There’s a lesson in re-imagining the Star Wars films as books: The story isn’t what makes them great. The LucasFilm-sanctioned YA books are touted as a “retelling” of the original trilogy, but they might be more accurately described as carbon copies of the script with enough filler text added in to sell some books. Not a single line of dialogue is changed, demonstrating just how talented Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford are: Nearly every spoken word, taken directly from the script, is painful in print, and that each author who wrote an installment was clearly mandated to copy the lines verbatim into their books is the worst thing about them.
That Alexandra Bracken, Adam Gidwitz, and Tom Angleberger manage to make these kid-friendly books as enjoyable as they do is remarkable, given the constraints. Still, it’s unlikely anyone under 14 will get much out of reading these stories instead of watching them. This writer’s two cents: There’s more magic in one page of Heir To The Empire and its Expanded Universe ilk than there is across these three installments.
Alexandra Bracken admirably tries to fill in the character motivation and backstory missing from the films, with mixed results. It seems she cares most about the first character from the title: Leia gets the most loving backstory here, with pages dedicated to her upbringing on Alderaan, her political career, and her early involvement with the Rebel Alliance. Had Bracken been given free rein to tell Leia’s story outside the plot and dialogue restrictions, her early chapters indicate that she could have crafted a compelling narrative. But with all the film’s dialogue slotted in, and the action constrained to exactly the scenes depicted in A New Hope, Bracken’s prose turns awkward and the flow of the story halts with each mandatory detail.
The book’s structure begins with Leia’s point of view from the moment the movie starts—with her ship under attack from the Empire’s forces—up until Vader demonstrating the power of the Death Star by blowing up Alderaan. The middle section from Han’s point of view follows “the scoundrel” from his meeting with Ben Kenobi and Luke in the Mos Eisley Cantina through their escape from the Death Star, and “farm boy” Luke’s perspective finishes the story. This conceit works overall, though the story would have read better if the perspective switched chapter to chapter. Han and Luke—the scoundrel and the farm boy—don’t get nearly the same in-depth treatment that Bracken gives Leia, with much of their sections dedicated to clumsy explanations of the previous action we didn’t see. Han’s dialogue is the most painful, each “your worshipfulness” and “kid” both excruciating to read on the page and an unintended homage to Ford’s smirking delivery.
The following volume by Adam Gidwitz is much worse. So You Want To Be A Jedi? retells The Empire Strikes Back in grating second person and often reads more like a snarky blog post than a book. “So you want to be a Jedi? I get that,” the opening line reads. “It seems cool. You can do things with your mind… Being a Jedi requires patience and strength and self-awareness. And training. Lots of training. You still want to be a Jedi?”
It’s a cute way of re-framing Luke’s hero journey—or it would be, if Luke’s hero journey were actually about becoming a Jedi. But that’s not the appeal of that character or the story Star Wars tells. Luke may start as a bit of an audience surrogate in A New Hope, but the world of the films is so immersive, the battle of good Rebel versus evil Empire so simple, that seeing events unfold from Luke’s perspective denies the chemistry of the film’s ensemble and robs the story of The Empire Strikes Back of everything that’s not about becoming a Jedi.
“If you want to follow in his footsteps,” the introduction continues, “you need to walk in his shoes. I mean, really walk in his shoes.” Gidwitz is as bad as his word, telling much of the story in second person, with every scene that includes Luke in the film here told from “your” perspective, Luke’s pronoun changed to “you,” making the chapters nearly unreadable. Gidwitz keeps his narrator’s “I” intact throughout these segments, using it to deepen the feeling that you’re reading the sort of sarcastic writing found online, the kind that treats its readers at once as stupid and like they’re students eager to learn from the smart person writing. The author seems to confuse writing for a young audience as the same as being condescending.
Scenes without Luke are eminently more readable, dropping the annoying second-person conceit for the more normal third person, though these chapters are still in present tense, creating the odd prose that naturally follow. Gidwitz includes Jedi lessons throughout, teaching meditation basics and using the Force as a metaphor to describe a philosophy of open-mindedness and humanitarianism. It’s a fun, down-to-earth way to conceptualize Jedi for children—though only young kids are likely to go for it.
Like The Princess, The Scoundrel, And The Farm Boy, this follow-up includes verbatim dialogue from the film, making it a chore to get through for those even casually familiar with the film’s plot points. And like the former book, there’s just no getting around the fact that the actors and their delivery of these lines are what makes the writing great; without Ford’s smirking confidence, Fischer’s haughty confidence, and Hammil’s whining-turned-wisdom, the dialogue is stilted and painful.
Beware The Power Of The Dark Side! finishes the series so strongly it’s a shame Tom Angleberger didn’t write all three. His prose is imaginative and rich while still being very clearly for children, but he writes without the condescension of Gidwitz and the awkward switches in perspective of Bracken. Angleberger’s book is just as constrained with forced dialogue as the previous two, but he fills it in with extracurricular Star Wars knowledge, providing a deeper and more detailed reading experience. Footnotes litter the pages, recalling the asides of Lemony Snicket’s work—not strictly necessary for the story, but fun nuggets of details and context.
Perhaps it’s that Beware The Power Of The Dark Side! caps off the whole story, giving it an inherent advantage over the previous two installments, but this is the only book of the lot that makes a convincing case for its existence. It’s hard to imagine this printed trilogy ever stacking up to the celluloid one, and even young readers growing into modest fans will find these installments lacking. Angleberger at least shows that it is possible to create an enjoyable re-telling of a classic work in another medium, but it’s a thin coat of veneer that doesn’t cover up how poorly a beloved film trilogy is translated to books.