This post is in reply to Joy Spicer’s request here. Not that it takes much to persuade me to write about this topic.
Now, there are really two ways to answer this question. The first is simple enough: after seeing Attack of the Clones as a 12-year-old lad, my reaction to Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Senator Amidala could be summarized as follows:
Well, you know, I was 12 years old! At that age, I was not unlike the P.G. Wodehouse character Bingo Little, of whom, it will be recalled, Bertie Wooster says:
Ever since I have known him – and we were at school together – he has been perpetually falling in love with someone, generally in the spring, which seems to act on him like magic. At school he had the finest collection of actresses’ photographs of anyone of his time…
But there is more to the story than just that. Otherwise I wouldn’t waste your time. To find it, we must analyze the thread of political theory that runs (somewhat confusedly) through the Star Wars prequel series. Basically, it’s about how a republic turns into a dictatorship. The mechanism for this is a state of exception, as described by political theorist Carl Schmitt.
In Episode I, Senator Palpatine manufactures a crisis to secure the office of Chancellor. In Episode II, he manufactures another crisis to assume emergency powers. In Episode III, he uses his emergency powers to dissolve the Congress and place all political sovereignty in the office of the executive. It is the Schmittian blueprint to a “t”. (By the way, if you didn’t waste your youth studying political theory and you want to know who Carl Schmitt is, read this, and you will be left with no doubt whatsoever that he knew a thing or two about destroying a republic.)
Right, so how does Padmé Amidala, Honorable Senator, former Queen of Naboo (and of my 12-year-old heart), figure into all this?
Well, she pretty much represents the last vestiges of an actual Republic based upon civic virtue. She is an upstanding citizen who follows a sort of cursus honorum requisite for a life of public service. Unlike the Jedi, who, whatever their personal merits, collectively form a weird and esoteric cult that has more power than it should, Padmé is the closest we get to seeing what a good member of galactic society should be. An aristocrat, in the Classical Greek sense of the word: the best society has to offer.
Padmé believes in the Republic. She understands how the system is supposed to work, and does her best to preserve it. It’s only very late in the collapse era that she begins to realize that it is not enough, that, as she puts it, “the democracy we thought we were serving no longer exists.”
Yes, unfortunately for Padmé, she was born at a time when the virtues of the Old Republic have gone the way of all flesh. As Palpatine says to her, in one of the few instances where he might not be lying:
The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good.
Even more unfortunately for Padmé, she is in a movie written and directed by George Lucas, who, though in many ways brilliant, has no ear for dialogue and an unfortunate proclivity to substitute some of Padmé’s political scenes with a confusing chase through a robot factory.
(In all fairness to Lucas, I loved the robot factory when I was 12, but come on…)
And then, the unkindest cut of all, that Lucas chose to emphasize Anakin’s fall to the dark side, which is the least interesting part of the story. How did the great hero, Anakin Skywalker, become the ultimate symbol of evil, Darth Vader, we wonder? “Well,” the prequels answer us, “Turns out he was always kind of a jerk, TBH.”
I don’t solely blame Lucas for this. The Phantom Menace put more weight on the political aspect and on Padmé’s story. And the audiences hated it. I suspect Lucas chose to shift his focus in the next two films to give us more space battles and lightsaber duels, and de-emphasize the bit about how a Republic collapses. Which is why so many of Padmé’s political scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. (Or, at least, on the bonus features section of the DVDs.)
And so by Episode III, her whole character arc collapsed into irrelevance, culminating in a truly stupid scene where she “loses the will to live.” Lucas might as well have just put a title card on the screen that said, “Padmé died on the way back to her home planet.”
But, none of that changes that she’s still one of the most interesting characters in the Star Wars films. She’s doesn’t have magical space wizard powers or exceptional piloting abilities; she’s just somebody who tries to take on the most evil man in the galaxy using her wits. And sometimes she even wins! Her bad luck was that nobody was interested in a character like that, not even the guy who wrote it.
As an aside, I do find it peculiar that she’s one of the few characters Disney hasn’t miraculously resurrected to appear in further installments. Everybody and his brother came back as a ghost in the newer films, but not Padmé. I guess that’s what happens when you lose the will to live instead of merely being sawed in half and thrown into a pit, or blown up aboard a space station. Not that we should expect any explanation beyond, “Somehow… Padmé returned.”
Anyway, you haven’t come to hear me kvetching about major media corporations’ lack of originality. Have you? No. That would be too… lucky.
And yes, I know from Joy and other sources, that Padmé’s character is examined in more detail in the Clone Wars animated series. I have not watched that. Forgive me. It’s a me problem. I dislike the art style intensely and have never really been able to get over that to follow what is, I’m sure, a most enjoyable story.
