I am not the kind of person who would mostly consider film novelisations to be worth reading. Not many people are, and generally rightly so. But for both old and new fans of Star Wars alike, there is one exception worth mentioning.
Matthew Stover’s Revenge of the Sith is a novelisation of the third prequel Star Wars film. Even more than ten years after the film’s introduction, it is a book worth reading. If you liked Episode III, it will enrich you. If you didn’t like it or found some really bad things about it, you might like it even more.
Matthew Stover is a well-established author in the Star Wars canon – or at least in the old one. I remember that when I first read one of his Star Wars novels (Shatterpoint – the story of Mace Windu’s journey to one of the many planets caught in the galactic conflict of the Clone Wars), I had many reservations about it. It did not feel like Star Wars. Star Wars is, after all, a fairy-tale. Matthew Stover does not write fairy-tales. He writes grim, realistic, almost pessimistic stories which fit better with the grittier part of the SF genre than with Star Wars. In his books, good guys like Mace Windu may prevail, but it is at the expense of their personal integrity, after suffering considerable losses and witnessing horrors which – and that is the realistic part – any war-survivor would probably witness, but which would be kindly omitted from “escapist” literature (with no condescension – I, personally, favour “escapist” literature, in the way professor Tolkien understood it. But the raw, grim view has its own boon).
The Revenge of the Sith must have been a natural choice for Matthew Stover, and he must have been a natural choice for it. The movie, as surely all of you know, is the darkest point of the whole saga. It was meant to be that way. Anakin Skywalker’s fall was meant to be a tragedy. Yet many – especially the so-called “prequel-haters” – see it as a very badly written tragedy. Anakin’s decisions are not sufficiently explained, they say. His behaviour is ridiculous, they say, and Padmé’s behaviour towards him does not really help it, either. And is he really such a fool to accept the title of Darth Vader without any proper knowledge of what the Sith path entails? All these are relevant concerns if you watch Episode III as it is. The script isn’t the best, but you simply cannot show everything you would like in a fixed-length movie. This is one of the things ROTS novelisation amends.
Usually, film novelisations can be characterised by a couple of things. They add a few details to the story here and there, usually tidbits which did not make it to the movie, and they try to be as faithful to the source as possible. Stover’s Revenge of the Sith goes much further than that. It takes quite large liberties when it comes to rewriting the story. At the same time, it stays within the logic of the film. Some of the classic quotes from the film are the same, but some are not. Dialogues are usually changed quite a bit, remaining the same in essence, but not copying the words of the characters word-to-word. The author takes fairly large amount of artistic liberty and it is quite entertaining. The main aspect, however, is the character’s psychology. The main advantage of a book over a film is obviously the possibility to look inside characters’ heads, to see what they think. And if you ponder a bit what the Revenge of the Sith actually is about, you’ll see that understanding characters’ motives, seeing inside their heads, is the thing that matters in this particular tale.
The novelisation spends much more time on characters’ psychology than would be usual for an average book of this kind, even if it’s about Revenge of the Sith. There are quite many added scenes, too, especially between Anakin and Palpatine, Anakin and Padmé or Anakin and Obi-Wan (important, as I will elaborate in a while). Anakin’s thoughts on Padmé explain much better the attachment he has to her. When you are reading the book, you may get the feeling that the author had been trying hard to work with what the previous films had established (and let’s face it, the relationship has never been very well-written in the films, sadly), but he did his best to show us the two as lovers absolutely devoted to each other. Myself – but that is a subjective feeling – I felt a kind of raised question whether from Anakin’s side the relationship was really love rather than obsession, and from Padmé’s side, how blind she was to Anakin’s obvious flaws.
Anakin (like everyone in Stover’s books) is shown first and foremost as a normal human being. That is the reason he is prone to fall, like anybody in his shoes would be. Jedi teachings seem to be suddenly very abstract in the face of galactic war and the threat of imminent death of the person he loves. Added scenes with Palpatine show the process of losing himself more gradually than the film does, and it is much more convincing. For instance: when Palpatine asks Anakin to become his representative on the Jedi Council, Anakin is already thinking of using his new position as a Master (as he expects) to access the knowledge in the Jedi Archive normally restricted only to Masters, with the hope to find some ancient (even if forbidden) powers to save Padmé. Already this early on, the book gives clear signals that Anakin has already fallen from the Jedi principles, even though he does not formulate it aloud, he already cares more about Padmé/his peace of mind more than about the actual position. His outrage after being told that he is not going to become a Master suddenly has much more power when we know exactly what Anakin must be thinking at that point – the Council is taking away his (presumed) chance to save Padmé.
The thing I remembered about the first book I read from Matthew Stover were some really grisly details, and that is true also for Revenge of the Sith. There are only several occasions, but for instance the slaughter of Separatist leaders on Mustafar in the end is very graphic. That said, the author does not overdo it, even though I always get the feeling that he would perhaps like to do it more. A casual remark about General Grievous brushing off a bit of somebody’s brains off his arm is not really the thing I would expect from Star Wars. (But that said, Stover’s Grievous is sketched out quite realistically – unlike his film counterpart, and you can actually take him seriously. And that goes for other things as well. There is only one mention of Jar Jar in the whole book, but perhaps it would be interesting to see Stover write something where he plays a major part.)
One very important part I cannot simply omit is the relationship between Obi-Wan and Anakin. If Anakin is the main character (and rightly so, being the central figure of the tale), then Obi-Wan is close second. And one thing that becomes very clear very soon is that Matthew Stover didn’t write as much a story of Anakin and Padmé (however she is given some important parts, but just not as many) as of Anakin and Obi-Wan. You can (and I believe it was written that way) follow the whole story as a struggle, the process of transformation of their relationship from love to… well, not hate (certainly not from Obi-Wan’s part), but the inevitable confrontation which comes with Anakin’s fall. But they are at the heart of it. And that is why the story is a tragedy. The love between Obi-Wan and Anakin is stressed so much at times that it seems to put the whole situation into a completely different light. The words the author put into Palpatine’s mouth could summarise the whole problem, as it could be interpreted after you’ve read the book: “Perhaps it’s simply a question of whether you love Obi-Wan Kenobi more than you love your wife.”
It seems like I have mostly praise for the book, and indeed, overall I believe it to be a success. It doesn’t reach superb literary quality, however, and in some instances (like the artsy overtures about darkness and light at the beginning of each part) the wording is on the verge of sounding too pathetic – then again, given the genre, certain things are to be expected. Expanded Universe fans will find a lot of nods to other books (especially Stover’s, like in the parts from Windu’s point of view) or to the Clone Wars, but these are merely footnotes and should not disturb those who could not care less. The author manages to avoid dwelling on battle scenes which might look good on-screen but have no place in a book (especially the last battle is handled superbly, and, I once again must say, makes much more sense than in the film). For me, the most fun part of the book was to constantly mentally compare it to the film, it does enough to conjure the images and memories, but it goes in its own way.
Like I said in the beginning: generally, I would not recommend anyone to spend their time by reading film novelisations, but this is indeed an exception.