We have, at long last, reached the first film in the Star wars franchise. 20,000 years of galactic history in under a year ain’t bad! Today we’re looking back at the novelization of The Phantom Menace. I plan to take a slightly different approach to the film novelizations in this project. Since most of you reading this have seen the films, I’m going to be focusing more on where the novels differ. Do they add new scenes? Do they recontextualize parts the film? And do these changes add or detract from the story? Let’s find out!
Welcome to Legends of the Hydian Way, the chronicle of my attempt to read through and review all the novels that make up mainline Legends canon in chronological order. May the Force be with me.
Right away the novelization of The Phantom Menace (written by Terry Brooks) sets out on a different foot from the movie. Instead of beginning with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan boarding the Trade Federation cruiser, instead we open on Anakin Skywalker in the midst of a podrace. He reflects on the freedom he feels while racing and engages in a dash against Sebulba for the finish line. Ultimately he falls victim to one of Sebulba’s dirty tricks and wrecks Watto’s podracer.
From there, the book stays with Anakin as he goes home, meets up with some of his friends, and sneaks out to a shop to buy syrupy drinks called ruby bliels. As they drink, the group meets an old Republic space pilot who tells them stories of the wider galaxy, enrapturing the boys and fueling Anakin’s certainty that one day, he’ll see the worlds of the galaxy for himself.
I like the change in opening. Anakin’s introduction here is simple, easy to follow, and inspires the same sense of wonder and excitement about the larger galaxy in the reader that Anakin feels. As an added bonus, it doesn’t throw galactic politics in our face from the first minute, and instead eases us into the setting through the eyes of a boy who dreams of more than his simple life.
Speaking of Anakin – the book struggles with his dialogue just as much as the film. I imagine this is because Brooks was working from a copy of the script, and means Anakin has the same problem of veering wildly from sounding 5 to sounding 35 that he does in the movie. It’s jarring to have a character who talks like Beaver Cleaver one moment and spouts philosophy about the fearful preying other fearful people to feel strong the next.
From Anakin’s new opening we shift back onto a familiar course with events as they occur in the film. The Trade Federation invades Naboo, forcing Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan to rescue Queen Amidala and flee the planet. Here we see the advantage a book has over a movie in terms of budget. In the movie, the flight from Naboo mostly involves the protagonists flying in a straight line right at the blockade while the Federation shoots at them. In the book, the shields protect the ship as they approach the blockade, but a hit knocks them offline, forcing the pilot to skim the surface of the battleship while droid fighters chase them until R2 can repair the shields enough to enable them to break off and flee to hyperspace. Personally this version is more exciting but it’s understandable why they went with a simpler version for the movie.
Meanwhile, back on Tattooine, we have another new Anakin scene. Watto dispatches him to buy some droids from Jawas outside of town. He trusts Anakin to do this alone and to make a good bargain. It shows us an independent streak in Anakin and an intelligence beyond his years. On the way home, Anakin notices a Tusken Raider trapped under a rockslide and stops to help him over the wailed protestations of C-3PO.
The raider is badly injured and Anakin knows leaving him is as good as killing him. So he stops, sets up an electric heater for the cold desert night and spends the night watching over the injured sand person. It’s a quiet scene, and one that demonstrates Anakin’s selflessness and compassion. An especially good moment has Anakin realize that the raider is afraid of him and worries what Anakin plans to do to him. The realization makes him profoundly uncomfortable and he decides he does not like being feared.
Eventually the morning comes and a group of other Raiders steal upon Anakin, surrounding him, but taking only the wounded raider and drifting away, seemingly out of respect for what Anakin did. It makes sense why this scene isn’t in the film, as it’s long and quiet and repeats themes established elsewhere. For the novel, however, I like the way it builds Anakin’s character. Overall I think he gets much more screen time and development in the book, which is badly needed even if his dialogue hurts much of my ability to take him seriously. Quiet scenes like this are best for him because the dialogue doesn’t intrude on the story.
Soon enough the Jedi and the Naboo refugees arrive on Tattooine and things proceed as they do in the movie. It is at one point explicitly stated that Qui-Gon steals parts from Watto to finish Anakin’s podracer, which makes me wonder. If he’s not bothered by stealing from Watto or mind-tricking him into accepting worthless currency, why doesn’t he just steal the hyperdrive and avoid all of the gambling nonsense? But I digress.