As a final note, it’s important that I emphasize while Padmé is my favorite character who appears in the films, she’s not my favorite character in all of Star Wars lore. That honor goes to someone else entirely. I bet long-time readers can guess who it is…
Oh, Star Wars! Just when I think I’m out, it pulls me back in. Although in this case, it was really the author, E.K. Johnston, that got me to read this particular bit of the endlessly-expanding SW universe. I read Johnston’s That Inevitable Victorian Thinglast year, and enjoyed it. So, when I saw she had written a book about Padmé Amidala, my favorite character from the Star Wars movies, I figured I’d give it a try.
The book largely focuses on the early days of Amidala’s Galactic Senate Career, between Episodes I and II. She, along with her handmaidens, make the transition to working on the sprawling city-planet Coruscant, while still retaining the decoy system that they used to great effect in Episode I.
Despite hostile press, and continual interference from the Trade Federation, Padmé begins to form alliances and coalitions, wheeling and dealing with other senators to pass bills, make reforms, and so on and and so forth.
Ah, my friend, if you were one of those who didn’t like The Phantom Menace because it had too much political stuff, you are going to hate this book, because politics is what it’s all about here. There’s one brief space battle towards the end, but otherwise, there’s very little combat for a book that belongs to a series with the word “wars” in the name.
But then, didn’t Clausewitz say that war is politics by other means? The two are closely linked all right, and Padmé’s political jockeying is really just maneuvering in a different sort of war. A dark irony that recurs throughout the book is the knowledge that behind the scenes, the apparently-kindly Chancellor Palpatine, who does nothing in public but read vote tallies and administer procedural rules, is building an army that will sweep the entire Republic away. Like Mao, Palpatine clearly believes that true power emanates from the barrel of a gun, and renders all Padmé’s senatorial efforts for naught.
This is why Padmé’s story is so tragic, when you think about it. Here is someone who believes firmly in the ideals of the Republic, so much so that she is incapable of understanding how it is slowly rotting away.
Or is she? There are some curious things deep within the Star Wars lore, such as a scene filmed, but then cut, from Attack of the Clones wherein Padmé tells Anakin:
Popular rule is not democracy, Ani. It gives the people what they want, not what they need.
From this view of the subject, it may be concluded, that a pure Democracy, by which I mean a Society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the Government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of Government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party, or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is, that such Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths…
A Republic, by which I mean a Government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. (Federalist No. 10)
Eh, on second thought, maybe Lucas’ version is better suited to film, even if how the whole “elected Queen” thing works remains unclear.
(As an aside, I’ve been thinking about this since I was 12 years old, and my interpretation is that Naboo elects something like a planetary CEO, who holds ultimate sovereign power for the duration of their term, but is obligated to resign after a certain period. The monarchical terminology is only there because Lucas thought since Leia was a princess, her mother should be a queen.)
But I’m straying off-topic. This book is about Padmé before the Clone Wars, before her relationship with Anakin, and how she navigates the public eye as well as the corridors of power. One of her methods is the dissociative tactic by which she plays “Amidala”; essentially a role created and maintained by her and her handmaidens for public appearances. One of the themes of the book is that Padmé seems to lack a true sense of self; rather, inhabiting one of a variety of personas depending on what she needs to do at the moment. Presumably, all public figures do this to some degree, but it’s taken to a literal extreme here, considering the fact that the “Amidala” persona can be portrayed by a handmaiden as well as by Padmé.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that it is all political theater. That Amidala, with her elaborate gowns and make-up, as well as the Senate itself, are merely actors and sets on a stage, playing a distracting part while the real machinations of power grind on in the dark, shaping a fate for the galaxy quite different from what the squabbling elite of Coruscant imagines. This lends the whole book a grim tone, underscored by the epilogue set at the end of Episode III, that darkest episode of the saga.
Like I said, this really comes down to a matter of preference. If the politics in the prequels bored you out of your mind, then this probably isn’t for you. But if you liked the themes of the prequels, then you should give this book a try.
I also struggled to figure out a good time to post this review. The book isn’t old enough for January’s Vintage Science Fiction Month, although it disturbs me a bit to realize 2004 was 17 years ago. Kids who were born the year this book was published will be voting next year. I am an old man.
Anyway… so you get the review now, because why not?
If you haven’t seen any Star Wars movies, you should know that the background to this book is that a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there is an order of knights called Jedi who keep the peace in the Galactic Republic. Unfortunately, a bunch of star systems are trying to secede from the Republic, causing a civil war in which the Jedi are commanding an army of soldiers cloned from a member of a warlike race known as the Mandalorians.
