Biweekly Book Review: William Shakespeare’s The Force Doth Awaken

Commentary by Arezou Amin and Dr. Nora Williams

Welcome, welcome to the Sequel trilogy. We made it, and I can’t believe this is almost over, for better or worse.

Overall Impressions

Arezou: Of all the adaptations we’ve read so far, I think this one is my favourite. I suppose it’s got something to do with it not being a nostalgic fixation for the author (like the OT is) and not something I suspect he spent a lot of time disliking (the PT). Instead, here he is, taking in the stories in real time just like the rest of us.

I do think that that does have its setback as well (which I get into below), but because he’s taking the movie for what it is, some of the strengths bleed through. There are a few occasions where the quippiness we see onscreen translated very effectively. Kylo Ren dryly saying “Indeed” (1.1.144) before killing Lor San Tekka comes to mind. Same with Poe’s “‘Tis I shall speak, or you, or what you will?” (1.1.148).

Nora: I have to agree with Arezou that this is probably my favourite of Doescher’s adaptations so far. I do think that’s partly because the storytelling of The Force Awakens is really strong (fight me, bros), so he’s got arguably one of the best sources in the movie-verse to work from. 

That said, I think where this one falls down is where Doescher gets in his own way. When he steps back and lets the basic premise (Star Wars but in Shakespeare-speak) shine, it really works; when he tries to get clever, it really doesn’t. I’ll say more about this later, but…there’s a reason you don’t see villanelles in drama very often. 

Another example of Doescher getting in his own way is the ending, which (again) is narrated by the Chorus. As far as I know, Shakespeare employs that dramaturgical strategy just once, in Romeo and Juliet—and the Chorus doesn’t tell the audience what happens at the end, but rather acts as a sort of epilogue, putting a bow on the end of the story. As in The Clone Army Attacketh, Doescher invades on the powerful silence on the film’s final moments, inserting a Chorus to narrate Rey’s arrival on Ahch-To and first meeting with Luke. As writing sins go, telling rather than showing ranks pretty high, and the descriptive Chorus feels discordant against the film’s elegant cliffhanger ending. 

On a more positive note, the illustrations in this one are my favourite so far in the series. BB-8 in a cloak and feathered hat?? Sign me up. Kudos to illustrator Nicholas Delort!

Arezou: I want to touch on two things Nora said. The first is jumping off of her point about the chorus. Something I’ll get to later is that the tendency towards monologues saps the story of a lot of the tension. A lot of the emotional strength of The Force Awakens comes from the moments of silence, when the truth of the events occurring is allowed to wash over the characters. And a lot of the time, it’s filled with chatter.

The other thing I want to touch on is that I agree, the illustrations are beautiful. In particular, I like the one of the castle where Han goes to face Kylo Ren. Gorgeous.

Why Does Doescher Hate Leia?

Nora: Let’s talk about Leia. 

I really, really thought that maybe Doescher had seen the error of his ways. In the prequel trilogy, we started to see much more interiority for Padmé than we ever got for Leia, and it gave me hope. Here, too, Rey gets really decent character development (as she should!). So I went into Act 4 with high hopes that perhaps Doescher’s rendering of General Organa might be granted the scope that his version of Princess Leia was not. 

Alas, I was disappointed. Actually, more than disappointed—I was angered. 

This Leia is exclusively a mother. Despite being a General of the goddamned Resistance, Doescher refuses to give her any agency as a military strategist or a leader. Instead, her longest speech (4.2.146-78) focuses exclusively on her love for Ben and her anguish at his turn to the Dark Side. 

On the one hand, of course she’s got to have that as part of her characterization. Leia’s capacity to love Ben is, after all, part of what saves him in the end (not that Doescher knew that when he was writing this, since Rise of Skywalker didn’t exist yet). But to make her character entirely about her son, at this point in the series, is a deliberate and misogynist choice that Doescher makes. While he seems capable of understanding, at a surface level, that women can be senators and warriors, he seems to have a very fixed idea of Leia that is informed by stereotypes rather than by either Carrie Fisher’s actual performance in the role or Leia’s development in the wider universe. 

