Thursday, August 9, 2012

32 BBY: The Phantom Menace Novel


The book is always better than the movie, and the novelization of The Phantom Menace was no exception.
This is especially the case with Terry Brooks, writer of the epic Shannara series, and one of the imitator's of Tolkien’s fantasy tradition.  In his lecture series titled Rings Swords and Monsters, Michael D.C. Drout of Wheaton College places Brooks as one of the minor inheritors of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy tradition, and also the second writer of the 20th century to prove that the fantasy genre is commercially viable. 

Drout’s contention is not universally accepted however.  Some would contend that Brooks does not deserve the title “Inheritor of Tolkien”, claiming his work is simply too derivative of Tolkien, (and it is) but Drout leans towards granting Brooks this title.  Drout claims that Brooks opened the gates for authors to react to Tolkien and count themselves within the fantasy tradition.  Drout goes on to argue that once Brooks was able to write all of the Tolkien out of his system and pass through his “anxiety of influence”, as argued by Harold Bloom, he was able to take ownership over the title “Inheritor of Tolkien” through his work The Elfstones of Shannara.

Having Terry Brooks pen the novelization of The Phantom Menace is, in my opinion, a minor coup for Star Wars mythology, and is a great living bridge between Lucas’ Star Wars, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Plus, Brooks is a helluva writer.  His opening paragraph describing the landscape of Tatooine was beautiful.  But credit where credit is due: although Brooks is a great writer, Lucas is a better storyteller when it comes to visual effects.  Brooks’ presentation of the podrace scene and the final confrontation between Kenobi, Qui-Gon, and Maul did not hold a candle to Lucas’ presentation of the material. 

My reactions to the novel basically boil down to three categories: my reactions to the characterization of Anakin Skywalker, differences from the film, and Star Wars place within the fantasy and mythology tradition.  I’ll begin with my first point.

In redlettermedia’s critique of The Phantom Menace, he rightly pointed out that the film lacked a protagonist.  The protagonist in a story such as this usually starts out as someone down on their luck, in a bad place in their life, or someone who doesn’t have everything work out perfectly for them.  This definition fits Anakin, but as redlettermedia points out, the audience doesn’t meet Anakin until 45 minutes into the movie.  That’s a problem if Anakin is indeed the protagonist of the story.  The protagonist needs to enter the story early so the audience can identify with him or her.  What is more, the things happening around Anakin are pretty much out of his control or understanding, which again is a problem if he is the protagonist.  If the protagonist has no concept of what is going on or what’s at stake, then there is no real tension or drama, without tension or drama there is no real story.  Redlettermedia concludes that the film lacked a protagonist, and I agree with him.

In the novelization of The Phantom Menace Brooks remedies this problem (though not completely) by beginning the story with Anakin Skywalker, the intended protagonist (I think) of this tale.  So far the novel is off to a good start, and really, this is how the film should have started as well (If Anakin was indeed the intended protagonist, and not Obi-wan Kenobi, who I think should have been). We meet Anakin competing in a podrace with his arch-rival Sebulba.  There is tension and drama, but as expected Anakin falls short of his goal, loses the race, and is defeated by his enemy.  Here Anakin fits the bill of protagonist perfectly.  We’re now engaged with his story. We learn he is a slave, has a mother who loves him, is harassed by his slave-owner, and has a goal to one day defeat his greatest rival by creating his own pod racer.  We’re now interested.  We’re beginning to care about him.  Again I ask, if Anakin is the intended protagonist, why didn’t the film begin with him like the novel did?

Chapter six in the novel was by far the most interesting, and an episode in the film that I don’t think was even filmed (unlike the cut Greedo scene which I’ll address momentarily).  In chapter six, after Anakin had been ordered by Watto to head out into the desert and trade with the Jawas for some droids, he came across a wounded Tusken Raider.  Unsure of what to do, his head filled with horrible stories of these savages, Anakin gave the fallen being aid.  This speaks deeply to Anakin’s character – his ability to overcome his fear and do the right thing – not the wise thing but the right thing.  He stays with the Raider through the night to make sure the wounded warrior is fine.  In the morning he is greeted by the Raider’s tribe, but instead of killing the young boy, they ignore him and take their wounded member home.  This was an interesting scene which detailed and developed Anakin’s character.  Less of Jar Jar and more of this is what The Phantom Menace needed.

