Friday, June 21, 2013 01:52 PM
(Last updated on Friday, March 28, 2014 03:33 PM)
Book Report - William Shakespeare's Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope
 by Fëanor

[UPDATE: Check out the fun book trailer!]

Quirk Books is a Philadelphia publisher that puts out... different kinds of books. Books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which I reviewed on Phillyist ages ago) and How to Live with a Huge Penis (which I received a copy of but never read, because... I couldn't quite bring myself to carry it around places). Their upcoming, July 2nd release is no exception: it's William Shakespeare's Star Wars by Ian Doescher.

You can probably guess the premise just from the title. It's the story of the first Star Wars movie (that's Episode IV, people; we shall not speak of Episode I) retold using the language and format of a Shakespearean play. That's right: words like "marry," "prithee," and "knave"; five acts; iambic pentameter; rhyming couplets at the end of each scene - the whole nine yards.

This could easily have been a gimmicky thing that's amusing in concept, but boring and pointless in execution. But it is in fact not that at all. It is brilliant and funny. It is more than just two random things that someone has mashed awkwardly together because mash-ups are cool these days. The two things being mashed together have more in common than you might think (as Doescher himself points out in an Afterword), they've been carefully blended here, and the result is its own, new thing, more than the sum of its parts.

The book announces its intentions immediately on its jacket, which features an illustration of Darth Vader dressed in Elizabethan-era clothing; there are similar illustrations scattered throughout the text inside. Underneath the jacket is a plain brown cover that's been cleverly painted and distressed so the book appears old and well used.

Inside, we find a cast list full of the names of familiar characters, and then the famous opening crawl is spoken in alternately rhyming lines of iambic pentameter by the Chorus, who will return occasionally to explain the action that we're not seeing, or to elaborate on the terse stage directions. (I would love to see this play actually performed live.) Then the action begins with C-3PO declaiming, "Now is the summer of our happiness / Made winter by this sudden, fierce attack!" These, of course, are the opening lines of Richard III, slightly altered. Because not only does Doescher use the general format and language of Shakespeare, he often references specific, famous speeches from the man's plays. Later on, Luke will recreate Prince Hamlet's speech to Yorick's skull while brooding on the helmet of a stormtrooper he's killed, and then raise the morale of the Rebel troops before the attack on the Death Star by copying Henry V's speech before the Battle of Agincourt.

But the text doesn't just include clever allusions to Shakespeare's work. There's also clever foreshadowing of secrets that will be revealed later on in the Star Wars saga (Vader mentions that Leia has a Jedi-like resistance to torture; in an aside, Obi-Wan tries to justify lying to Luke about his father), various amusing Star Wars in-jokes and commentary (more on that below), and even a knock at the saga's most famous rival, Star Trek (while arguing against staging a desperate rescue of Princess Leia from her cell on the Death Star, Han points out that, "To boldy go where none hath gone is wild!").

The book follows the Special Edition of the film, but after killing Greedo, Han refers to one of the more controversial changes made to that version in an aside: "And whether I shot first, I'll ne'er confess!" During the added scene with Jabba the Hutt (which was cut out and replaced by the Greedo scene in the original theatrical version and thus repeats much of the dialogue from that scene), Han says, "As I have said before—O verily, / 'Tis though I just have said thus..." and then continues in an aside, "Aye, true, / It sometimes seemeth I repeat myself."

Doescher's additions to the text aren't all jokes and pop culture references, however. Asides and soliloquies from C-3PO, Darth Vader, Luke, Obi-Wan, and R2-D2 give us deeper insight into these characters and their tortured hearts. Vader hints at his complex past and talks of the darkness that now fills him; Luke speaks of his dreams of adventure and his sadness at the loss of his Aunt and Uncle; Obi-Wan talks of old hopes and disappointments, and the possibility of his own redemption. R2 in particular blossoms under Doescher's pen, for although he speaks only in beeps and squeaks to the other characters, when he speaks to the audience, he does so in clear English, revealing that his schemes and manipulation are in many ways driving the plot.

Doescher even gives added depth to unnamed background characters. One of my favorite scenes is between the two stormtroopers guarding the Millenium Falcon while it sits trapped in the Death Star. Guard 1 summarizes the action so far to Guard 2 - at least, the action as they understand it, given what they've learned in "last week's briefing" - and posits that perhaps Luke and his droids are still hidden on board the ship behind them. Guard 2 scoffs at him and finally convinces him that he must be mistaken. Then they are called inside the ship and promptly killed by our heroes.

Doescher's attempts to force the dialogue of Star Wars into the format of a Shakespearean play occasionally result in language as tortured as any of Yoda's worst dialogue from the prequels (damn, I said I wouldn't talk about the prequels...). But more often he manages to inject real poetry and clever wordplay into Lucas' work, and even occasionally crafts a speech that's so moving and effective it caught me off-guard and choked me up a bit (such as Luke's speech to his fellow Rebels during the attack on the Death Star). Like most Shakespeare, the text definitely benefits from being read aloud, so I recommend you do that. Maybe not while you're on the train on the way to work, but you know, if you're alone with the book, or find yourself in the presence of a willing audience (or at least a captive audience; my three-year-old had no idea what I was talking about, but he's used to me babbling on, so he didn't mind too much). (UPDATE: I should mention, a couple days after I finished this, the kid requested that I read him more of "that R2-D2 book," so maybe he understood more than I thought. And he also liked it, so there you go!)

It's definitely true that people who already love both Shakespeare and Star Wars will get the most out of this book (and, being an English major in his 30s, I am definitely at the center of that Venn diagram; sometimes I feel like this thing was written specifically for me), but I think anybody with an appreciation for language and stories can find something to enjoy here. It's an entertaining book, and I hope to read William Shakespeare's Star Wars: The Empire Striketh Back soon. (UPDATE: I have since done so! Check out my review of the next book.)
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not), Shakespeare (Not), Star Wars (Not)

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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this.

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