Hard Contact follows Omega Squad, a group of elite clone commandos deployed to the planet Qiilura, where the Confederacy of Independent Systems is creating a nanovirus designed to target the clone soldiers themselves.
Omega Squad is assigned to destroy the lab and rendezvous with Jedi who are somewhere on the planet. Unfortunately, the only Jedi still alive on Qiilura is padawan Etain Tur-Makan.
Maybe saying it’s “unfortunate” is a bit harsh, but Etain often seems like she’s not even trying to follow the Jedi virtues. She’s emotional, impulsive, and annoyingly self-pitying. Then again, perhaps she just learned these habits from the so-called “Chosen One” himself.
More interesting is the main antagonist, Ghez Hokan, a Mandalorian warrior whose job is to defend the lab and its science team, led by Dr. Uthan. I love Mandalorians. They are so cool. Even though he is a ruthless killer, part of me couldn’t help but like Hokan.
There were large portions of the book that really didn’t feel like Star Wars to me. It was dark, gritty and violent. At one point, although there’s nothing explicit, it’s mentioned that one of the thugs working for the Separatists is a rapist. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that word in any other piece of Star Wars media.
This doesn’t make the book bad, to be clear. It was a pretty gripping military adventure. It was just that I would practically forget it was Star Wars at times, until somebody would pull out a lightsaber or something.
Actually, one of my gripes about the book is that sometimes it seemed to be trying too hard to shoehorn in references to Star Wars-y sounding stuff:
“She took a small sphere from the scattering of possessions on the mattress and opened it in two halves like a shef’na fruit.”
And then in the next paragraph we have:
“After a few bottles of urrqal, the local construction workers dropped their guard.”
I know this seems like a nit-pick, and to be fair, almost all sci-fi writers do this. I think I’ve done it myself, in fact. Anytime you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, you feel a temptation to enhance the alien-ness of the world you’re creating. I wouldn’t mention this except I can’t help but compare it to my favorite Star Wars book of all time, Matthew Stover’s novelization of Revenge of the Sith:
“Listen to me: if this ‘Darth Sidious’ of yours were to walk through that door right now–and I could somehow stop you from killing him on the spot–do you know what I would do?”
Palpatine rose, and his voice rose with him. “I would ask him to sit down, and I would ask him if he has any power he could use to end this war!“
[…]”And if he said he did, I’d bloody well offer him a brandy and talk it out!“
How much stronger is that than if Palpatine had said “offer him an urrqal”? The scene from Revenge of the Sith feels immediate and real. It’s the most vivid interpretation of Palpatine I’ve seen. Stover was a gutsy writer, and that’s why his book still sticks with me.
I’m not trying to rag on Traviss’s writing too much. Overall, it’s quite good. Peter’s review confirms my impression that the action scenes are very realistic, and the interactions between the characters feel very real.
Both the protagonists and the antagonists are well drawn. The only weak link is Etain, and even that actually makes sense in a way.
There is a moral conundrum here for the Jedi. They’re guardians of peace and justice, but they find themselves in a war, not of their making, one they’re ill-equipped to fight without the clone army.
Instead of exploring that conundrum, Traviss chooses to shove her view down the reader’s throat, of the Jedi as belligerent tyrants who feel nothing for the clones as they merrily send them to their deaths.
You can definitely see this happening towards the end of Hard Contact. It’s very clear we’re supposed to sympathize with the Mandalorians (on both sides) and their straightforward warrior ethos over the Jedi. The final conflict at the end of the book is when Etain disobeys a Jedi Master to help out the commandos.
Now, I could say a bit more about how I think this ties in with the larger Star Wars universe, and why I think it makes sense, although I can also understand why it’s a controversial point. But, it involves bringing in a lot of Star Wars lore, and ultimately it’s just a matter of interpretation. It’s probably not worth looking at in-depth, especially since it would involve references to lots of other Star Wars media. No need to go down that rabbit-hole today.
Oh, who am I kidding? We both know I’m gonna do it.
I think a big problem a lot of people have with the Star Wars prequel series is the way it demythologizes the Jedi. After they’ve been built up so much in the original trilogy, we meet them in the prequels and they are… kind of bad?
I’m not telling you they’re as bad as the Sith, of course, but the fact is, in the Late Old Republic period, we’re seeing the Jedi at a time when the Order is already deep in decline. They break their own rules to let Anakin Skywalker join. They join a war effort that is contrary to their deepest values. As Yoda notes, arrogance is “a flaw more and more common among Jedi.”
This is symptomatic of the broader decline of the Old Republic. They say the fish rots from the head, and what could be a clearer sign of civilizational collapse than the most esteemed, élite and virtuous of the institutions becoming corrupted, betraying its own internal rules, and morphing into a catalyst for the destruction of the old system itself?