Anakin wins both the podrace and his freedom and after a tearful goodbye with his mother the group departs for Coruscant. Two more things of note from the novel version are that Qui-Gon provides food for the night they stay with the Skywalkers (which I am glad to hear because I always felt bothered that they all barge in on two literal slaves and eat all their food in the movie) and the battle with Darth Maul in the desert is slightly longer and Maul actually briefly gets aboard the ship before Qui-Gon forces him off and they flee Tattooine.
The scenes on Coruscant largely play out as they do in the movie, although Brook’s narration is a bit too “wink-wink” with regards to Palpatine for my liking. This is an incredibly minor nit-pick though, so we move on.
We shift back to Naboo in preparation for the final conflict and here we run into a point in favor of the film: Maul doesn’t talk much. He says all of one line and it helps to make him seem more intimidating. While he’s not exactly chatty in the novel, he does talk to the Viceroy several times and it’s boilerplate villain bluster. It undercuts him slightly, in my opinion but again, minor quibble.
The battle for Naboo begins and in this version Brooks takes the time to explain that Anakin’s fighter autopilot is programmed to try to stay in formation with the rest of the squadron, eliminating my confusion from the movie as to how exactly it was programmed to fly straight at the Trade Federation battleship.
Not much is different about the final battle with the Federation or with Maul but I’ll salute Brooks here for bringing the iconic lightsaber duel to life by choosing to focus on the mismatch between young, well-trained Darth Maul and an older, slower, but more experienced Qui-Gon. Since he can’t show us all the flashy choreography, Brooks builds tension by drawing our attention to Qui-Gon’s determined exhaustion and Maul’s savagery. It’s good stuff, and very thrilling.
The book closes with the parade from the film celebrating the victory and again there’s more focus placed on Anakin here. We see everything from his perspective and unlike the movie we get much more of a sense of how adrift he feels. His whole life was just uprooted and the man he was supposed to train under is dead. He can’t go back to Tattooine. Padme is suddenly much too busy to talk to him (and he’s leaving for Coruscant anyway) and Obi-Wan has not shown Anakin much more than cast-off annoyance for being the latest object of Qui-Gon’s disobedience to the Council. No wonder the kid is an emotional mess.
One final area worth mentioning before we wrap this up is the “romance” between Anakin and Padme. Like the movie, there’s some awkward flirting from Anakin, although unlike the movie Padme explicitly says she has feelings for him in return at several points. It helps that we don’t have actors with a much wider age gap portraying the characters (Padme is only 5 years older than Anakin but Natalie Portman is 8 years older than Jake Lloyd). However, at such a young age that gap matters even more and it’s still setting off all kind of creepy alarms for me to have a 9 year old involved in a romantic subplot to begin with. I will never understand why this needed to be in the story this early and couldn’t have just waited to be introduced until Attack of the Clones.
The Phantom Menace is a very hit or miss movie for me. What it does well, it does very well. The finale is beautiful, the music is truly a cut above, and the story is engaging. Where the film falls flat I feel is in the dialogue and a lack of overall character development for most of the cast. The book improves on the latter, particularly in Anakin’s case. If you want to like The Phantom Menace but find the film hard to stomach, the novel definitely holds up.
The more important question, however, is one of whether the book can stand on its own. If the movie didn’t exist, would The Phantom Menace be a worthy entry in Legends canon? I think so, although it has several flaws I think hold it back from being a truly great novel. From an overarching perspective it is sort of weird how much of Legends chronologically prior to this book builds up to Palpatine’s ascencion to Supreme Chancellor, and then this book forgets to actually mention that it happened! In the film, obviously it’s clearly stated but the book only ever mentions his nomination and Palpatine is conspicuously absent from the final scene of the story.
I think this has been a successful experiment and going forward I plan to keep reading and reviewing the movie novelizations. After all they are listed in the official Legends timeline I keep finding at the front of every book. Plus, the fan in me always likes finding little extra scenes that didn’t make the final cut.
Next week we shift gears and follow Obi-Wan and Anakin on a journey destined to take them into a forest of foreshadowing and call-forwards. In the words of Anakin Skywalker “Yippee!”