Friday, May 24, 2024

The Last Jedi Novelization is a Mixed Bag

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In the Star Wars universe, novelizations of films offer unique opportunities. They may confirm—or undermine—speculation or implications drawn from the movies. They may generate new theories or sideline old ones. Or, offer a completely different way to read the movie than the one fans had walked away with. Written media is better at fleshing out character motivations, so novelizations also offer a kind of “behind the scenes” look into what characters are thinking at any given moment.

So, when Jason Fry’s novelization of The Last Jedi (TLJ) promises to “[expand] on the film to include scenes from alternate versions of the script and other additional content,” it has a lot to deliver on. Especially when deleted scenes from the digital release have been making their way around the internet and been analyzed, dismissed, or praised, depending on which character(s) the critic or audience member finds most compelling. Novelizations have the ability to make such deleted scenes more ‘canonical’ than they are on the cutting room floor. (If one wants to make that distinction, which I typically don’t.)

Still, for many the question will be: is it worth reading? Does it add anything significant? Change things? Clarify things?

Yes and no.

A Brief Rundown

As a novelization, unless you haven’t seen the movie, I don’t need to warn you about spoilers. Still, in case you want a refresher, here it is:

“From the ashes of the Empire has arisen another threat to the Galaxy’s freedom: the ruthless First Order. Fortunately, new heroes have emerged to take up arms—and perhaps lay down their lives—for the cause. Rey, the orphan strong in the Force; Finn, the ex-stormtrooper who stands against his former masters; and Poe Dameron, the fearless X-wing pilot, have been drawn together to fight side-by-side with General Leia Organa and the Resistance. But the First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke and his merciless enforcer Kylo Ren are adversaries with superior numbers and devastating firepower at their command. Against this enemy, the champions of light may finally be facing their extinction. Their only hope rests with a lost legend: Jedi Master Luke Skywalker.”

The Good Stuff

First, a bit about the writing style. Reading Claudia Gray’s Leia novels and Lost Stars has spoiled me, I think. She’s such a fabulous writer with a gift for character interiority, that she’s my standard for Star Wars novels in the new Expanded Canon (EC). It probably isn’t fair of me, but it is what it is. Just bear that in mind, as some of what works for me, or doesn’t, may or may not work for you as you read the TLJ novelization.

I liked the switches in point of view; they mirrored the film’s constant shifting of character perspectives without feeling hectic. I also really appreciated that we got perspectives from secondary and tertiary characters like Kaydel Ko Connix, BB8, and Imperial officers like Yago and Peavey. Experiencing the story from a new perspective is always a treat. Plus, I love getting to see the individual personalities of starships. Poe’s Black One is apparently a high maintenance diva and the Millennium Falcon is a cantankerous old fucker who likes dirty jokes and romantic gossip. These are the kind of random things I delight in knowing.

There isn’t a whole lot of new information, but the book does provide some much-needed background on Snoke and the First Order. While we still don’t know where Snoke came from exactly, the book heavily implies that he is neither Jedi nor Sith, but rather “some other sect less celebrated by history” (p. 216). He had sought to train Kylo as a Force wielder with the strengths of both Light and Dark side. However, he perceives Kylo as having fallen prey to the greatest weaknesses of both in his inability to control his emotions or resolve his internal conflict.

We also learn how the First Order survived after the Empire. Having not read the Aftermath series yet—and I wasn’t able to finish the The Force Awakens (TFA) novelization because of how bad it was—so it may be that some of this information was available already. However, it was news to me and would likely be news to most viewers of TLJ who aren’t involved in the EC because none of it ever made its way on screen. Apparently, the First Order hid out in the Unknown Regions until Snoke found them, helped them survive, and built it up into what it is now, with the help of people like Brendol Hux (Armitage Hux’s father), Rae Sloane, etc. Cool beans. Again, would have been nice to have that in the film.

By far the most intriguing part for me was how the book talked about Rey as a scavenger. It wasn’t just her job on Jakku, it’s who she is as a person, her role in the story.

Jakku had trained her to do two things better than anyone else could.

“The first was salvage broken things.

The second was to wait.”


In a scene near this one, Rey surveys Luke’s sunken X-wing, taking mental note of what could or couldn’t be salvaged were she back on Jakku. She notes that very little of it remains—perhaps some wires could be salvaged and reused—and that some unscrupulous junkers would have fixed it up to barely working order, sold it, and let the buyer beware. But she’s not like that. She looks at broken down things and only takes what is worth salvaging, can be repaired, and is actually useful.