Nowhere is this more obvious than in his decision to give the big, inspirational, pre-battle speech in Act 4, Scene 3 to—wait for it—Han fucking Solo. Not only is this actually Leia’s speech in the movie, but Han is also the least likely person to give it even if you wanted to reassign it for some reason. 

I won’t get too deep into the actual speech, which is a pretty ham-fisted rendering of the St Crispin’s day speech from Henry V (as most inspirational battle speeches are), but choosing to take this speech away from Leia and give it to the guy who’s always three seconds away from abandoning the cause is wrong on so many levels. My theory is that Doescher just cannot bring himself to conceive of Leia as a leader in the Resistance. 

Arezou: I honestly don’t know what I can say that Nora hasn’t said already. It’s unfortunately something of a trend in these adaptations in general, that when in doubt Doescher defaults the female leads back to handwringing stereotypes. With Padmé, it might be unfair to lay the blame entirely at his feet, since Revenge of the Sith in particular didn’t give anybody much to work with.

But Leia? Leader-of-the-Rebellion turned Leader-of-the-Resistance Leia?

Of all the women in the series, Leia by far has the most growth. It makes sense, she’s been around the longest and had the most screentime. But there is a reluctance, I think, to view her outside of the context where we first meet her. Even then, she’s still a leader, but she’s also 19 years old and wearing a pretty dress, so what to do, what to do?

And I don’t mean to disparage any takes of Leia that do view her through the lens of a mother. That’s an important part of who she is. Part of the tragedy of the character is that by marrying and having a child so young and in such an unstable environment, and purely by being so dedicated to her cause, she lacked the means to split her time effectively. But that’s not the exploration to do here. That’s something better suited to a novel. In The Force Awakens Leia is seen solely as the Resistance Leader by most around her, and its only in a quiet moment with Han that she acknowledges their loss.

This is one of those moments of silence I mentioned. So much goes unsaid between them, but it speaks volumes. The loss of their son isn’t unimportant to either of them. It’s what drove them apart, and made them throw themselves even more into their work. They both also know there’s nothing more to be said about it. They just need to process their loss together, for possibly the first time. The power of the silence means that the next time we see Leia, she’s now got the support of Han, the only person who could possibly understand what she’s going through, and she’s ready to step up and be the leader the galaxy needs. So why on earth the rallying speech went to HAN of all people…Han doesn’t care about the larger cause. Until 10 minutes ago, he was smuggling exotic pets. Han only goes to Starkiller Base at all because Leia asks him to, to reach out to Ben. Really, if anyone needed the pining speech on the nature of parenthood, it was Han, not Leia.

I’m shocked, that in the fourth adaptation featuring Leia, she continues to be so soundly disrespected by the author.

That’s Not How Poetry Works! – Nora

Yes, I’m salty that Doescher ruined one of the greatest lines in the movie (“That’s not how the Force works!”), but I also want to spend a moment investigating his decision to give his three big villains (Snoke, Kylo Ren, and Hux) each a villanelle to speak in the course of the play. 

A villanelle is a poetic form with a rigid structure that consists of up to five tercets (stanzas with three lines) plus a final rhyming couplet (two lines that rhyme with each other). That’s not so bad, but villanelles have another rule: the first and third lines of the first tercet repeat in an alternating pattern in the last lines of the following tercets; these two lines then also form the rhyming couplet at the end of the poem. So villanelles have a kind of refrain. 

In the Renaissance, villanelles weren’t the structured poems that we know today—those appear to have originated in the nineteenth century. There were, however, much less structured French poems called “villanelle” that were inspired by the rustic, pastoral themes of Italian and Spanish folk dance songs (the word “villano” in Italian means “peasant”). They’re not a feature of scripted drama in that period, or—as far as I can tell—in any period. 

I suspect the reason we don’t often see villanelles in plays is because they’re not terribly dramatic. They’re challenging for the poet, but to the ear they are repetitive and a bit sing-songy, like a children’s nursery rhyme or a liturgical text. Let’s look at Hux’s villanelle from Act 3, Scene 2: 

This is the weak Republic’s final hour, 

The end of those who foster such unrest.

They shall observe the strong First Order’s pow’r!

E’en now, far hence, the Republic false and dour

Doth lie unto a galaxy oppress’d.

This is the weak Republic’s final hour! 

