This started off as a very different review.
Usually when I read a book I’m writing the review in my head as I go along, or at least some of the high points of it. And for the first half of The Force Awakens my review was going to be a resounding “Meh.”
I came back to Star Wars because last year I reviewed The Thrawn Trilogy, and later explored the world of novel adaptations of movie/TV/game franchises, but hadn’t yet looked at the novelization of a film.
Historically, this is a minefield. I grew up in what might be considered the heyday of novelizations, back when the 8 page center spread of color photos from the movie was a selling point (wow!). When I was a kid, it was the only way to enjoy the movie again while waiting for it to come out at the video store.
Thing is, there are some really bad novelizations out there. Two famous examples are Back to the Future and Gremlins, both written by George Gipe. Back to the Future starts off with Marty McFly watching a film about the effects of a nuclear explosion in class (you know, for kids!), while in Gremlins it’s revealed that the Mogwai are in fact genetically engineered space aliens.
Often these problems were due to the author being given an early draft of the script, sometimes very early, but the real moral of the story here is, “Don’t hire George Gipe to turn your movie into a novel.”
Fortunately, The Force Awakens is written by Alan Dean Foster, a far more accomplished author. The reason I was going “Meh” for the first half wasn’t because it wasn’t competently written, but because there is absolutely nothing new added to the experience. It is, literally, the movie, scene for scene. What minor sidesteps away from the script do exist don’t further anything and feel entirely like pointless padding.
For example, did you wonder what the deal was with Lor San Tekka (played by Max von Sydow) in the beginning of the film? Keep wondering, nothing is explained or even alluded to outside of what you already saw.
Then I got to the middle, which had a spread of a dozen or so color photographs from the movie. That put a smile on my face for nostalgia reasons, but didn’t raise my confidence in the book any.
Fortunately, things pick up in the second half, adding some very welcomed scenes that felt like they belonged. We see what happened to Poe Dameron after he ejected from the crashing TIE fighter. We also have a scene between Leia and her assistant as she sends her to try and get help from the Republic (we see her briefly in the film as the planet she’s on gets blowed up real good).
I suspect these scenes were in the script, and probably even shot for the film, but later dropped. I say that in part because I also suspect that the author’s hands were tied when it came to going off-script. They can’t exactly have him come up with an explanation for something that might be contradicted in the next movie.
There are some more questionable additions that feel tacked on, though, like having the junk trader Unkar Plutt show up in Maz’s cantina before the First Order arrive—but at least it makes for a satisfying scene with Chewbacca that fans will enjoy.
The Force Awakens is a lesson in what to do and what not to do in a novelization. If you are contributing nothing new (or more accurately, nothing significant) then it’s just not worth it.
I don’t mind when a film tries to be as true and accurate to a novel as possible. Not every movie has to have a unique spin on the source material. I enjoyed the first Harry Potter film despite the fact that many complained that it stayed too close to the book (a complaint that baffles me). And The Martian is one of my favorite book-to-film adaptations. In both cases there are many things left out of the movie or altered, and yet it very much feels like the exact same story. That’s no small accomplishment.
But it’s different when it’s the other way around. A novel has an obligation to flesh things out more in a way that a movie can’t without it being six hours long. When The Force Awakens takes the time to do those things, it makes the whole novel feel more alive and interesting, and not just a scene-for-scene remake of the film. My only complaint was that it wasn’t like that from the beginning. We could have seen some of Finn’s life as a stormtrooper before he defected, for example. Or a better sense of where the Republic stands in the galaxy and its connection to the Resistance.
But I guess it could have been worse. They could have brought George Gipe out of retirement.