Seeing that written in plain print made me realize that’s her role in the story overall. She salvages what she can of the Jedi religion when she brings the texts with her. She salvages what is left of the Resistance when she lifts the boulders away and flies off in the Millennium Falcon. In a way, she does it with people, though indirectly. Her influence on Finn gives him someone to fight for in TFA. She brings Han back to Leia. Her influence on Luke gives him a reason to have hope again and make his final stand to help her save Leia, Finn, Poe, Rose, and the rest of the Resistance.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying she ‘saves’ them or carries the burden of their emotional or character development. It’s never on Rey to save anybody. Rather, because she is the kind of person who sees what is still good and useful and can be repaired, both in people and in mechanical things, other people begin to see that in themselves just by being around her. She’s the ultimate salvager of broken things, finding what is good in them and preserving it while letting what cannot be fixed alone.

This ties directly to two other scenes in the book—one new, one in the film—regarding her connection to Kylo and her choice to leave him behind. In a new scene, as Rey flies away from Snoke’s destroyed cruiser, she reflects on what she learned battling with Kylo in the throne room (a scene that adds insight into how she’s learning to yield to the Force instead of manipulate it).

“Luke’s error had been to assume that Ben Solo’s future was predetermined—that his choice had been made. Her error had been to assume that Kylo Ren’s choice was simple—that turning on Snoke was the same as rejecting the pull of the darkness. …Rey had learned that the Force was not her instrument—that, in fact, it was the other way around.

Just as Kylo was its instrument, despite his determination to bend it to his will. He would learn that one day, she sensed—the Force wasn’t finished with him. And that meant Kylo’s life was not hers to take, whatever future she thought she saw ahead of him…She would wait, and the future would unfold as the Force willed.”


There’s some interesting Force mythology, which I’ll get to, but the point I’m making here is what it says about Rey’s motivation. She’s unwilling to kill Kylo because she senses that the Force still has business with him. But that’s just it, it isn’t her business. His life isn’t hers to take, nor is it hers to fix. There are some things she’s meant to salvage, and others she’s meant to leave to the Cosmic Force to take care of. This is why, in the final Force connection they share—one that Rey both initiates and severs according to the book—Rey looks at Kylo with neither hatred nor compassion (p.306). He has to live with his own choices now.

Now, a lot of that was available by implication in the movie, same with Rey’s role as ultimate salvager of the Light. I’d walked out of the film with very strong impressions of both of these being true already. Yet not everyone I have interacted with since then did, so it’s nice to see those impressions confirmed and expanded upon in the book.

The other really cool thing about the TLJ novelization is its exploration of Force mythology. This is something that wasn’t readily available in the film and does greatly enhance my enjoyment and understanding of it. In multiple scenes, we get a vivid picture of the Force embodying the emotions and thoughts of the sentient beings in the ‘room.’ It’s “bright and spiky with fear” when the Resistance recover Leia from the destroyed bridge. It swirls with pain, darkness, anger, and fear around Kylo.

“[Luke had] explained [to Leia] that life created the Force and made it grow…a luminous tide, one that overflowed the boundaries of the bodies that generated it, connecting and binding all life in a web of energy that spanned the galaxy…a creation of life…Living things created the Force, but they didn’t contain it—its energy spilled out of them until it imbued everything.”


What Fry seems to be getting at is that the Force isn’t a power source, like elemental magic. It’s an energy, but it isn’t neutral. It is influenced by the emotions and thoughts of those beings that make it up. This is why emotions are so powerful, and quite possibly why the old Jedi order eschewed them. But the book also points out through Leia that Luke had decried that particular teaching, choosing instead to recall that attachment is also a fundamental aspect of the Force—it is, after all the connection between all things. This is how he saved Vader. The irony being that Luke shut himself off from that sense of connection out of guilt over his failure with Kylo.

It’s a truly beautiful and rich picture of the Force that fits well within other discussions of the Force in other EC material. And I love it. What the EC is doing with Force mythology is fascinating, and Fry does a great job exploring that in a way we didn’t get to see in the film. I’m not even sure how well it would translate to a visual medium.