My favorite scene in the entire Disney sequel trilogy was the one where Luke gives Rey an accurate and unbiased history of the final days of the Jedi Order:
Luke: Now that they’re extinct, the Jedi are romanticized, deified. But if you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure. Hypocrisy, hubris.
Rey: That’s not true!
Luke: At the height of their powers, they allowed Darth Sidious to rise, create the Empire, and wipe them out. It was a Jedi Master who was responsible for the training and creation of Darth Vader.
Now, again, this isn’t to say the Jedi of the Clone War era are monsters. Qui-Gon Jinn, Mace Windu, Obi-Wan Kenobi etc. are good people trying to do the right thing. But sometimes what appears to be the “right thing” in the moment means making some compromise of values that will come back to haunt them down the line. Even the best people in the world, after all, can still be hypocrites.
I think Hard Contact goes right to this point. Joy is exactly right that Traviss clearly prefers the simple, soldierly virtues of the Mandalorians, who fight for nothing but honor and the guy beside them, to the overly-complicated and compromised clerical institution of the Jedi. This contrast becomes especially clear when the clones, who still have much of the old Mandalorian mindset, are under the command of Jedi.
With all that said, I think there are many, many Star Wars fans who just didn’t want the Jedi demythologized. And, I can respect that. “You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger,” after all, and I think the Original Trilogy notion of the Jedi as an ideal, a glorious order of noble knights, is one that many fans prefer over the Prequel Era’s deconstruction. Idealism vs. Realism: the unending debate.
All told, it’s a good book for older Star Wars fans, especially those who are fascinated by the clone army and the Mandalorians like I am.
Fifteen years ago today, my mom and dad took me to see Revenge of the Sith. I was not quite 15 years old. We had seen all the Star Wars movies together in the theater, and so of course we had to see what was then expected to be the last one.
I loved the movie, as I had loved all Star Wars films. It was dark and unsettling, and it had a message to it. Maybe it was a message only I could see, but it was a message all the same. More about that later.
On the way home afterward, we went to our local Borders bookstore. We always went to Borders (and Toys “R” Us) after the movies. This is something I suspect kids a few years from now will completely cease to understand—bookstores, toy stores and cinemas are all being shuttered, replaced by streaming, online orders, e-books and so on. These things are safer and more convenient, but make for less memorable experiences. If not for brick-and-mortar stores, I would not to this day recall walking across the parking lot with my dad, talking about whether or not it was ridiculous for Obi-Wan to come swaggering up to General Grievous like he does.I would have no memory of the way the clouds outside the store gathered on the horizon, portending a late spring storm in a way that I thought was just perfect given the mood of the film I’d just watched.
One thing I can’t remember is if we got the novelization at Borders or if my parents had already bought it for me and saved it as a gift. But either way, I recall reading it later that day and being enthralled by Matthew Stover’s prose as he retold the story of the film, adding depth and nuance to the characters, explaining their thought processes in certain key scenes.
Another memory that sticks with me from that day is a feeling of gratitude. I can distinctly remember thinking how happy I was to get to see a Star Wars film with mom and dad one more time. I was semi-aware that I was getting older, growing up, and for an instant, at least, was conscious enough to appreciate that moments like this wouldn’t last forever, and that I’d better be thankful for that one. I remember this vividly, because it’s such an important insight, flashed as if spoken by some deity of Greek myth (who were said to do such things) into the mind of an otherwise typically arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenaged boy.
For I was arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled, make no mistake about it. I was only dimly conscious of it at the time, but Revenge of the Sith is a story designed to speak to arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenage boys. I had but recently been introduced to the joys of literary analysis thanks to Gayden Wren’s A Most Ingenious Paradox, and was far from good at it, but even I was aware, for the first time, that this story was meant to do more than just entertain. It was telling me something else.
George Lucas has talked many times about the deeper meaning of the Star Wars prequels. He has said repeatedly that they were meant to explore how a democratic society can give way to authoritarianism. While drawing parallels to many different times and places throughout history, Lucas once claimed that his fictional galaxy most closely resembles the Roman Republic–and its eventual transformation into the Roman Empire.
In my opinion, this attempt at social and world-historical commentary is what sets the prequel trilogy apart from Lucas’ original trilogy, not to mention the Disney sequels. Nothing in the original films was explicitly designed as a commentary on forms of government and phases of a civilization’s existence. Sure, there are rebels and there are imperials, but it was only meant as a fun space adventure in the style of Flash Gordon.
