The Empire Strikes Back has long been agreed upon as the best of the Star Wars films. It has all the important ingredients — humor, suspense, mystery, loyalty, betrayal, pathos, friendship, and romance — blended together by the master chef that is Lawrence Kasdan for a perfect concoction. It’s a great adventure story with all of the soul-searching and self-discovery that makes a story truly human, a thrilling tale which still has time for the characters to face the world and test their understanding of it.
That’s also what Shakespeare is best known for, in the end: the humor and the pathos, the lighthearted joy and deep seriousness, fast pacing and yet complex characterization, that come together to make his plays so fundamentally human. As the author of Shakespeare’s Star Wars, Ian Doescher, points out in his own afterword, the story of The Empire Strikes Back is already highly Shakespearean – even following the model of classical tragedy in its own way: there’s pride and hubris and betrayal and a good heaping of disappointment and despair and hard choices, but all told so wonderfully that you enjoy the angst.
That’s why, I think, the latest book in the Shakespeare’s Star Wars series, The Empire Striketh Back, works so well. It’s what it sounds like – a Shakespearean adaptation of Star Wars, and it works. It brings out everything that was excellent in the original film, and everything that it shared with the masterworks that are Shakespeare’s plays: the witty quips, the complex characters who struggle with themselves and their own emotions, the moral questions, the danger and adventure. The language is Shakespearean in the sense that it is iambic pentameter, with some of Shakespeare’s more famous phrases adopted. Of course, it doesn’t exactly have the complexity of Shakespeare’s syntax and sentence structure (which occasionally requires mental acrobatics), and you don’t need all the footnotes – but it does have the most important part, which is the poignancy of a language that gives meaning to every single moment, to every twist of the story and conflict of character. This transformation elevates, if you will, until even the most mundane moments become the stuff of high drama – and yet not so elevated that they are inaccessible. It doesn’t so much give nobility to the story as place it in a very sharp relief.
In doing so – in bringing out that depth and meaning – this transformation functions almost like a novelization of the film (in a good way). Despite the age-old wisdom that a picture tells a thousand words, there’s things an image can’t say. The acting of The Empire Strikes Back is often phenomenal, but there’s a limit to how much of a complex conflict even Harrison Ford can bottle up into one expression. There are limits to the background information and memories and connections that can be drawn with what the characters are feeling. But a novelization lets you get into the characters’ heads, knowing exactly what Luke’s feelings about confronting his father or how torn Leia is about her own feelings for Han. The Empire Striketh Back, like a good novelization, brings out the complexity of the characters’ emotions and situations, with each dilemma and sentiment not only deeply explored, but done so in absolutely charming verse.
And, lest you think that all this adaptation does is borrow the illustrious name of Shakespeare in order to add glory to its iambic pentameter, think again. It’s clear that Doescher really does know his Shakespeare, and the entire book is like a scavenger hunt for the student of literature who’s willing to find the clever tricks and allusions. For example, Boba Fett speaks in prose (as people of lower classes did in Shakespeare), Han and Leia getting romantic speak in lines that form sonnets (like Romeo and Juliet did); Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction – [exit, pursued by a bear] — becomes [exit, pursued by a wampa]. There’s a prologue and a chorus, and – to save the best for last – there are speaking parts for the film’s non-speaking characters. Thus, R2D2 speaks in more than beeps and whistles, and the wampa that attacks Luke has a monologue, both of which add a flavor of Shakespearean humor to the story.
The play is contained within a neat little tome, full of illustrations that blend the science fiction spaceships and lightsabers with Shakespearean décor – a perfect blending, really, when you realize that Star Wars is already basically a fantasy set in space.
This is a story that really gets Shakespeare, on so many levels. I haven’t read the previous title in Doescher’s series, entitled Verily, A New Hope; I’d put it off as something that probably tried too hard to be cool. I still haven’t read it, and don’t know how good it is – but I do know that The Empire Striketh Back adapts the best Star Wars movie and doesn’t just try to be cool. It is cool. (I suppose, to quote some wisdom from Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.”) I look forward to the third installment of the trilogy, which is scheduled sometime this summer. In the meantime, I’m wondering just how much talking the Ewoks will get to do.