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Behind the novelisation of Star Wars: A New Hope

By Conny Rose

Everything you didn’t know about this historic book adaptation.

Before the invention of home video, films were often novelised to provide fans with more readily accessible content than cinematic release and possible television airings. That isn’t to say that home video (and then DVD) declared film novelisations redundant – in fact, many fans enjoy novelisations as a way of learning more about the backstory of the characters and the worlds of films, details that cannot be squeezed into a two-hour runtime. In a 2001 New York Times article To Some, a Movie Is Just an Outline for a Book, Peter Kobel described the process of writing film novelisations as a frantic two-month translation from screen to book, transforming a screenplay of 20,000-25,000 words into a novel up to three times the size. The job is made somewhat easier by the fact that the bulk of the story has already been written, but the challenge of novelisation should not be overlooked.

In terms of the canonical value of novelisations, it is worth noting that some of the most significant pop-culture talking points of beloved franchises came from the literary adaptations. Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, the novelisation of Star Wars: A New Hope, should be at least partially credited with creating the divisive, often-discussed topic of “Who Shot First?”. For those unfamiliar, “Who Shot First?” alludes to a scene in which everyone’s favourite scruffy-looking nerf-herder Han Solo partakes in a standoff with a green-skinned bounty hunter by the name of Greedo: each points his blaster at the other across the table in the cantina. Shots are fired, and Greedo ends up dead, but the events in between vary depending on the cut of the film. In the original cut, Han shoots Greedo under the table before Greedo can even fire. In the 1997 Special Edition cut, Greedo shoots first and misses (despite firing from point-blank range!), and Han fires back, killing Greedo. In the original DVD release of A New Hope in 2004, Han and Greedo shoot almost simultaneously, with Han dodging Greedo’s shot. But before any of these editing changes, and even before the release of A New Hope in 1977, the scene was open for interpretation. Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker had sold 3.5m copies three months before the release of the film on whose screenplay it was based. It describes the events in the cantina like this: Light and noise filled the little corner of the cantina, and when it had faded, all that remained of the unctuous alien was a smoking, slimy spot on the stone floor.”

This passage casts even more mystery over the intentions of the scene, and the canonical truth. With all the editing and re-editing, it is in fact entirely possible that the audience was never supposed to know who shot first, but wherever you stand on the issue, the role of the novelisation in this historic discussion should certainly be considered. 

Ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster, and credited to George Lucas, Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker is generally faithful to the central plot of its source material. The book opens with the contents of the opening crawl as a more fleshed-out prologue, situating the story within the political climate of Emperor Palpatine. Further expansion on the film included scenes that were filmed but omitted from the original cut, such as the first appearance of Jabba the Hutt. Most of the deviations from what was seen on screen in A New Hope did not drastically alter the story, with the exception of a notable alteration to Obi-Wan Kenobi’s death scene. In the film, Obi-Wan nobly sacrifices himself to allow our heroes to escape from the Death Star, whereas in the book, Darth Vader was simply able to overpower Obi-Wan and kill him. This modification to Obi-Wan’s arc completely changes Luke Skywalker’s relationship with him and changes the way he is perceived posthumously by the other characters.

Novelisations are often overlooked when people think about films, as people often forget they exist. However, they should certainly not be ignored when thinking about wider fan discourse, and the next time you want to go more in-depth into a film you loved, you may want to consider looking into whether it has been novelised. 


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