Supporting the Resistance, they devour

All chance for peace, which else might manifest

They shall observe the strong First Order’s pow’r!

This fierce machine you built shall make them cow’r, 

And bring an end unto the Senate pest—

This is the weak Republic’s final hour! 

Th’Republic’s fleet, once a colossal tow’r,

Shall crumble like an old bird’s feeble nest—

They shall observe the strong First Order’s pow’r!

At our vast might an boldness all shall glow’r,

Then bow—our eminence at last confess’d. 

This is the weak Republic’s final hour—

They shall observe the great First Order’s pow’r! (3.2.1-19)

We’ll ignore for a moment that this villanelle is two lines two long—19 when it should be 17. I’m not the villanelle police. What I am going to nitpick, however, is the soporific effect of this type of form in a dramatic context. Anyone else nodding off slightly by the end of that? 

On the one hand, I get it: we’re not supposed to like Hux, and evil empires do often have propagandic slogans that they repeat at every opportunity. Han’s (LEIA’S!!) inspirational speech is supposed to be more empathetic, appealing to the humanity of his (HER!!) fighters, while Hux’s call to arms is cold and power-hungry. I could possibly—possibly—get behind this argument for employing a villanelle here, where it just about makes dramaturgical sense. But Doescher also writes villanelles for Kylo Ren and Snoke, at points where they make much less dramaturgical sense. Based on his “Afterword,” his motivation for doing this is purely that “villanelle” sounds like “villain,” and he and his buddy thought it would be cool to write some villain villanelles some time. So I just spent more time thinking about this than Doescher apparently did. 

How Many Speeches Are Too Many? – Arezou

Let’s talk about silence in The Force Awakens.

A lot of very heavy moments are carried out on screen in the silence between the lines of dialogue. A couple of words can convey an entire soliloquies worth of emotions. But as we’ve seen in earlier entires to the Shakespeare adaptations, when in doubt Doescher defaults to a soliloquy. Or just to too much dialogue.

Which, while we’re here, I wonder if Ben Solo will have more to say in the back half of Doescher’s take on The Rise of Skywalker than just “ow” (one of the greatest actors of a generation and you’ve got him just saying “ow”, I…sorry, that’s for another day)

There are three moments in particular that really suffer from having too much dialogue, and they all take place in act 5. I get that the final act of a Star Wars movie tends to favour action over dialogue, so I understand the inclination to add some conversation to the proceedings. But at this point, it just becomes too much.

Han is given a lengthy speech right before facing Ben on the bridge. And by lengthy I mean it’s 36 lines long. Which may not sound like much, but it replaces Han’s conflicted resolution, that grim determination. Onscreen, you’re not entirely sure what he’s going to do until he steps out on that bridge and yells “Ben!” (which I have more thoughts about in my next section). It’s obvious to anyone who knows Han Solo, and who knows his heart, that of course he’s going to try to reach out to his son one last time, knowing that the act is probably going to get him killed. It’s the “how” that’s uncertain.

But imagine watching this play out. Rather than creeping up on Ben and startling him with the use of his birth name, Han waxes philosophical for quite some time about the baby Ben used to be. You know where this would have fit? Where Leia had her moment to make a speech about Ben. If this had replaced that, and Leia had been given the big battle speech, then things would have flowed much more naturally, and in character.

Then, once Han dies…Chewie gets a soliloquy.

Side note: It’s worth pointing out that this is the first of the books featuring Chewie to “translate” the Shyriiwook by way of footnotes. I agree with Nora’s suspicion that this was done purely so Chewie could have this big moment when Han died.

But this doesn’t work for two reasons. First of all, if this is staged, then your audience doesn’t see the footnotes anyway, once again calling into question what medium this adaptation is really for. But more importantly, let’s look into what’s really happening in this moment.

In the movie, Chewie lets out a single, grieved roar, then fires his bowcaster at Kylo, hitting him in the side. Chewbacca, who is well over 200 years old, would not accidentally miss an unmoving, unsuspecting target. If he didn’t shoot to kill, he did so on purpose. That’s not just Han Solo’s son. That’s his nephew. He’s Uncle Chewie. And Uncle Chewie is not in any kind of headspace to murder the kid he used to hold as a baby, no matter how grieved he is. Angry or not, that is his last living tie to Han (other than Leia, but you know what I mean). None of this is said onscreen of course, but that’s where media literacy comes in. It’s a fairly safe assumption to make. But in his little added lines, all he does is lament the loss of his friend. It’s a valid point and a valid character beat, but it’s going to be completely lost on an audience watching this as a play, and it misses the point of the sheer emotional turmoil Chewbacca is going through.