The non-Lucas sequels have turned it into more of a space soap opera—a family saga, like the epics of old mythology. The family saga thread runs through the prequels as well, but only to the extent that Lucas meant for Anakin Skywalker’s personal story to mimic the life-cycle of the Republic itself.
Of course, careful readers will note that above I have said that this sets the prequels apart, and of course, setting apart is exactly what a prequel should not do—its aim is to tie together, to make a coherent whole of a story.
Revenge of the Sith fails catastrophically in this regard. A callback to the original trilogy’s first spaceship interior and a shot of silhouetted figures watching the twin suns set do not begin to make up for all the ways in which Revenge of the Sith not only does not tie-in with the originals, but actively contradicts them. For example: how do Yoda and Obi-Wan even know the Lars family exists? Why do they give the children to them, and not to, oh, say—Padmé’s family? You know, their actualgrandparents?
In the novelization, Stover tries mightily to make it all add up, but even he cannot square this circle—or perhaps, circle this square, since the whole idea is supposed to be that we have come back to the beginning.
The prequels are best understood not as an earlier part of the story told in Star Wars: A New Hope, but as a separate series of spinoff films meant to tell an entirely different story. This story is about how a constitutional republic is gradually replaced by a tyrannical government that imposes its will through naked military force.
To put all this in context: at the time Revenge of the Sith premiered, the United States was divided over the Iraq war and the broader “War on Terror.” Some feared that President Bush, and especially Vice-President Cheney, were expanding the powers of the executive branch far beyond what was normal or healthy. The scene where Anakin tells Obi-Wan, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy,” was seen as being a reference to Bush’s “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
I was just becoming politically aware at the time, and finding out that my favorite movie series also was relevant to politics was pretty exciting, and I was delighted to study the social commentary aspect of the films.
But because Lucas was writing a drama, and not simply a dry treatise on forms of government, he needed a protagonist for his exploration of how republics collapse, and that is where Anakin Skywalker comes in.
Nobody much likes Anakin Skywalker as he is portrayed in the prequels, and for good reason. He demythologizes Darth Vader, who was an ideal villain in the original films. Hayden Christensen’s performance is uneven at best; although any actor probably would have struggled with some of the lines he’s given.
I’ll admit, reading the book so soon after seeing the film may have colored my impression of the character. Anakin’s behavior, which on the screen is over-the-top and ludicrously unstable, seems in the novel to be the product of an emotionally-drained, profoundly exhausted man struggling to think clearly. If you understand him to be suffering from extreme sleep-deprivation, as the novel explains, some of Anakin’s actions make more sense.
But even then, there are inherent flaws with his entire story arc that Stover couldn’t completely correct. Although I dislike the term, Anakin is what’s typically called a “Mary Sue,” in that he has everything handed to him on the basis of nothing more than some vague talk about prophecies and midi-chlorians.
Viewed this way, the Star Wars prequels are the story of a spoiled child who gets privileges he doesn’t deserve. In Revenge of the Sith, he’s granted a seat on the Jedi Council and doesn’t even seem grateful for it. (This is somewhat explained in the novel.)He’s a brat who keeps demanding more and more to feed his insatiable ego, throwing tantrums whenever his older, wiser teachers give any hint of a rebuke. As someone with a far better ear for the English language than George Lucas once put it:
And this is what I mean when I say that Revenge of the Sith is a story about and for spoiled teenage boys. The moment I’ll never forget from Revenge of the Sith—the emotional climax of the film—is the scene on the Mustafar landing pad when, soaking in the afterglow of a rage-fueled bloodbath, Anakin brags to Padmé about his newfound power. When she reacts in predictable horror, he flies into a rage and chokes her—ultimately leading to her death.
I could write a whole post about Padmé’s death and how it makes no sense. As if a strong woman would “lose the will to live”—after having just given birth, no less! Everything about Padmé up to that point tells us that she would, if anything, be motivated to fight harder for the republic she loves. And that’s not even touching the ludicrous plot hole it creates with Return of the Jedi when Leia is somehow able to remember her mother.
But remember, Revenge of the Sith is targeted at a very specific audience: arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenaged boys, and arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenaged boys aren’t empathetic enough to realize how contrived this is. No, what I remember thinking at that moment was:
Dude was married to Natalie Portman and he threw it all away because he was angry and wanted power.
Revenge of the Sith is a cautionary tale about where acting like an arrogant, narcissistic spoiled teenage boy gets you: you lose your lover, you lose your best friend, and you get mentally destroyed. (The fact that Anakin is also mutilated and burned alive is in line with the longstanding dramatic tradition of physical injury symbolizing psychic or spiritual wounds.)
