Yes, the novelization of Star Wars: The Force Awakens adds some scenes and information to the newest chapter in the Star Wars saga, including some hugely emotional moments for the characters. But it also fails to capture any of the lived-in, jaunty atmosphere of the movie, flitting from one point of view to another without ever really landing, and it rushes some critical scenes.
And that, among other things, makes it difficult to review. The Force Awakens has a pedigree: prolific author Alan Dean Foster ghostwrote the novelization of A New Hope and Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, the first EU novel, as well as scores of other franchise fiction and original novels. Flipping through, I realize that a lot of the same stylistic choices that bothered me in Foster’s version of The Force Awakens are present in the A New Hope novelization, too. In A New Hope, Obi-Wan’s death is quick, and switches from Obi-Wan’s perspective to Vader’s at the moment of his death. The scenes don’t really engage with the emotion within them, although, at times, neither does any other part of Star Wars—Luke’s grief for Obi-Wan is brief, and Leia’s sadness for Alderaan is almost nonexistent on screen. And the novelization doesn’t allow these scenes to sink in, either.
Reviewing a novelization is considerably different from reviewing an original story, though, even one that is part of a franchise. The novel cannot be judged on the strengths and weaknesses of the film—the plot, the world—but can contribute to characterizations or include deleted scenes. The reader’s prior knowledge of the characters can make scenes work or fail. I judged the novelization of The Force Awakens mostly on the prose itself and whether it further illuminated the characters, something it doesn’t necessarily have to do, but for which Matthew Stover’s Revenge of the Sith set a high bar.
Perhaps the book’s greatest weakness is its disinterest in explaining things that seemed to invite additions. We still don’t know who Finn’s fellow trooper is who dies early in the raid on Jakku. The young reader book Before the Awakening told the reader about the culture of the Teedo, the alien that catches BB-8 in a net, but the novelization doesn’t explain what Rey is saying when she speaks the Teedo’s language, even when the scene is in her perspective. She fares all right elsewhere, with an interesting brush with the Dark Side, but as a whole the book flits over its characters. Perspectives change abruptly, making it difficult to feel immersed in the world through the eyes of any particular character. If this is an intentional homage to the style of A New Hope, it’s endearing, but ultimately only hurts the book as a whole.
Kylo Ren fares decently enough. Added to his conflict in the script is a consistent hypocrisy. His childish actions are highlighted even further when he calls other people childish, and Rey’s first confrontation with Kylo is one of the more interesting departures from the movie. He’s interested in making her his apprentice from that very first moment, something we don’t quite see until the end of the film.
Poe and Finn are likewise characterized sparely but with moments of endearing clarity. They’re “astonished” and “overwhelmed” to see one another alive on D’Qar. Poe’s first confrontation with Kylo paints Poe as slightly different than in the movie, using his joking tone to disguise a keen mind for strategy. Meanwhile, Finn, who “had grown immune to compliments he didn’t think he deserved,” gains a bit of pathos.
One of the biggest revelations in the book comes from General Leia Organa, whose role is, as in the movie, mostly one of letting the people she presumably commands do their jobs. In what appears to be dialogue trimmed from the script, she explains that the First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke has been watching her family for her son’s whole life, and that she never told Han about these sinister observations. She thought she could protect Han from the problem, but that didn’t work out well for the family.
The novel also tugs at the heartstrings when it notes that the Ileenium System is the second galactic disaster to unfold in front of Leia’s eyes because of the people she was fighting. An observation missing from the movie, her guilt and fear in that moment made for one of the strongest moments in the book. The scene of the firing of Starkiller Base benefits from the novel format in other ways, too. We learn that Leia’s aid Korr Sella was sent to the Senate to gain support from the New Republic, and that’s her that the camera zooms in on just before the planet’s destruction. It’s a brief point of view, but a useful one.
The workings of the Starkiller Base are described in great (if nonsensical) detail. Terms like “elysium” and “quintessence” join the list of Star Wars science-fantasy jargon.
The scenes that suffer the most, though, are the most important. The confrontation between Han and Kylo and the final lightsaber duel are both very quick, and, as in the movie, are driven quite a lot by history the audience doesn’t know: some of Kylo Ren’s backstory has to remain mysterious, but there’s an extraordinary lack of payoff in his pivotal confrontation. In both scenes, it appears that Foster worked mostly based on the script, not the choreography—understandable, as the choreography may not have been finished. However, with nothing to replace it, the fight scenes are short, their emotional peaks therefore abrupt instead of suspenseful.
Occasionally, the book captures the sparkle of Star Wars, the sense of living in a big, rather didactic legend. It zooms out to proclaim morals like “fighting and resistance, however, were two different things,” with varying degrees of success. Stripped of its visuals and the charisma of its actors, The Force Awakens is a drier script than it was a film. Foster is a legend in his own right, and I have no doubt that the book can capture the same magic for new Star Wars fans that the A New Hope novel did for me. As far as the original writing, there are better Star Wars books, in both the new and old canon. Check out The Force Awakens novelization if you’re interested in new information here and there, a word or phrase to assign to an already beloved character. If you want to fall in love with the Sequel Trilogy and learn more about the movie, the prequel book Before the Awakening is the better place to start.
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.