology and politics. What I’m trying to convey here is that while Star Wars was the first example of a hero’s journey in my living memory, I don’t have that same nostalgia and reverence for the original trilogy the way many die-hard fans do.
That being said, the prequel trilogy was objectively awful. Being a little older than eight now and having attended a couple film classes and gotten a greater education on successful storytelling, I am fully aware that the prequel movies are some of the worst in contemporary cinema. However, I would like to make a case that they weren’t wholly irredeemable.
All right, this is the part where the film-junkies groan a little in anticipation of me bringing up what every classical Star Wars fan inevitably does: the extended universe. Rest assured, I am not about to harangue you to watch all the cartoons and check the various wikis that explain away plot holes and obvious errors in the scriptwriting. Instead, I’m recommending that every person aware of Star Wars should read exactly one book from the Star Wars universe, and that book is the novelization of Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith by Michael Stover, which was based on George Lucas’s original story and screenplay.
I’m not recommending this book because it’s fractionally better than the source material. I’m imploring fans and non-fans alike to read the novelization because it actually validates and legitimizes the character arc that Lucas meant to show when he made the prequels. The book is exactly what Revenge of the Sith should have been had the movie been executed properly. The fall of the Jedi Anakin Skywalker and the rise of Darth Vader was a mythos fans were excited to see when the prequel films were announced but never actually got. With the new teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens dropping this past weekend to tumultuous excitement and wary trepidation, I’d like to set aside everyone’s fears by proving that the prequels didn’t utterly ruin the franchise, and thus, we have every reason to celebrate the upcoming release of Episode VII.
I’m not going to list everything wrong with Episode III. There are plenty of great videos that do just that, including the comprehensive Mr. Plinkett review done by the people over at RedLetterMedia. It’s a 1:46 long analysis and is definitely worth seeing all the way through, but if you don’t quite have the stamina for it, YouTuber JeremyJahns recently posted a manageable 16 minute review that also hits on the film’s fatal flaws and scattered attributes. I’ll just be going over the problems that Stover’s novel happily fixes or improves upon.
1. Quick Fixes
There are plenty of details the movie leaves out that would have made the story more believable. The opening scroll announces that the Republic is crumbling from the prolonged Clone War, but we never see any damage. Visually, there should be some things movies are able to do better than books, but in this case imagine that every boring shot of characters staring melodramatically out green-screen windows was accompanied by helpful exposition of the deteriorating situation at the capitol. There’s also little technical detail fixes, like Anakin landing on something like a hover carrier rather than a convenient landing strip, which wouldn’t exist on a city planet where every ship can land and takeoff vertically, or Palpatine not melting his face with his own Force lightning (because that’s just dumb).
The best fix is that a lot of the worst dialogue from the movie is thankfully omitted, especially Obi-Wan’s. I’m not sure if Stover actually had the complete, final draft of the script to work with and that’s why there are subtle changes in the dialogue, but I like to imagine he, a major Star Wars fan himself, felt like he’d rather chop off his arm than write those lines. As a big Kenobi fan myself, I appreciate avoiding having my eyeballs seared off by seeing “Sith Lords are our specialty” in print.
2. The Opening Chapters Are Magic
Another redeeming quality of the book is that once you’ve read it, if you’re ever in a position where your mates want to marathon the series (in which case Machete order is the only way to go), the book version of Episode III will basically superimpose itself into your memory and gloss over the crappiness of the movie while you watch it. Because the opening of this book is flawless.
Adults know that legendary heroes are merely legends, and not heroes at all. And so it is that these adults across the galaxy watch the HoloNet with ashes where their hearts should be.
Ashes because they can’t see a pair of starfighters crisply jettison into the storm of Separatist vulture fighters with all guns blazing.
Jedi Starfighters. Only two.
Two is enough because the adults are wrong, and their younglings are right.
Though this is the end of the age of heroes, it has saved its best for last.
What follows is a space battle that both blows away the opening CGI enabled tracking shot and establishes what Lucas never bothered to in the film: that Skywalker and Kenobi are a team. Their dynamic has shifted, matured. During that opening sequence locating Count Dooku, instead of cutting away to the idiotic droid comedy, the book focuses instead on the human drama. Now when they argue it’s no longer a master-apprentice relationship but the familiar banter between hardened veterans who have gone through tough times with only each other for support. We need to believe in that established brotherhood to feel the pain of it being ripped apart at the climax.