As Stover writes, describing in the second person how it feels to be Anakin Skywalker:
“You killed her because, finally, when you could have saved her, when you could have gone away with her, when you could have been thinking about her, you were only thinking about yourself… it is in this blazing moment that you finally understand the trap of the dark side, the final cruelty of the Sith—because now your self is all you will ever have.”
It’s a morality tale, and characters in morality tales are rarely notable for their depth or nuance. This is a key thing to understand about Revenge of the Sith, because it makes a lot of its weirdly clunky dramatic choices more comprehensible. The fact that the entire universe seemingly revolves around Anakin Skywalker—a classic flaw in any story guilty of Mary Sue-ism—is because it’s fundamentally a story for narcissists. Stover himself makes mention of this, in a passage told from Mace Windu’s perspective:
“Skywalker no longer had a shatterpoint. He was a shatterpoint. The shatterpoint. Everything depended on him. Everything.”
The tragic irony is that Anakin thinks he’s doing the right thing; he thinks he’s helping the people he loves, but only because he’s too solipsistic to think beyond what he himself would want. He sells his soul to the devil to buy eternal life for Padmé without ever bothering to think about whether that’s what Padmé would want. In typical Faustian fashion, he is left with nothing at all.
This underscores the other obvious way the prequel trilogy is unlike the other Star Wars film cycles: it ends on a downer. It is a tragedy; a story of decline and defeat. The film tries to de-emphasize this slightly in the final scenes, but the novel’s ending is much more melancholy: “The long night has begun,” the final paragraph tells us, and Stover’s last image is not Owen and Beru watching the sunset, but Obi-Wan riding off to begin his exile.
By filling in Lucas’ visually stunning but sometimes incoherent sketch with rich details of nuance, emotion, and backstory, Stover’s novelization makes the story of Revenge of the Sith vastly more layered and complex. It’s a story of manipulation, betrayal, and civilizational collapse. Above all, it’s a story of how a young man’s passion and fear cause him to destroy himself.
Perhaps I feel this way because I saw it at just the right time in my life, but more than any other Star Wars film, it’s about coming to terms with the end of something: for the characters in the story, it’s the end of the republic, the end of the Jedi, the end of a romance. For audiences at the time, as well as George Lucas himself, it was about the end of cinematic Star Wars. And for me, it was about the end of my childhood. I grew up with the Star Wars movies—the special edition was released in theaters when I was seven, and I had followed it to the cusp of adulthood.
Of course, as we all know now, it wasn’t really the end of Star Wars. About a year and a half later, I found myself playing what I still consider to be the single greatest Star Wars story ever written: the video game Knights of the Old Republic II, which to this day remains one of my favorite works of fiction. And, for good or for ill, there has been a whole new crop of Star Wars movies, and no doubt there will continue to be.
But for all its flaws, Revenge of the Sith is the one I always come back to. It’s the darkest one; the one that isn’t about heroes toppling the evil empire, but about how the evil empire can be brought into being when we grow complacent, when we become arrogant or hard-headed, when we give in to our worst tendencies and emotions.
And it’s also about celebrating those who fight on even amid such dire circumstances, battling valiantly against overwhelming odds. As you can tell, there are many lines I cherish in the novel, but the one that I think of most often is this, from early in the book, as Stover introduces the massive space battle that kicks off the story:
“[T]he adults are wrong, and their younglings are right. Though this is the end of the age of heroes, it has saved its best for last.”
I love that line. It’s so beautiful and so poignant. It’s about how there can be something noble, even amidst decay. It’s about finding something to hold on to, even when everything is collapsing around you. And for me, that’s what Revenge of the Sith is–at once a final, nostalgic glimpse at the joys of being a child who could be mindlessly entertained by a movie about space wizards, and a recognition that at some point, I had to move beyond such things; that sometimes such hero fantasies lead to more harm than good.
How much of that is the film, how much is the book, and how much is my own recollection of my 15 year-old self’s mindset, I can never say for sure. All three are forever intertwined in my memory, and that’s why Revenge of the Sith will always be special to me.
I posted an excerpt from this last year. Lately, another bit of it has been running through my head. It was my G&S-ified depiction of the scene where Palpatine declares himself Emperor, set to the tune of Ludwig’s song, “A Monarch Who Boasts Intellectual Graces” from The Grand Duke. (Note that throughout, “republican” and “democratic” are used in the general sense of political concepts, not the present-day parties in our own galaxy.)
Oh, the Chancellor who uses emergency powers
Will gain, if he’s smart, a good deal of support.
He can speak to opponents without getting glowers
And won’t have any need to lie or distort–
You know, I am sure, in these perilous hours,
That though a sep’ratist danger still towers
And threatens this Senate of ours,
I know of a plan that will make ‘em abort!
