Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Book Review: Star Wars Novelization by George Lucas/Alan Dean Foster

(Another SF-related re-post from my crime blog. Here's the original entry and the lively discussion it generated.)

If you watched "Star Wars" back in 1977, Jabba the Hutt didn't exist, there wasn't an Emperor, and Red Three (Biggs Darklighter) was just some guy with a mustache who seemed to know who Luke from sometime before our heroes boarded X-wings and attacked the Death Star. That's the way of movies: subtleties can be missed. If you were one of those newly born (hatched?) Star Wars geeks who devoured everything you could get your hands on, you knew the truth. And there was no better fount of wisdom than the novelization of the first movie.

There wasn't any of this "Episode IV" business. As far as we were concerned, this was the real Episode I. "Star Wars" opened up an entire galaxy of potential stories and adventures, aliens beyond our wildest dreams, and rouges and heroes we wanted to be. And for all the books about the concept art or the models being built, George Lucas's novelization was the Bible. Everything was in there...including the scenes that didn't make the movie. And, to be honest, these scenes give the story arcs of Han and Luke much more resonance than just what we saw on the big screen.

Take Han Solo for example. In the book, the Jabba the Hut scene is present and accounted for. And, no, I didn't misspell "Hut." In the original novel, there was only one "T," not the usual double consonants in typical 70s SF (including that of ghost writer Alan Dean Foster). Except here, Jabba is humanoid. A fat, slothy humanoid but a biped nonetheless. He's surrounded the Millennium Falcon with him and his goons and Han and Chewie show up. They work out a deal: Han takes his new charters to their destination and, in return, Jabba gets an extra twenty percent. If you've seen the footage Lucas inserted in the 1997 special edition (SE), you'll know that Han talked Jabba down to fifteen percent. I can't remember if there were sub-titles for Jabba's dialogue in the SE but what you get in the book is Jabba threatening Han: "If you disappoint me again, if you trample my generosity in your mocking laughter, I'll put a price on your head so large you won't be able to go near a civilized system for the rest of your life, because on every one your name and face will be known to men who'll gladly cut your guts out for one-tenth of what I'll promise them." Wonder what Boba Fett's cut was?

In little snippets like this quote from Jabba, you get that sense of wonder that only good SF can deliver. In this novelization, Lucas wrote a prologue. It's only a two-pager but it gives a brief history of the Republic and her protectors, the Jedi Knights. You could almost call it a query letter for the prequels. Here is the first mention of Senator Palpatine , a man who became President of the Republic, then declared himself Emperor. Soon thereafter, in another difference from the three prequels, Palpatine becomes a recluse, ruled by "the very assistants and boot-lickers he had appointed." These soon-to-be tyrants exterminated the Jedi Knights "through treachery and deception" and set about controlling the galaxy. Lucas could have just written this prologue and be done with it. What he did that helped the sense of wonder was to attribute this text to the Journal of the Whills. That little subtlety also helped to make this novelization something special. It made it historical.

But it was Biggs Darklighter and his relationship to Luke that most moved Luke at the beginning of the story and the end and gave the novelization an added emotional impact lost in the movie. Many Star Wars fans were chagrined when Lucas did not reinsert these scenes in the special editions. I still don't know why. They speak so well to Luke's character.

From the ground, Luke sees the space battle above Tatoonie. Excited, he rushes to Anchorhead, the small town where his friends gather. While he's trying to get the gang outside, two things happen. One, they call Luke "Wormie" and, basically, deride him and his flights of fancy. Lucas gives the reader a clear sense that Luke is alone and has more acquaintances than real friends. Two, their old friend Biggs is back in town. Biggs and Luke were best friends until Biggs applied and was accepted to the Imperial Academy. The gang take a look and see nothing. They drift away.

A few scenes later, Biggs and Luke are swapping war stories when Biggs tells Luke the real reason he returned to their homeworld. He and some fellow students plan to join the Rebellion. Biggs can't tell his parents but he wants someone to know the truth if he never returns. Their exchange, back and forth, Luke incredulous that his happy-go-lucky friend has turned all serious, Biggs exasperated that Luke had to withdraw his application to the Academy, illustrate the isolation Luke feels without his friend's constant presence and his longing to go where the action is. Without this scene, Biggs' death during the Battle of Yavin is without meaning. Biggs becomes just another red shirt, to borrow a Star Trek phrase.

One can choose to believe or not Lucas' claim that he had it all in his head from the get-go. Me? I tend to think he thought of Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker as two different people and changed as the movies and stories wore on. One clue in the novelization was right before the final battle sequence when we do see Biggs and Luke reunited. An older pilot, Blue Leader (Blue Leader in the book; Red Leader in the movie) approaches Biggs and Luke. "One of them he recognized. 'Aren't you Luke Skywalker ?'" Don't know about you but when I re-read that, I thought "Whoa! Did Luke's reputation precede him?" Apparently so. Take a read at this statement from Blue Leader. "I met your father once when I was just a boy, Luke. He was a great pilot. You'll do all right out there. If you've got half your father's skill, you'll do a damn sight better than all right." Again, I stress that little nuances like these lines bring so much more depth to the story than the two hour movie. There's history here, another sense that you're in the middle of something that's already started and will continue after you've stopped reading.

Back in the day, there was one other source for these scenes: the comic book adaptation. They illustrated the novelization, not the movie. Thus, we did get to "see" the deleted scenes with Biggs, see Jabba in a weird orange spacesuit and bizarre visage, and the rest of the deleted and extended scenes. The novelization, however, was where the imagination soared. It was the "first step into a larger world." You could smell the "hive of scum and villany," you could feel the heat and sand of Tatoonie on your face, and you could, like Luke Skywalker, gaze at the setting of the dual suns and just dream....

A guy has recreated the critical Biggs scenes and put them up on YouTube. Here they are. The music's a bit loud but it's all there.

The original Jabba scene, with a human actor reading Jabba's lines is here .


  1. I remember that novel well. The movie was delayed, but the novel came out around Christmas of 1976. That subtitle I remember well is visible on that copy you show: from the adventures of Luke Skywalker.
    I choose to believe Lucas changed the story as he went along. Solo, I think, was meant to be a one off character originally. He was not in the novel, Splinter of The Mind's Eye, commissioned and written before the release of the movie.
    If he had it all planned out, Luke and Leia's fascination with each other, not to mention that kiss before they swung across the shaft, starts to border on the creepy.