The first Star Wars novel published by Del Rey was the novelization of Star Wars (1977), and was actually titled Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker. While Del Rey would go on to publish a handful of novels into the early '80s, their publishing rights would later go to Bantam.
The Bantam era gave us several classic Star Wars novels, most notably Star Wars: Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn. However, around the time of the Special Edition releases of the OT, the license reverted back to Del Rey, and fittingly, the first novel published was none other than Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace by Terry Brooks.
What better way for Del Rey to inaugurate the reacquisition of the Star Wars license than to publish the novelization of a new beginning, the start of a whole new saga?
There is very little to be said about the plot of The Phantom Menace that hasn’t already been said. It’s very possible that no film in the Star Wars canon has been as discussed, dissected, defended, reviled, or loved. Seemingly, love for the film exists only in extremes.
But novelizations of the films hold within their pages a certain magic, perhaps explained by the insane talent and genius of George Lucas mixed with the writing talent of some of the best authors in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. If you loved Revenge of the Sith, Matthew Stover’s novelization only serves to enhance the story on screen that may forever alter one’s views of the film itself. This is unavoidable, as it is terribly difficult to unlearn what we have learned, so to speak.
And while the plot of Brooks’ novelization hews tightly to that of Lucas’ script, his prose does what prose often does best: gives a story room to breathe. While the film is a tapestry upon which numerous stories unfold, viewed at a remove due to the sheer amount of things that happen throughout the story, the novel allows one to see the brush strokes. Rather than open the story with Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s arrival to the Trade Federation ship, the novel opens on the sun-scorched sands of Tatooine where we meet a Pod Racer named Anakin who, in an amazing display of dexterity, holds his own in a race that kills most of its human participants. Though he crashes, and loses the day, he does indeed accomplish what few humans ever have. And it turns out he’s only nine-years-old!
Certainly, this fact is well known, as the film provides that info in a different context. The novel however, tells us at the outset, that this is the story of a remarkable young man, destined to become a part of the galaxy at large, witness to moments that will literally shape the future of the galaxy.
The characters in the novelization of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace are the same as we see in the film: Anakin Skywalker, Queen Amidala, Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Sidious, Darth Maul, even Jar Jar Binks (who, when experienced through one’s inner voice, comes off far more endearingly). They’re all here, but for lack of a better term, they are more than their on-screen counterparts. Anakin is certainly more complex, and we are privy not only to his talent and prowess for someone so young, but also to his potential darkness. He is a boy of deep feeling, deeper than he even understands, as he has no knowledge of the Force. Though we see him triumphant, we see him also prone to anger, retaliation, and quick action—all key aspects of his future self, Darth Vader. Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith had yet to be created in 1999, and it is utterly fascinating that Terry Brooks was given license, in some small way, to assert that even as a boy, Anakin Skywalker was already Darth Vader.
It is in this that Qui-Gon’s character plays such a vital role in the novel. Qui-Gon sees the vast potential in Anakin and several times acts as a paternal foil to the boy’s intensity (Anakin is remarkably prone to fisticuffs in the novel!). Qui-Gon serves as master to an impetuous but knowing Obi-Wan, who is possessed of more wry humor than seen in the film. It’s hard not to imagine Brooks was writing a young Alec Guinness in his mind, but this is purely conjecture.
Padmé also benefits from her characterization by Brooks. She displays the sadness Leia erroneously referenced in Return of the Jedi (though perhaps not, and it is the Force itself that sent echoes to Leia of the mother she never knew?), the weight of her position and the strain of her loyalties to not only her people, but her role in the galaxy at large are more sensitively displayed than is possible in the film. As I re-read the novel for this review, I was struck by the idea that E.K. Johnston must have not just watched The Phantom Menace, but must also have read the novel in preparation for Queen’s Shadow. I could not help but think that Padmé as depicted by Brooks heavily influenced Johnston’s portrayal.
Also worthy of note is all the groundwork laid down by Brooks related to the relationship shared by Anakin and Padmé. During the time of the novel, the age gap precludes any romantic expression of the feelings, but it’s better understood why, somewhere down the line, these two would be destined to not only be great heroes of the galaxy, but more importantly, parents of its eventual saviors, Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa.
Various other characters are much the same as their on-screen counterparts, some for the sake of the mystery—certainly, we receive virtually no deep understanding of Sidious and his machinations; Darth Maul is still a cypher killed too soon, and the Jedi are as inscrutable on the page as they are on screen. And all of this is fine, as much of the next two stories in the prequel trilogy (as well as a great many novels and short stories set during the era) dive into the wider galaxy and the ensuing conflicts borne out of Sidious’ dastardly plans.
This is a difficult quality to assess in a novelization, and for the most part, not a requirement. But throughout the novel, Brooks adds flavor and texture to the wonderful and unique world created by George Lucas.
A striking, and tragic instance of this comes in the moment Qui-Gon Jinn is slain by Darth Maul. In the film, the killing blow is but one shocking moment amidst a great ground battle, a castle infiltration, and a space battle. The same moment, as sketched by Terry Brooks, is a great tragedy, given weight and painful gravity by paradoxically describing the violence beautifully, and then shifting the POV to Obi-Wan’s utter disbelief, horror, then rage.
So while the novel does not showcase anything truly original due to its nature as an adaptation, it does take the film we all know and adds layers that improve the experience a great deal.
By the time of this novelization’s publishing, Terry Brooks was a tremendously successful fantasy author, to such a degree that even a dalliance with Star Wars could be viewed as a lark. But Brooks treats the screen story with a reverence that pays dividends to the reader. There is a sense of true enjoyment in the words put down by Brooks as he goes through the story of The Phantom Menace. Brooks also seems to have a fair bit of respect for the concept, never straying too far from center, staying on message as it were, all the while adding depth, wit, and a sense of grandiosity even the film did not always display.
Particularly notable is that all the great action beats fans adore are translated in a straightforward manner that allows them to be enjoyed just as they were on screen. There is nothing lost in translation, and certain moments (the death of Qui-Gon being just one) benefit tremendously from Brooks’ refined abilities as a novelist.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is a tale people seem to view in extremes. If you loved the film, the novelization serves as a true bolstering of everything great about the cinematic version. If you hated the film, the novel will do little to disabuse you of your feelings (yes, Anakin says “Yippee!” in the novel, too).
Even if you have watched the film a dozen times (in 2019), reading the novel is still an experience worth having.
Novelizations exist in a strange arena. They are primarily another vehicle for that all important logo or movie poster, another opportunity for eyes to see the brand. That is the cynic’s take. It is abundantly clear that Terry Brooks’ novelization of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is no mere cynical exercise, and exists fully on its own as not only a broader telling of George Lucas’ tale, but quite the love letter to it as well.