“The historians have it all wrong. It was neither poor strategy nor arrogance that brought down the Empire . . . [It was] such a simple thing. Such a foolish error of judgment. A momentary lapse in an otherwise exemplary life. Had Lord Vader not succumbed to emotion at the crucial moment–had the father killed the son–the Empire would have prevailed. And there would be no threat of Skywalker’s return today.” – Supreme Leader Snoke
Warning: This review contains many SPOILERS for The Force Awakens movie. Proceed at your own risk. But if you haven’t seen it already, go see it now!
Before I get started I want to make this clear that I am writing about the novel The Force Awakens and not the movie. I may yet write my thoughts about the film itself in a later post, but for now I’m sticking to the books. If you’re looking for a movie review, it is not here. Now that that’s out of the way, here we go:
I loved Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of the original Star Wars movie, as well as his second Star Wars novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, and I was very excited to hear that he was coming back to write the novelization of Star Wars: Episode VII. I’ve come to expect a very high standard of Star Wars movie novelizations, especially after the last one, Matthew Stover’s novelization of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, blew me out of the water.
In order to adequately explain how I feel about this novelization of The Force Awakens, I have to first briefly explain what the novelization of Revenge of the Sith was like.
Stover’s Revenge of the Sith novelization was, in short, amazing. It might be the only time that a novelization of a Star Wars movie came close to actually surpassing the movie in terms of quality, content, and enjoyment. In fact, I have heard from many people who actually liked the book much more than the movie. The Revenge of the Sith novel had a luxury that The Force Awakens novel does not have: it had 35 years worth of Expanded Universe material to draw from to add to the story. With the recent canon reboot, and with next to zero stories existing near the time period of The Force Awakens, Foster simply couldn’t draw from decades of previously established stories to embellish the novelization with.
Stover’s Revenge of the Sith made many references to Expanded Universe (“Legends” now) stories and made them integral parts of the story of Episode III. Most notably, Stover drew from his own book Shatterpoint, which was a Clone Wars-era novel starring Mace Windu. Any scene featuring Mace Windu in Revenge of the Sith was made even better by acknowledging and drawing from Windu’s experiences and talents that we were introduced to in Shatterpoint. As a huge Expanded Universe fan, this made the novelization so much more enjoyable.
On top of that, Stover included brand new scenes that were not in the movie. Whether these scenes were his original creations, or if they were based on early scripts of the movie, I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. The fact is, the book contained new scenes and situations that I wasn’t familiar with, which greatly added to my enjoyment of the book.
Foster’s The Force Awakens novelization doesn’t really have any of that. Yes, it does have a few scenes that weren’t included in the movie (and those were probably my favorite parts of the entire book), but there weren’t many of them and the extra scenes weren’t very significant anyway. This novelization is more or less a direct scene-for-scene adaptation of what we all saw in the movie theater. I couldn’t help but ask myself “what’s the point of reading this when I can just watch the movie?” That’s not a question you should come away with while reading a book.
The book does have things I really liked. Right off the bat, before anything else, the novel opens with a short passage from the “Journal of the Whills.” It is a short verse that really isn’t all that important to read, but just the fact that it exists makes me happy. The Journal of the Whills dates back to some of the early drafts and concepts of the original Star Wars movie. It has never been expanded upon much, so we’ve never had a really good idea of what it is in the first place, but it seems to be almost like a book of scripture in-universe. The prologue in the novelization of A New Hope, which was one of my favorite parts of that entire book, was also a section of the Journal of the Whills. I was happy to see Foster revisit that idea and include it in his second novelization as well.
After the short verse from the Journal of the Whills we see the opening crawl of The Force Awakens on the next page. It is exactly the same as the crawl we read in the movie, word-for-word. And yes, I have seen the movie enough times already to confirm this. I know it to be true.
One of the cool things about the book is that the opening scene is completely different. We are not on Jakku. We are not seeing Poe, or BB-8. The novel instead opens with Leia. She desperately wants to know where Luke is, though she doesn’t even know if he is still alive. The Republic is on the verge of collapse, and she knows that her brother can be of help if she can ever find him.
Leia isn’t introduced to us until pretty far into the movie. In the novel, we get to see her from the beginning, with short scenes here and there interspersed in between the scenes we are familiar with from the film. These scenes are cool, simply because they are new. They aren’t super important though, and I think Leia and Threepio’s introduction in the movie is actually better because we don’t see them from the beginning of the story. However, the scenes do provide a neat little bit of extra information for all the superfans out there like myself.
Chapter 2 is the actual first scene of the movie, on Jakku. Poe gets the piece of the map, Finn freaks out in his first mission, Phasma tells Finn to submit his blaster for inspection. One tiny detail I actually really appreciated, that maybe I was too stupid to understand when watching the movie, was that Phasma specifically asks Finn to submit his blaster because she thinks the reason he never fired it was because it was jammed. Maybe that was obvious to everyone else who watched the movie, but it wasn’t to me. It was a good little bit of clarification.