Oh! My motto is “safety;” I’m not a daredevil,
And while I rule here, we will all be secure.
With a powerful Emp’ror, who’s quite on the level,
Republican principle may long endure!
Oh! His motto etc.
When rule democratic simply fails to succeed;
And Congressional meetings are just a mess–
An Emperor clearly’s the thing that you need
To at once set ev’rything right in Congress!
With no more long meetings progress to impede,
Improvements extreme we can make with all speed,
It’s easy to do, and I will do the deed—
It’s done! And here’s to our having continued success!
About ten years ago, I wrote a comic opera adaptation of the Star Wars movies, with songs set to Gilbert and Sullivan tunes. It was just an exercise in songwriting that I did for fun, but it definitely helped me learn how to write a decent rhyme.
Re-reading it now, I see most of my lyrics were pretty bad–although to be fair to myself, few lyricists can ever hope to match the great W.S. Gilbert.
But there were a few songs I wrote that were pretty decent. For instance, this adaptation of the meadow scene from Attack of the Clones, in which Anakin explains his dictatorial political philosophy to Padme. It’s set to the tune of “Were I a King” from The Grand Duke.
ANAKIN: Were I in charge, in very truth,
And yet had kept my health and youth,
In spite of my ascension;
To keep us peaceful, keep us strong–
And make these blessings last for long–
I would request the voting throng
All their concerns to mention.
To some big council they would go
And voice with elocution,
Their little problems all, and lo!
They would find a solution!
The men who would be to this council elected,
Would all by popular vote be selected–
And if they all did what they said on campaign,
They could run for office again!
CHORUS: Oh, the men who would be etc.
ANAKIN: And if councilmen should disagree
The problem would then come to me–
And I’d make the decision!
One side may say to “Cut the tax!”
The other says “Prevent attacks!”–
Unlike our current plan that lacks
An executive with vision–
Both sides would have to go to me,
And I’d make ’em see reason!
And if they still would disagree–
I’d have them shot for treason!
Oh, the man who can mold a political sphere
Completely bereft of corruption or fear,
Can govern and rule, with of his brains a tenth
Intelligent life–and possibly Ennth!
I’m an argumentative kind of guy. I also hold a lot of controversial opinions about movies. So I tend to get into arguments about movies a lot.
One thing I’ve learned from these arguments is that people seemingly can’t tell the difference between bad acting and bad screenwriting. If people decide they don’t like a character, or they find them boring, they usually assume it was the actor’s fault.
Take my old favorite: the Star Wars prequels. People complain the acting in those is bad, but it’s actually pretty good, aside from Hayden Christensen in Episode II. The problem is that the writing is bad: the lines are awkward and sometimes nonsensical. The amount of acting talent in those movies is incredible, and it got largely wasted by a script that was very bad. No amount of good acting makes the line “what’s wrong, Ani?” work.
Here is an example of actual bad acting: in the “picnic” scene in Episode II, Anakin (Christensen) is teasing Padme (Natalie Portman) about a boy on whom she had a teenage crush. He asks what happened to him, she says “I went into politics; he became an artist”, and Anakin’s reply is “maybe he was the smart one”. A good actor would play this flirtatiously, since the two characters are supposed to be falling in love. But Christensen for some reason delivers it in an angry, almost accusatory manner. That is bad acting.
I’m probably sensitive to this because I am a writer, and so I tend to watch movies, plays, TV etc. with my focus on the decisions the writer(s) made. I think most people don’t really think about the fact that people actually write these things–if something doesn’t work, they blame the actors. An actor is the face that the audience associates with the character, and so they tend to think of them as “being” that character, without remembering that in the majority of cases, somebody else wrote the character’s lines.
Once in a while, good acting can rise above a lousy script–Apocalypse Now is the best example I can think of–but generally, a bad script dooms you from the start. It’s like sports: if you have superstar players running badly designed plays or formations, the results will be bad, no matter how flawlessly they perform them.
For example: there is a scene in the movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin where Dr. Iannis (John Hurt) is arguing with his daughter Pelagia (Penelope Cruz) about plans for her impending wedding at the start of the scene and then–with no new characters or information being introduced–concludes the scene by telling her she can’t get married because the Axis forces are about to invade, and handing her a pistol to use on them or, he adds darkly, on herself, if necessary.
John Hurt is a great actor, and he delivers all of his lines in this scene very well. But it does not work, because there is no way a person would start a conversation discussing wedding details and then seemingly suddenly remember “Oh, yeah and the Nazis are invading–you might have to kill them or yourself.” In journalism, they call that “burying the lead”. In script-writing, they call it “dreadful”.
This is one big reason why dramatic productions have directors: their job is to make the script and actors work together.