The Cosmic Force, as the book calls it, is where things start to feel a bit stickier to me. This is the perception of the Force having a personality and will. Rey believing that the Force wasn’t finished with Kylo is but one aspect of this. Characters like Luke also talk about the Force as if it has a mind in some way, and I still struggle to see how that fits into the “Force as overflow of all the life in the galaxy” idea. It’s also less interesting to me, as it veers into a determinism that I don’t think fits comfortably with the franchise’s emphasis on personal agency and choice. Not that it can’t, just not easily.

Finally, I liked the inclusion of several of the recently released digital deleted scenes and further clarification of what had been implications of the film but not directly stated. Rose biting Hux makes it into the book as well as Luke teaching Rey the third lesson of the Jedi via the ‘invasion’ of the male Lanai, which is really a celebration.

Also, they dance, and it’s perfect.

There’s more nuance to Rey’s dynamic with Luke as well, like the scene where we see that prior to him finding Kylo and Rey touching hands, Luke was ready to go with her to help the Resistance. We also see more gentleness from Luke to balance out his bitterness and trollish sense of humor, which is nice. I still would have liked a fuller discussion of what Luke sees in Kylo’s mind the night he considered killing him. However, I do really like the way Fry explores the dangers of seeing the future with Snoke, Luke, and Rey each getting to weigh in on how that works out.

We get a greater sense that Luke’s moment of weakness with Kylo is the same as Anakin’s: the belief that the future one sees is immutable and one must take steps to prevent it…which in both cases leads to the tragedy of that future coming true. The difference between them is Luke never follows through on his dark impulses, even if it still changes things.

There’s a lot more nuance to the Poe, Leia, and Holdo storyline as well. We get a greater sense of Poe’s anxiety, desperation, and unwillingness to think outside of his pre-existing framework. He’s still secretive and distrustful of Holdo, but he’s less of a hothead. We see that his distrust stems as much from his perception of the hopelessness around him and his single-minded adherence to Leia’s style of leadership as it does from his resentment that he wasn’t placed in charge. We also see more into Holdo’s mind and gain a deeper understanding of her more cautious, keep-things-close-to-the-chest leadership style and how it grated on Poe. It feels less like she singled him out and more that he completely and persistently misread her despite being told repeatedly what his role ought to be. In short, the misunderstanding that leads to the mutiny is far more tragic in the book.

Poe being a shit sewer is book canon, though.

We also get to see that he explicitly learns from her example and admires her in the end, just as she admires his fire. There’s much more mutual recognition of how the other has a valid perspective but not all the information, and less outright antagonism. Once again, the implications are there in the film, in my opinion, but the book fleshes them out.

The book also fleshes out Rose and Finn’s dynamic and journey. There are several additional scenes—some of them from the digital deleted scenes. From Rose’s perspective, we see more of her developing bond with Finn and how she comes to see him less as a traitor and more as a friend, comrade in arms, and someone she can care about more deeply. From Finn’s perspective, we get to see how his motivations and allegiances shift over time explicitly. It’s what I argued for in my piece defending his arc and believe was pretty well fleshed out by implication in the film. But again, it’s nice to see it made explicit.

Potential Drawbacks

Some of the digital deleted scenes weren’t included in the book, three of which I think were more necessary than some of the ones we got. First, we didn’t get to see Luke’s moment of grief over Han on page or on screen, which is a disappointment. Yes, we get Han’s funeral in the book, which is a nice moment. However, knowing that Johnson shot a scene where Luke weeps over his lost friend and not getting that in the book? Huge missed opportunity.

But the even bigger missed opportunities come, surprise surprise (not), with leaving out what I consider to be two key Finn scenes. First, a deleted scene where Finn watches BB-8 play back Rey kissing him goodbye. This is an important character moment for Finn, as it defines his goals when the story begins and highlights why he is so desperate to get away so that Rey can come home to a safe place. Yes, he says as much to Rose, but showing us this scene would have made that even more powerful. And what’s a couple of extra paragraphs?

This is so important for Finn, okay?

The other scene I wished had been included is the one where Finn convinces fellow stormtroopers to turn on Phasma when he reveals that she shut down the shield on Starkiller base. Granted, she did so under duress, but still. That action goes against all of the stormtrooper training, which we know is to prefer death to helping the enemy in any way. That Phasma caved and “squealed like a whoop-hog,” causes fellow troopers to turn on her. She kills them, but it’s still a great moment. It’s a mini stormtrooper rebellion, which is everything I want for Finn, and I’m really disappointed Fry chose not to include that scene in the book. Fingers crossed it means we’re getting more of that in IX.