One of the scenes which met the cutting room floor was the fight between Anakin and Greedo, and a scene which was well presented in the novel.  I don’t know if this event is considered canon, but this scene is mostly good.  I say mostly because the Rodian Anakin fought did not need to be Greedo.  Sure it was neat, connecting The Phantom Menace with A New Hope, but the scene is about Anakin, not about the Rodian.  Yet what is lost in this cut-scene from the film is Anakin’s motivation for the fight.  He didn’t really fight Greedo because he called him a cheater, though that was at the surface.  He fought Greedo, or more accurately pummeled Greedo, because he thought Padme was going away and he would never see her again.  He was heart-broken at already losing her when he had just met her.  Greedo was a convenient punching bag that gave him a great excuse to release his anger.  To help this scene along the scene before this one could have been Padme saying goodbye to Anakin, then Anakin walking home a bundle of emotions having just won the race of his life and losing the girl of his dreams.  Enter Greedo, and along with him tension and drama.

On the topic of the relationship between Anakin and Padme, again, the novel did well presenting their first exchange.  After meeting Padme for the first time, Anakin announced to her “I’m going to marry you”.  I think out of context the line seems strange and silly, but it again speaks to Anakin’s character.  He’s self-confidant, un-unnervingly so (this self-confidence completely discombobulated the Tusken Raider earlier in the story.  So much so that the Tusken Raider was afraid of Anakin, and wanted to know what he was going to do with him).  In the novel Padme is amused by the boy.

The final scene I want to talk about from the novel was Anakin’s goodbye.  To be honest, this episode from the film choked me up a little when I first watched it.  It was sad seeing a little boy leave his mother.  The novel ramped up the drama, for me anyway, with Anakin saying goodbye to Kitster as well.  Kitster, thinking he’s heading over to his friend’s house to celebrate his win, is told he is leaving and he’ll never see him again.  This is sad.  Kitster tells Anakin before he leaves “You’re my best friend.”  It was such a sad exchange between two little boys with such strong feelings for each other.

Moving on in my reactions, there were some other notable differences in the novel from the film.  I appreciated how Brooks downplayed some of the annoyingness of Jar Jar Binks.  I especially appreciated that Brooks edited from his version Jar Jar’s “how rude” line.  In my review of the film I spoke about how I was disappointed Lucas felt the need to make a contemporary reference to Wayne’s World and the phrase “exsqueeze me”, but the other line I took exception to was Jar Jar’s “how rude” bit, which was a reference to the character StephanieTanner and her catch phrase from the show Full House.  I make this assumption only because Lucas had teen and pre-teen daughters back in 1994 when he was writing The Phantom Menace, and I imagine his teenaged girls in 1994 were probably watching this show.  Lucas’ family carries some influence with him when he makes a movie.  After reading a section on The Secret History of Star Wars, I lament the fact that Marcia Lucas wasn’t around to ground George a little more and edit out his bad choices.  I honest believe had she still been in the picture, The Phantom Menace would have been a much better film.  After reading this section, it became apparent to me that one of the reasons A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back were so incredible was because of her.  It’s sad she’s slowly being edited out of Star Wars’ history.

Other smaller differences I enjoyed in the book were Padme introducing herself to Anakin with her last name, Naberrie, which I thought was rather Tolkienesque (112).  I thought it more appropriate that Anakin used the term “lightsaber” instead of “lasersword” when seeing Qui-Gon’s weapon for the first time (131).  I thought Obi-Wan was less petty when he said “another stray” instead of “another pathetic life form” when commenting on Qui-Gon’s decision to bring Anakin with them (183).  I enjoyed Darth Maul speaking more than six words (259).  And the fight between Obi-Wan and Maul at the end featured them force-flinging objects at each other which I thought was neat, but glad wasn’t part of the film.  Again, credit where credit is due.  The fight between Kenobi and Maul was excellent and Lucas did well there.

I want to end my post with bringing it back around to the idea of Tolkien and the larger idea of myth, and why I think Star Wars fits the label of mythology perfectly.  Again referencing Drouts lecture series Rings Swords and Monsters (the next few paragraphs I’ve basically lifted from his lecture), he argues that what made Tolkien’s world so myth-like was that it felt like a “great chain of reading”, to use the phrase of a Hungarian scholar named Guerguy Nouze (I’m unsure of the correct spelling of his name).  Tolkien was a fanatical, and somewhat disorganized reviser, and  when his son Christopher Tolkien tried to edit together the Silmarillion what he ended up with was an enormous amount of story that didn’t always agree.  When Christopher Tolkien tried to put all of his father’s notes together he tried to have a working and logical continuity (much like what Leland Chee does with the holocron), but it didn’t work because his father had such variants of his stories.

