The Rogue One novelisation does much more than add missing scenes
Novels have been used as blueprints for movies since the early days of cinema. Adapting from a written medium into a visual one brings its own challenges, but cinema craves stories and to have them prepackaged is a producer’s dream. The subtleties involved in adaptation still require those pesky creative types — but at least a book provides a ready-made pitch. In the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, studio head Jack Lipnick memorably tells just-hired screenwriter Barton: “The writer is king here at Capital Pictures.” Of course that turns out not to be true. The idea of art as an essential component in the commercial enterprise of motion pictures is an inconvenience to those such as Lipnick. They understand it only as a necessary evil that must be delivered on demand. “The important thing is we all have that Barton Fink feeling,” Lipnick explains, “but since you’re Barton Fink I’m assuming you have it in spades.” Lipnick is greasing a machine and he expects it to work wonders for him.
Despite what the Lipnicks of the world might think, it is clear that adapting novels into films is an art in itself. That is not, however, a statement you are likely to hear said of novelisations. Novelisations are tricky beasts; an altogether different endeavour than turning a book into a movie. The novelisation is commonly viewed as an extension of the marketing and is typical of more nerd-friendly properties. It’s a niche market, but apply the Star Wars brand and watch your niche market get a little bit more expansive.
On the beach
Given the canonical status of current Star Wars novels, the inclusion of novelisations poses some interesting challenges. Novelisations typically include missing scenes — often from an earlier draft of the script or cut from the movie — and Star Wars is no exception. Are these canon? Pablo Hidalgo addressed the question, suggesting that these particular stories be considered novelisations of canonical events. (I hope that’s given the pedants some sleepless nights.) For The Force Awakens Lucasfilm went back to year zero and brought in Alan Dean Foster to transfer the movie to the page. His Star Wars book-writing credentials are like handprints on Hollywood boulevard, with A New Hope and the alternative — non-Empire Strikes Back — sequel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. Each of these is, however, very much of its time. That is, media tie-in titles rather than very good novels. They are rather plodding and rife with misfiring characterisation; quite un-Star Wars in their ultimate effect.
Foster’s take on The Force Awakens is interesting precisely because of the cut-scenes that were reinserted, yet these scenes also highlight the book’s faults. The additional scenes and extra lines of dialogue are of interest in and of themselves, but don’t flow with the narrative as a whole. It’s as if the story is being disrupted throughout; an effect which took this reader out of the story more than once. Michael Kogge’s junior novelisation is far superior. Kogge may have had to cut back on content — the word count allowance for junior books being a key factor — but he makes up for it with a thrilling, coherent book that is bursting with character. His version works as a standalone entity whereas Foster’s does not.
Alexander Freed’s Rogue One gives us the best of both worlds. Not only are missing scenes folded into the story seamlessly, they are made to feel essential within the context of the novel. However, Freed never makes the reader suspect that the movie would have been better if it had had these scenes. Readers-as-audience-members do not therefore feel cheated. The scenes as written are perfect for a novel. A novel is a different beast than a movie. A simple fact, sure, but one worth reminding ourselves of. Alexander Freed set out to write a damn fine novel based on a damn fine movie and that is what he’s delivered. He has taken all the story elements available to him — including what didn’t make the final cut — and crafted something truly worthy of the name Star Wars.
I’ve said before that I think Star Wars: Catalyst elevates the media tie-in book to an art. Well, Freed has gone one step further. He’s dragged the novelisation into respectability. The exciting kind rather than Man Booker nominees sort. You know, one of those books people not only want to read because it is something they’re into, but fall in love with and go on to recommend time and again. Rogue One is one such book.
There are so many points of interest throughout the novel — clarifications, re-insertions, additions — that I wouldn’t know where to start with regards to sharing them. So I won’t. Instead, I’m going to let you discover them yourself. You know, by reading. If you’re on the fence about reading the Rogue One novelisation then you’ll just have to trust me and pick up a copy. You may not have watched Rogue One for a while and the home video release seems a distant future away — so reading is the means by which you can keep the dream alive!
Of course I understand why some may consider the Star Wars novelisations non-essential. You’re not getting a new story and you’re happy to watch the missing scenes when they land on home video. I get it, I do. But what if you were given a new and unique perspective on the movie by a brilliant storyteller? I think you’d want to hear it.
The opening of the hatch
“It was a scene out of her memory playacted on a new stage — an impossible, nightmare re-creation for the benefit of the little girl who had run to the cave.
But that girl was buried in the wet dirt below the hatch in Jyn’s mind. Her wails of anguish and terror were muted.”
My favourite aspect of Alexander Freed’s Rogue One is his development of Jyn Erso’s inner life. After witnessing her mother’s murder and father’s capture at the hands of the Empire the young Jyn hides in the Erso’s secret place. There is a hatch and there is a cave. There she waits for Saw Gerrera and he does indeed come to rescue her. But imagine the waiting and what it would do to a young mind. Freed imagines this and more. The hatch and the cave become powerful symbols within Jyn’s mind. They allow Freed to map out her psychological journey through the course of the story. The imagery is powerful and primal — mythic and personal — and you can’t get any more Star Wars than that.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story by Alexander Freed is published by Century in the UK and is available now. © Lucasfilm Ltd.