The Novelization is Not the Movie

We should always separate the book from the movie, regardless of which came first. However, ‘Star Wars’ has long proven to be an exception.
Rise Of Skywalker Novelization
Lucasfilm/Del Rey
By  · Published on March 11th, 2020

Changes from the source material are common with movie adaptations. Screenwriters and filmmakers need to make alterations to fit the visual medium and time constraints of a feature while maintaining an entertaining pace. Scenes, characters, and all sorts of details are cut from page to screen, and fans of the original product, whether it’s a novel or magazine article or video game, have come to accept that the film is not necessarily the same thing as what it’s based on.

What about novelizations, though? These are books written based on the movie, typically starting from a draft of the script, instead of the other way around. Adapting a screen story to the novel format usually requires adding rather than subtracting. Characters may be fleshed out more, scenes and storylines expanded upon. A lot of times, the extra material is taken from the original screenplay or production notes so there’s not too much creative freedom on the part of the author.

Occasionally, little details will be different from the movie indicating the change was made during the casting and the filming, which could be after the writing of the novelization has begun. That explains why Newt is written as a six-year-old in Alan Dean Foster‘s novelization of Aliens but she’s clearly older in the movie (and said to be either 10 or 12 at death in AlienĀ³ depending on which cut you’re watching) and vehicles written as having a different number of wheels than the designs created for the film.

When such details are contradictory, we have to accept the movie’s truth to be canon. The Alien franchise is more predominantly accepted as a cinematic entity, even though other authorized novels and comic books and more spinoff merchandising are recognized by fans as part of the same universe of stories. Still, despite Foster’s novelization of Alien describing the Facehugger as having a large eye on its back, nobody ever tries to argue that this is the true look of the creature.

Where things get a little trickier are in the augmented elements, some of which may be based on scenes from the screenplay that were never filmed or were cut from the movie for time. Consider the Alien novelization’s implications that Ripley and Dallas are in a relationship or at least have been physically intimate. That’s based on Dan O’Bannon initially having a sex scene between the characters in an early version of the script. There’s nothing on screen, though, to say it didn’t happen.

So is their connection canon? What if the moment had been filmed and wound up as a deleted scene on the DVD and Blu-ray? Some fans accept deleted scenes that aren’t alternate or otherwise negating versions of events to inform character and story as if they’re addendums rather than erasures. Others acknowledge that they’re merely fun asides with a what-if essence to them. They’re no different from revelations about other actors almost cast in roles. Or actually cast then replaced.

Of course, it also doesn’t really matter if members of the Nostromo crew were sleeping with each other. Maybe Dallas’ death would have a more emotional weight for Ripley, but it’s not a drastic adjustment. Unlike all the background information coming out regarding Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker from Rae Carson‘s novelization. Details found in the book fill in blanks and answer questions about characters and plot points of the final film installment of the Skywalker Saga.

“Expanded scenes and additional content not seen in theaters!” promises the product description for theĀ Rise of Skywalker “Expanded Edition” novelization, making the offering of new information and exposition a selling point for what’s still just tie-in merch. And before the book even hits shelves, there has been a lot of media attention on its many revelations and clarifications. Much of the response to these details has been negative, though, because they make the movie look bad.

Given the nature of some of the information brought to light by the novelization, the version we got on screen feels inadequate. Why couldn’t the movie have been more explicit that the returned Emperor was a clone? Why couldn’t it tell us that Rey’s father was also a (defective) Palpatine clone? Why didn’t director J.J. Abrams confirm Finn as being Force-sensitive? And why does the Reylo kiss come off as romantic if the novelization explains that’s not the case?

But must we accept all these details as supplementary to the movie? Are they truly canon, or as usual must we accept that the novelization is not the movie? What about all the ways the Rise of Skywalker book also reportedly retcons elements of the movies Return of the Jedi, Revenge of the Sith, The Force Awakens, and The Last Jedi? We should let the two versions of the story be separate, but because this is Star Wars, accepting the novelization as its own thing is not that easy.

Almost from the beginning — following a fairly inapplicable Foster-authored book, based on an alternate Star Wars sequel idea, titled Splinter of the Mind’s Eye — Lucasfilm was publishing books and comics meant to be officially connected to the characters and stories of the movies. When Disney bought the brand, they canceled all those “expanded universe” items as canon but then also began a new official library of books, some of which do inform the events of the new movies.

Now, just as it had been for the 35 years of the previous continuity, it’s difficult to separate page and screen where Star Wars canon is concerned. How do we accept what we read in the Aftermath series and other books filling in the gaps between movies, especially all the background set-up for The Force Awakens and what happened since Return of the Jedi but then not allow for the information presented in novelizations? For fans who consume everything Star Wars, we can’t.

At the same time, fans have also had to accept the little tweaks for what they are. Foster’s novelization of the first movie has plenty of minor differences, from Luke’s team being “Blue Squadron” rather than “Red Squadron” and his Landspeeder on Tattooine not being a convertible to Chewbacca receiving a medal. There’s also more description of Jabba that doesn’t fit the later film interpretation of the character. In the Empire Strikes Back novelization by Donald F. Glut, Yoda is blue.

James Kahn‘s Return of the Jedi novelization, meanwhile, establishes Owen Lars as Obi-Wan Kenobi’s brother rather than Anakin’s half-brother and claims Luke and Leia’s mother died when they were four. These are revelations similar to those in the Rise of Skywalker book offering fans more than the film delivers. Interestingly enough, both of these specific pieces of information are later contradicted (or retconned) by the events on screen in the Star Wars prequels.

Star Wars stories, I should also remind, have long had a fluid existence, thanks to the ways creator George Lucas has tinkered with them. The first movie was slightly retitled four years after its initial release to affirm that it was the fourth episode of a serial narrative. The 1997 Special Editions reworked many parts of the original trilogy, adding in previously deleted scenes and totally redoing others, including the ending of Return of the Jedi. Greedo shooting first became a phenomenal issue.

And, again, there was the wiping of the expanded universe materials. The only reason the novelization’s distinction is receiving such notice when even the many difference between the novelizations of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi did not is that The Rise of Skywalker has already been heavily criticized as a deficient sequel. A lot of the revelations not only confirm elements within the film but also the imperfection of the film itself. They drive the knife in a little deeper for the haters.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m also among those who were disappointed by The Rise of Skywalker, and I also find some of the details revealed by the novelization to be sort of ridiculous (everything pertaining to the return of Palpatine seems like nonsense to me), but I’m also okay with dismissing anything coming out of the novelization as merely part of that specific incarnation of the story. Either way, it’s not something worth getting worked up about. They’re only stories.

That’s not only to mean they should be taken lightly. They also should be taken directly as they are in the moment, enjoyed in whatever form of their engagement. To paraphrase Matthew Stover‘s opening to his Revenge of the Sith novelization: a strange thing about stories, they are happening in the now, right where you are. They are happening as you are reading or watching them unfold. And regardless of other formats and versions of those stories, the one at hand at present is all there is.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.