Highlights of the book include an extra scene of Poe on Jakku after his TIE Fighter crashes. It makes his later appearance in the story not seem so abrupt or confusing. Dialogue between Kylo Ren and Snoke is also expanded upon, which was really interesting to read. One of the main things is that it makes it very clear that Snoke and Kylo Ren are not unaware that Vader turned back to the light in Return of the Jedi. I’ve heard a lot of comments from people who are asking “Doesn’t Kylo Ren know that Vader turned good in the end?” Well, yes, Kylo does know that. So… There ya go.
One thing that annoyed me was that the book points out that part of the map that BB-8 was carrying showed a well-known nebular cluster. If the map had well-known locations on it, then wouldn’t that be enough to get to the destination, even without the missing piece? In the movie, Threepio mentions that the map matches nothing on any of their records. But, apparently it shows a well-known landmark. Probably just a mistake, but it bothered me. Oh, by the way, the book makes it clear that it is not specifically a map to leads to Luke Skywalker (which would be stupid), but a map that leads to the first Jedi Temple, where people simply hope Luke Skywalker is. That makes way more sense.
Unkar Plutt shows up later in the book, in Maz Kanata’s castle, and he’s angry at Rey for stealing the Millennium Falcon from him. This leads to a funny interaction between him and Chewbacca which I sort of wish had been in the actual movie, even though it really adds nothing to the story.
Another one of the things I really liked about the novel was that it explained how Starkiller Base’s weapon worked. A common complaint I’ve seen from fans about the weapon is that it makes no sense how its beam traveled across the galaxy so fast. The book actually goes into pretty good detail explaining why and how it can do that. Finn is actually the one who explains how it works to the Resistance:
“It doesn’t operate in what we’d call normal hyperspace. It fires through a hole in the continuum that it makes itself. Everybody was calling it ‘sub’-hyperspace. That’s how it can arrive in moments across a distance like that between the base and the Hosnian system . . . General Hux told us it’s the most powerful weapon ever built. He said that it can reach halfway across the galaxy . . . And in real time. Because it doesn’t reach across the galaxy; it reaches through it.”
I wasn’t really expecting an explanation for that, but I was happy to see it.
Another piece of info I appreciated was that this book confirms that Han and Leia are husband and wife. The movie never actually makes this clear. But they are in fact married. Didn’t have a kid out of wedlock or anything. Also, the book points out that when Han finally sees his son’s face it is the first time he has ever seen his son as an adult. How long has the kid been gone? A long time, apparently.
There was a short extra scene in which Kylo Ren actually boards the Millennium Falcon on Starkiller base. I was kind of hoping for a cool, emotional moment, with him remembering his past or something. But nothing really happens. It was sort of a letdown and I can see why it didn’t appear in the movie.
It is also strongly implied in the novel that Kylo Ren knows exactly who Rey is. After a display of her Force abilities, Kylo Ren turns to her and says “It is you.” After which the narrator adds “His words unsettled her: Not for the first time, he seemed to know more about her than she did herself.” While us in the audience can still do no more than speculate as to who Rey is, it seems safe to assume that at least one character in the film knows exactly who she really is. And the theories will continue to run wild.
One thing I really wanted an explanation for that I was really disappointed the novel didn’t clear up was this: why the heck did Artoo turn on when he did? Why didn’t he turn on when BB-8 first arrived? Why was his awakening so perfectly timed, right after the good guys had won their big battle? It felt incredibly cheap in the movie and I was hoping for an actual explanation for it in the book. There isn’t one. It is simply a deus ex machina that is never explained, and is incredibly lazy storytelling in my opinion.
Overall, I’d say this book is very skippable. There are some neat moments with extra tidbits of information, but not nearly enough that I’d really consider reading this book “worth it.” It is mostly a scene-for-scene direct adaptation of what we saw on-screen, with slightly longer dialogue. It is not written poorly, but it simply doesn’t provide enough new information for me to ever recommend this over the movie. While the novelization of Revenge of the Sith was filled to the brim with extra information and references to other Star Wars stories, The Force Awakens novelization is simply a prose version of the movie.
I am a fan of the movie (I’ve seen it five times already for crying out loud), though I have my fair share of criticisms about it. I had the biggest smile ever on my face the whole time when I saw the movie on opening night. And I had a slightly-less-big-but-still-there smile the other four times I saw it. However, when I left the theater after my first viewing I specifically remember thinking that if I had just experienced the exact same story in book form instead of as a movie, I would have thought it was stupid. Well, reading the book kind of validated that thought, and I honestly have to say that the book actually made me like the movie less, simply because it made it even more clear that the story is honestly not very good.
If you don’t care about extra information and simply want to read a book version of a movie you liked, then by all means read this book. If you’re like me and you were hoping for a little something extra, you’re likely going to be disappointed. Alan Dean Foster is a good author, but I really wish he would have been given some extra material to work with this time around. Honestly, I’d say you should skip this one.