Drout goes on to say that Tolkien may have purposely never finished the Silmarillion because he viewed it as a continuing and evolving creation, a development of many stories, some of which would clash with one another, some of which might be different variants of others.  In other words he was creating a medieval archive, and medieval archives often have information that clashes with each other.  In medieval archives there are different dates for battles, one source saying one side won a battle while another claiming the other side won.  Geurguy Nouze claims that Tolkien’s work seems so much like myth exactly because it has those contradictions and mistakes.  He calls it a “great chain of reading”, and claims that the feelings we get and the aesthetic appeal we feel when we read Greek myth, or Norse myth, or Anglo-Saxon myth comes from the long chain of reading that has different people over a great span of time, reading, revising, adding, and manipulating material.  In all of Tolkien’s Middle Earth books he ended up creating this, and in a very real sense, this is also what has been created with all the Star Wars material we have before us today.  We are faced with a 21st century version of a medieval archive.  Let me connect this idea to the novelization of The Phantom Menace:

“Qui-Gon Jinn was one of the most able swordsmen in the Jedi order.  The Jedi Master he had trained under considered him one of the best the Master had taught in his more than four hundred years in the order” (283).
The meaning is clear here: Qui-Gon’s master, who has been part of the Jedi Order for over 400 years, thinks that he is one of the best swordsmen he has ever trained.  This line contradicts with what we know about Qui-Gon’s canonical history.  He was trained by Count Dooku, one of the lost twenty, not some four-hundred-year-old Jedi Master.  But contradictions like this don’t upset me. It’s a minor blip that is the result of so many artists playing in the same sandbox that is the Star Wars Universe.  Sure, Chee can come around and iron out this inconsistency by claiming that “Jedi Master” from the above quote is taken to mean someone other than Dooku, perhaps a senior member from the council who was responsible for Jinn’s saber training.  But these inconsistencies give Star Wars its mythological feel, and as fans we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff – it’s all part of the Great Chain of Reading that is Star Wars.

Perhaps the most significant passage from The Phantom Menace’s novelization that most aptly captures this “Great Chain of Reading” sentiment was the (then) newly introduced history of the Sith, and along with it a Darth other than Sidious, Maul, or Vader.

“The Sith who reinvented the order called himself Darth Bane.  A thousand years had passed since the Sith were believed destroyed, and the time they had waited for had come at last” (136).
We have finally come full circle to Darth Bane’s origins.  The description of Darth Bane’s rise through the ranks proffered in TPM is mostly consistent with what we’re been presented with thus far, but there are some differences.  We are told that the Sith were a cult who came into being “almost two thousand years ago”.  This contradicts with what we know from the Tales of the Jedi comic series from the mid-nineties, as well as the story of Ajunta Pall and all the other fallen Jedi Knights from the Knights of the Old Republic video game.  But it’s these differences which give Star Wars is mythological feel. 

Darth Bane’s emergence in Star Wars history here is a great example of what Guerguy Nouze is talking about. Darth Bane starts with a minor mention from Lucas in 1999. This mentioned is picked up in Reaves Shadow Hunter in 2001 as an indirect mention (so indirect I missed it myself.  This is according to Wookieepedia).  He’s then brought to life by Kevin J. Anderson in the now non-canon Bane of the Sith short story also written in 2001.  He’s further immortalized in Macan’s Jedi vs. Sith comic later that year, and from this point he becomes pretty well established in Star Wars canon.  There are some minor mentions of him in The Living Force RPG material in 2003 and 2004, and he’s again mentioned in Revenge of the Sith in 2005.  But Bane’s full emergence into Star Wars history finally arrived in the form of Karpyshyn’s novel Path of Destruction in 2006, and from here, the rest is history.  This is, indeed, a Great Chain of Reading; a chain that continues to this day.
Star Wars is mythology.  Star Wars is our mythology.  It will live with the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Beowulf alike – mark my words.
For my next post I’m going to take a look at The Queen’s Amulet.  Until then my friends, may the Force be with you.

3 comments:

  1. No reaction to the section on Darth Bane, his first mention in any SW source?

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  2. I made a note about it in my notebook, but when I wrote the rough draft for this post it slipped by me, and honestly, I'm a little irritated with myself. I realized after I had published it that I forgot to mention it. But it took me so long to write this post I gave-up on going back and editing it. I'm going to let this version stand for now. But yeah - it was one of the reasons I was looking forward to reading the novelization, and I seem to have gotten distracted by other things. You and I talked a little bit about this in my post on Rule of Two, with Anderson's Bane of the Sith being a reaction to the line about Darth Bane from this film's novelization. I regret not going over that infinity source on its own. It's a perfect example of what I was talking about with regards to Star Wars being a 21st century "medieval archive", and the whole idea about texts influencing texts. Nuts, I should have made Bane my central focus for this post!

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