It reminds me of a quote from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame. But if his orders are clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.”
If lines don’t make sense, if character motivations are not clear, then the writer is to blame. But if they do make sense and are clear, and the scene nevertheless does not work, then it is the fault of the actors and the director.
Thanks for reading this post. Hope you enjoyed it. If so, maybe you’d also like to check out my book, which contains no bad acting, and hopefully no bad writing either.
Doescher’s treatment fixes these problems. Most notably, it fixes the character of Anakin Skywalker. In Doescher’s version, Skywalker seems like he actually cares about Padme Amidala. This really helps the romance between them. (I know, you would think this would be obvious, but apparently it wasn’t to Lucas.)
That’s not the only improvement–all of the dialogue is much better when done in the style of the Bard.
The irony is that Lucas has always defended his awkward script by calling it “stylized dialogue”. Well, Doescher’s dialogue is even more stylized; but what’s more is that it’s good. It trips off the tongue.
What Lucas should have done was give his story outline–which is very strong, with its political machinations, epic battles, and forbidden romance–to Doescher or someone like him, who could give it a fittingly poetic script to match. Then maybe put the exceptionally talented cast under the direction of a Shakespearean director (say, Sir Kenneth Branagh?) and they would have really had something. It would have been stunning.
The prequels are not bad–they just needed a better script.
Quick! Name that movie about a pilot who gets horribly burned and disfigured. You know, the one where earlier in the story, he’s been trying to save the life of his secret lover. In fact, he’s so desperate that he turns traitor and aids a tyrannical, militaristic government. But even so, he fails–his lover dies, and he becomes a barely-living shell of his former self.
Got it yet?
Actually–as you already guessed from the title of this post–that describes two movies: The English Patient, starring Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche, and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, starring Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen.
The English Patient was nominated for 12 academy awards, including best picture, which it won. It’s considered a powerful, moving, tragic love story. Revenge of the Sith was a box office hit, but was generally received poorly by critics. The Devil is in the details.
The English Patient (1996)
Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Actually, in this case, the Devil is in how the main character is written and performed. Count Almasy, the lead in The English Patient, is just likable enough that while you don’t exactly forgive him for giving aid to the Nazis, you can believe he truly did it out of his love for Katherine. He really seems like he cares about her. Add to this Ralph Fiennes’s charisma and acting skill, and you have a compelling doomed romance.
Anakin Skywalker, on the other hand, is an entitled jerk from his first scene to his last. He constantly whines about why he hasn’t been given privileges that he has not earned, while simultaneously breaking every Jedi rule. Even his supposed love for Padme never seems like anything other than an excuse to commit further atrocities. He claims to be trying to save her (“from [his] nightmares”), but ultimately kills her himself because of his inability to control his arrogance and rage.
Now, I’ve left out quite a few differences between the two movies. The English Patient is told through flashbacks, and there is another plot running through it parallel to the story of Almasy: the story of Hana, the nurse who finds him after he’s been burned, and her own struggle to deal with the horror of war and death. The only other plot element in Revenge of the Sith is about an evil robot General with four arms. So maybe the main character isn’t the only issue here.
Even so, I still think there is a really strong story in Revenge of the Sith. You can see it whenever McGregor, Portman or Ian McDiarmid are on the screen. It’s just that it kept getting undercut by the massive problems with the way Anakin Skywalker is written and portrayed. (Once he becomes pure evil in the final third of the movie, it really comes together. This is probably because Christensen was better at playing evil, and an evil character is easier to write than a complex one.)
Ralph Fiennes in “The English Patient”
Hayden Christensen in “Revenge of the Sith”
The bottom line is: when Count Almasy gets burned alive, you think: “poor guy, he just wanted to help the woman he loved.” When Anakin Skywalker gets burned alive, you think: “the S.O.B. had it coming.”
You could argue that Lucas’ attempts to make lightning strike twice with the exact same formula on an audience who had only grown more jaded and cynical since their first viewing of the original trilogy doomed the project from the start. I think if we had come to Star Wars for the first time as kids with Phantom Menace, we’d feel a bit more fondly towards the prequels.
Having just watched all six Star Wars movies again, after not seeing them (except Phantom Menace, which I saw in 2012) for about 8 years, I would say that my impression was still that the prequel trilogy, while flawed, was far better than the original trilogy, which is entertaining but a mess. A New Hope was frankly rather silly. I’ve always felt this way, but this time the feeling was actually more pronounced. The Phantom Menace may have some of the best scenes of the entire saga–each time I see it, I’m impressed by how good it is.
I’ve written at length about why each of the Star Wars prequels are actually good here, here and here. I think people are gradually coming to appreciate them more.