Along similar lines, Finn is more incompetent in the TLJ novelization than even the film portrayed him as being. As I said in my discussion of his arc, this makes no sense with Before the Awakening. Has everyone in Lucasfilm forgotten that book exists? Likewise, Fry’s inclusion of the deleted scene where a former fellow stormtrooper recognizes Finn and exclaims that he never saw him as commander potential makes zero sense. This isn’t the Finn of whom Phasma said “[His squad] completed the objective due to the skill of FN-2187’s leadership” and “FN-2187 has the potential to be one of the finest stormtroopers I have ever seen” (Before the Awakening).

I hate to admit it (because I had hoped it wasn’t true), but Johnson and Fry do seem to have rewritten a talented stormtrooper and leader with “potentially dangerous level of empathy” (more of Phasma’s words from Before the Awakening) into a bumbling idiot with a heart of gold. Having Rose teach him how to pilot is one thing—we know from TFA that he’s not a pilot, hence his rescue of Poe, who can fly anything. And, to be fair, I think Fry was going for naiveté and unwordliness. However, innocence about the world due to being a child soldier is a far cry from incompetent and unskilled, especially if it makes Finn bad at the things he was quite literally brainwashed into being good at. Plus, having him constantly bumping into things, almost breaking things, or half-forget his training to make him more of a stumbling, lovable goofball is anything but endearing when you take a step back to look at the implications. The choices may not be intentionally racist or demeaning, but that doesn’t make the results any less insulting.

Similarly distasteful is Rose’s weird obsession with Rey and Finn’s feelings for her. It’s as if Fry didn’t know how to write a female character interested in a male one without bringing in jealousy at some level. Jealousy not at all evident on screen, I might add. This is an entirely new layer to Rose, and not one I like. Her arc revolves more solidly around her interest in Finn in the book, turning her into little more than a jealous would-be girlfriend rather than the spunky, hopeful, mechanic who wants to fight for the memory of her sister.

This version of Rose is actually grating to read a lot of the time. Her struggles with anxiety—clearly evident in Cobalt Squadron, Bomber Command, and the Tico sisters’ Forces of Destiny comic book one-shot—are all but neglected on page. While she does have a few nice moments with Finn that provide both lovely character moments for her and more context for her care for him, it hardly makes up for how off-putting she is. She’s far more relatable in the film and in other EC materials than here. It’s a huge disservice to her character, both as a female character generally and specifically as a female character of color.

The writing is also slightly uneven. There are issues with purple prose in some places and dry exposition in others. Not that writing a novelization of a film is easy. Trying to translate a visual medium into print is difficult, and I applaud Fry for doing an overall good job at it. It works more often than it doesn’t, but there are still rough patches.

It’s clear there are scenes he did not want to expand on at all. When that happens, the book can be underwhelming, especially if the scene was an especially powerful visual one. Holdo’s death immediately comes to mind as a scene far better attuned to visual rather than written media. But I understand the struggle, as it has to do with the limitations and benefits of both mediums.

There are other scenes that work far better in written form because we have greater access to characters’ thoughts, feelings, and insights into what’s going on around them. Those are difficult to translate on screen without voiceovers or dialogue. As mentioned above, Rey’s perceptions of Kylo and the Force mythology are significantly better in the novel. Still, there are times where even in those scenes Fry spent a little too much time with the thesaurus. Not enough to make the entire book frustrating to read (as the TFA novelization was), but enough that I would notice every now and again. “Chubby avians” with their “fusillades of squawks” (p.56) comes to mind.

Final Score: 5/10

Overall, it doesn’t add much new information that couldn’t be gleaned from implications on screen or in other EC materials. Clarifying certain aspects of Snoke and the First Order was welcome plot-hole filling. Not that those two things bothered me much, but for those viewers who were annoyed at the lack of worldbuilding there, this book is a useful resource.

There’s a greater sense of intimacy in the book, too, especially when it comes to character motivations. However, this can be positive or negative, depending on the character. As with the film, I walked away with a strong impression that, like Johnson, Fry was far more interested in Rey and Luke, and to a lesser degree Poe and Holdo, than with Finn and Rose. We may get more of the latter’s story, but what we do get actively harms their characterizations in a lot of ways. In fact, the more I reflect on it, the more I wish he’d left well enough alone with expanding on those two and stuck to Force mythology and nuancing the other two arcs. Incompetent Finn and annoying Rose aren’t worth the added scenes he gives them.

Images courtesy of Disney and Lucasfilm

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