3. Anakin’s Fall Is Fully Realized
The problem with the prequels is that Lucas intended them to be a character arc, but he focused too much on the turning points of Anakin’s story without showing the crucial development that brought the character to that point. What Stover does is deliver an artful character study. You get the impression that it’s almost as if Anakin suffers from a mental illness, like a bipolar disorder that spiraled out of control during a time of heavy stress, causing him to have a psychotic episode with paranoid delusions. That is pretty much the only way killing little kids is forgivable.
The film doesn’t convey his inner conflicts. In the film, Anakin appears to not have changed much since Episode II as he continues to look like a whiny, arrogant prick in front of the Jedi Council after having been appointed a seat by the Chancellor. What the audience doesn’t see is his flailing desperation at being denied the privileges of the Master rank because it means also being denied access to the restricted parts of the Jedi Archive and, thus, one of the few legitimate sources he could have used to find a way to help Padmé.
In the scenes where he’s conflicted between his loyalty to the Jedi Council and Palpatine, what’s being lost is that Anakin is being divided by the loyalties that define him. Obi-Wan explains, “I think that abstractions like peace don’t mean much to him. He’s loyal to people, not principles.” So it makes sense that when institutions like the Republic and the Jedi Order become muddled into chaos, Anakin is willing to abandon the amorphous ideals they stood for and instead cling to the one real thing in his life: his love for Padmé.
4. No One Is Actually That Stupid
When Palpatine revealed he was actually a Sith Lord, for his plan to have worked, there had to have been an unforgivable amount of cluelessness all around. Thankfully, the book smooths out the rough edges of Lucas’s plot holes and has the luxury to spend time outlining character motivations. For instance, Count Dooku’s involvement, his fall as a Jedi, and his willingness to go along with Palpatine’s plans, makes more sense when it’s made clear he’s a raging racist in the style of the genteel plantation owner who casually kills his slaves.
And of course Obi-Wan knows about Anakin and Padmé’s relationship because of course he does! Obi-Wan confronting Padmé about this is a crucial scene that was somehow cut out of the film even though it was an important turning point in these characters’ relationships. As Anakin withdraws from her and turns more and more to the dark side, Padmé feels Obi-Wan is the only Jedi she can trust concerning her delicate position, which causes Anakin to become paranoid of her turning away from him.
Obviously, the book has its pros and cons. After all, there are creative limits to what Stover could do with the source material.
- The space opera scene where Palpatine talks about super secret Sith legends that somehow doesn’t make Anakin suspicious is pretty much left in tact. It’s terrible. I wish Stover had chosen to do something, like turn the story into a parable or something. Literally, anything.
- Still no explanation for the origin of Anakin’s Sith name.
- Padmé’s death continues to be inexplicable and absurd.
- Stover utilizes a reoccurring motif of “This is…” moments: “This is Obi-Wan Kenobi,” “This is the death of Count Dooku,” “This is how it feels to be Anakin Skywalker, right now.” You either love the poetic repetition or you get bored of it.
- The fight scenes are crazy good. Stover studies martial arts, so rather than the numbing boredom of watching overlong lightsaber battles, you get a good sense of the fighting styles, techniques, and tricks being used.
- Stover’s Force system is a pleasure to read. It made sense to me. It’s something between meditative clarity, battle focus, and just a hint of otherworldly control.
- The Anakin/Padmé moments have vastly improved. Again, with a little context and minus the ominous background music, it makes for a believable love story.
- Stover brought the campy fun back to space adventures! Remember back in the day when a space pirate, a farm boy, a spunky princess, a giant dog, and droid versions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bickered while on the run from the evil Empire? Well, I do and I’ve missed it, so it was a pleasure to be able to laugh again over space antics.
In conclusion, if you felt a little flutter in your chest when you saw Han and Chewie at the end of the new trailer and you want to fall in love with Star Wars all over again, you’ve got plenty of time before December to get reading.