The last moment I want to mention is Kylo Ren and Rey’s duel in the snow. We already know that the default in these adaptations is for the characters to narrate their actions, as though we aren’t watching them unfold on stage in front of us. Fortunately that doesn’t take up too much time, but it still takes a lot of power out of the duel.

Their fight on Starkiller is one of the greats. Its the one that made me a Reylo (no I don’t want your opinion on that). But beyond that, it’s great because of how charged it is. Kylo wants to kill/incapacitate her to take the lightsaber that he believes is rightfully his, and Rey is just desperately trying to stay alive. When, after a few moments of silent fighting, he realizes she’s much stronger than she knows, he makes an offer. He breaks the silence in an unexpected way, not with a threat, but with “You need a teacher! I can show you the ways of the Force.”

Because the lead up to this line in the play is so wordy, the power is lost. Kylo’s offer is the point on which the whole fight pivots, with Rey opening herself to the Force and becoming the more overt aggressor, with Kylo now trying to hold her back. In Doescher’s adaptation it gets lost in the shuffle. It isn’t given the appropriate space to land.

The fact that they have an entire conversation – entirely in asides, mind you – should come as no surprise, but it’s also disappointing. There’s no nuance when you’re just telling us your feelings.

I suppose what I’m saying here is so much of what makes these movies work is not just the lines of dialogue themselves, but the actors as well. And these movies in particular have some stellar on-camera talent, that really can’t be overstated enough.

Prose, Verse, and Rey Nobody – Nora

Something else I’ve probably thought more about than Doescher is Rey’s use of verse rather than prose in The Force Doth Awaken. You might remember from previous installments in this series that I’ve been wishing for Doescher to take some more risks and be more adventurous in his deployment of different verse structures. Here, to my mind, was a golden opportunity to experiment with prose while making a political statement about Rey’s position in the Star Wars universe. 

This is perhaps a bit unfair, in that the “Rey Nobody” option hadn’t fully established itself at the time that Doescher was writing—The Last Jedi literally didn’t exist yet, let alone Rise of Skywalker. Fine. But she’s still a scavenger from Jakku, as everyone in the entire movie is at pains to remind her constantly. The First Order characters refer to her almost exclusively as either “the girl” or “the scavenger.” While she ultimately turns out to have extreme pedigree (ugh, don’t get me started), there’s no indication that that’s necessarily where things are going when we first meet her in the desert. 

And yet she speaks in verse. 

I suspect that Doescher didn’t actively think much about this: he’s stuck to verse for the vast majority of characters in these plays, and Rey is a lead character with lots of screen time / lines, so of course she’s going to speak in verse. But if you’ll indulge me, I want to unpack the implications of that passive choice for a bit. 

In Shakespeare’s Cymbeline—one of my favourite early modern plays—two infant princes are kidnapped from their cradles and raised in a cave in the Welsh wilderness. Their kidnapper, who they believe is their father, talks constantly about how the mark of nobility is in them, despite their rustic upbringing. They have the qualities of princes, even though they have no idea that they actually are royalty. A similar thing happens in The Winter’s Tale: Perdita is abandoned in Bohemia as an infant and is taken in by a shepherd—and yet, no one can stop talking about how royal she seems, even though she was raised as a shepherdess. The idea is that royal blood transcends upbringing: nature trumps nurture. I probably don’t have to explain how horribly elitist this idea is, right? It’s horribly elitist to think that someone’s “nobility” is an inherent quality rather than something that is trained into them through a lifetime in power. But this is a trope we see pretty frequently in early modern plays like Shakespeare’s, as these two examples show. 

I’m tempted, therefore, to read this into Doescher’s choice (and it is a choice, however passively made) to have Rey speak in verse. The effect of that decision is that it tacitly elevates her and hints at her lineage—at least to someone who is as nerdy about early modern plays as I am. And of course, no one knew who she was at this stage of the sequel trilogy’s development. 

