Book Review: “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” (by Jason Fry)

I have to admit that I’ve had mixed feelings about Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, both at the time it came out and subsequently. While I respect some of the risks that the film took, I still feel frustrated by the way that it sidelined Poe in a way that felt untrue to the character, while also asking us to empathize with characters that came out of nowhere. My ambivalence about TLJ, along with my dissatisfaction with the novelization of The Force Awakens, led me to approach this new novel with no small amount of trepidation.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried so much. This novelization makes a number of improvements over the previous volume, and one gets the sense that Jason Fry had a lot more investment in actually translating the film into a book form that stands on its own and isn’t just a mere transcription. The novel is well-paced and engaging, and there wasn’t a single point where I felt myself getting bored.

There are some interesting choices in terms of who gets their own perspective in the novel. Somewhat surprisingly, the droid BB-8 gets several chapters dedicated to his POV (which was also true in The Force Awakens). Somehow, Fry manages to capture the sense of whimsy and irascibility that are the hallmarks of the character in the film version, and I found myself looking forward to getting inside of BB-8’s mind. In fact, I continue to find it fascinating the extent to which Star Wars as a franchise continues to lure us into feeling compassion and affection for things that aren’t even human (and arguably don’t have a soul).

Equally surprising as a major POV character is General Hux. In the films, he’s portrayed with almost hysterical intensity by Domhnall Gleeson, who delivers each line at top volume. Here, we get a bit more sense of what makes him tick, and in particular we learn about the ways in which his own subordinates look at him as something of a fool. Nevertheless, he is one of those who is a true believer in the First Order and the sense of righteousness that it seeks to bring to the Galaxy. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we come to sympathize with him, but we definitely come to understand him in a way that we really don’t in the films.

One of the great strengths of the novel is its pacing. Somehow, it manages to be both fast-paced (it’s really quite a slender volume) and also gives us a strong sense of these characters as characters. One of my major complaints about the novel version of The Force Awakens was that it felt as if even Rey (arguably the central character) was just a cut-out figure going through the motions. Had Fry just phoned in his efforts, I don’t think that this novel would succeed as much as it does. Since he actually seems to have a firm grasp of what it was that Johnson was trying to accomplish, the novel keeps us engaged with these characters.

In particular, the novel helps us understand some of the stranger events that were so upsetting about the film. In particular, we get more insight into Poe Dameron’s mindset. I personally thought one of the biggest missteps of the film, and while the novel doesn’t entirely undo this, but it does at least give us a sense of Poe’s motivations. Likewise, I was glad that Rose Tico also got some more interiority, which greatly helped me to understand her motivations as a character. In fact, some of the most moving parts of the novel were from her perspective, particularly as she struggles to come to terms with her sister’s death and her own obligations to the Resistance.

Lastly, the novelization of The Last Jedi does a better job than The Force Awakens at allowing us inside Rey’s head (as well as that of her reluctant mentor Luke). Of all of the characters of the new films, Rey remains perhaps the most enigmatic. In the novel, we do get a stronger sense of her interiority, about the struggles she faces as she comes to terms with the failings of the Jedi, and of Luke in particular. And, of course, there is also the fact that she has to contend with both her vexed relationship with Kylo Ren and her parentage. Fry does an admirable job bringing out these complexities while not getting bogged down in too much exposition.

All in all, I very much enjoyed the novelization of The Last Jedi. While I still have some very mixed feelings about the film and the directions that it took the franchise, I now feel that I have a better sense of what Jonson was attempting to accomplish.