But what if he had decided, instead, to have her speak in prose? What if Rey, who longs so desperately to find her place in the world while still embracing the idea of being “just Rey,” didn’t have to follow the formal rules that others expect her to follow? How incredible to have Kylo thrown off by her speech patterns at their first meeting, and to have his assumptions about her at first solidified by her speech and then challenged completely by her skill with the Force? And, looking ahead in the trilogy, what if her resistance to grandaddy Palpatine was underscored by her refusal to speak verse with him? Her power over him is that she isn’t what he expects—what if that extended to her use of language? 

Again, this isn’t really fair, given that Doescher couldn’t possibly have known where Rey’s identity was going. But I also don’t think he gave a second’s thought to the possibility that she might speak in prose, and so those opportunities were foreclosed before they could ever open up. And I think that’s a shame. 

The Characters Are Written Like This For A Reason – Arezou

I love the characters of the Sequel Trilogy. I wish they had all gotten to see their arcs through to a happier – and logical – conclusion, and I live in eternal hope that they will one day, once good storytellers figure out how to do some massive cleanup.

But anyway.

One thing I wish Doescher had done with these books was wait until The Rise of Skywalker had come out before beginning to adapt them. Then he could build in foreshadowing, and have a better sense of who the characters actually are. At that point, he could make a conscious character choice about Rey’s dialogue, like Nora mentions above. As it is, he seems more interested in finding cutesy stylistic choices for each character, rather than representing who they are as people.

He claims Rey’s longer chunks of dialogue contain fandom hints about her potential lineage, but I didn’t see it anywhere. And believe me, I saw all those theories back in the day.

Poe speaks in references to music, and Finn has the letters F and N in each line. Kylo’s got his villanelles, as do Hux and Snoke.

So what we now have is our three “light side” characters with no distinct speech characteristics, and our three “dark side” characters speaking in an identical manner.

This does every character SUCH a disservice. Poe is hotheaded and confident, the only character who really knows his role in the story. Finn is direct, but also on the edge of panic at all times because he doesn’t know what he wants except to run as far away from his old life as possible. Rey is torn between being enthralled by this new world she’s been pulled into, afraid of the new powers awakening in her, and all the while being weighed down by her difficult past. Kylo is emotional, Hux is a fanatic and Snoke is calculating.

Each of these can and should be represented distinctly and they aren’t. It just falls kinda…flat. It’s like the points we’ve made before, about different characters all speaking at the same “level”. It just doesn’t work.

There is also one choice Doescher made – or rather, unmade, I guess – and that was the choice to use the name “Ben” prior to the encounter with Han Solo. Leia says it once on her own, as does Han. Is it a little unnatural for them to not use his name in conversation when talking about him? Sure. But it’s all part of that slow build reveal that the movie sets up. First we have the “you can’t deny the truth that is your family”, then we have Snoke’s “your father…Han Solo”, then we have Han telling Leia he saw “[their] son”, and finally one sharp call out: “Ben!”. It’s all paced very well, and is completely lost in using the name before it was time. The weight of legacy is one of the burdens Ben carries with him, and while yes, Doescher didn’t know that at the time, I wish he’d taken a moment to consider the deliberate placement of Kylo Ren’s real name.

Final Thoughts

Arezou: Honestly, I don’t know what I expected going in, so this was a pleasant surprise. That said, there were so many beats that just missed the mark for me, so I can’t exactly say this was good. More like it was…better. I’m so afraid of The Last Jedi adaptation, I really am.

Nora: GIVE US GENERAL ORGANA, YOU COWARD! Ahem. I’m interested to see how he approaches The Last Jedi, because that’s my favourite in this trilogy!  

***

Next month comes the text we’ve both been anticipating and dreading all at once. Jedi the Last, a movie we both adore. Will Doescher pull it off? Only time will tell. See you at the end of September!

Special thank you to my collaborator on this series:

Nora is a Lecturer in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama and Literature at the University of Essex. She is currently working on her first book, Canonical Misogyny: Staging Sexual Violence in Early Modern Performance. You can follow her on Twitter @noraj_williams

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