Biweekly Book Review: William Shakespeare’s Jedi the Last

Commentary by Arezou Amin and Dr. Nora Williams

Overall Impressions

Nora: The Last Jedi is my favourite Star Wars movie, so I was really nervous going in to Jedi the Last, because I had absolutely no faith that Ian would do it justice. And I’ve never been more disappointed to be absolutely correct. 

Part of my irritation here is that I think Doescher gets very caught up in his own cleverness—the villanelles, the acrostics, the skip code—and forgets to actually tell a story. All those bells and whistles mean nothing if we can’t follow the emotional and narrative thread of the story. And sadly, I think that really gets lost in this adaptation. 

To be fair: I do think this was a very, very difficult movie to translate. It all takes place over a very condensed period of time, and—I think more than other Star Wars movies—take real advantage of being, well, a movie to jump between perspectives. The storytelling is complex, despite the fact that the entire thing is sort of one extended, fragmented battle scene that’s acting as a supporting arc for Rey’s protagonist journey, first on Ach-To and then in the midst of that same battle. It’s like an onion: there’s a lot of layers. 

However, and this is my main complaint about Jedi The Last: there are ways to make that work on stage, and Doescher employed none of them. Given that he wrote this very quickly after the movie’s release, I think this play shows the limits of his knowledge of stagecraft, and the conventions of early modern language. 

Arezou: I’m going to somewhat echo Nora and say that to me, The Last Jedi is the *best* Star Wars movie. Revenge of the Sith juuuust eeks by as my personal favourite, but it’s really splitting hairs at this point. But I digress.

One of the movie’s strengths is just how tight the writing is. The dialogue takes it’s time when it can afford to, it is quick and effective, and gut-punchy when it needs to be, and important conversations always carry the necessary weight of emotion, supported in part by fantastic performances from the entire cast. I didn’t need convincing to love The Last Jedi more than I do, but nothing showed me how strong the movie is more than Jedi The Last.

I’m going to get more into my issues with it later down, so just to prove I can say nice things, there are a couple of moments that do land well. One is the first scene between Kylo, Hux and Snoke (that Nora elaborates on below). But the other is this through line about Leia that felt intentional considering Carrie Fisher’s passing. Doescher had what Rian Johnson did not when he was writing his script, and that was the knowledge that this would be Leia’s last significant outing. As a result, he dots the text with little moments that show how much Space Mom meant to us all.

There was a little moment, where Connix calls Leia “a mother to us all” (1.5.162), which was especially appropriate considering Connix is played by Carrie’s daughter, actress Billie Lourde. Then there were the two big solo emotional beats Leia is given. She is allowed at long last to mourn the loss of Alderaan, and the loss of her family in a way that puts her at the centre of her own grief and not someone else. And then her big speech at the top of Act 5, where she reflects on her own life with a true sense of finality. Heartbreaking, but much needed I think.

Stagecraft Comments – Nora

I’ve said before that the statecraft scenes lend themselves to this medium really well, and the same is true here: Act 1, Scene 3—the first scene between Snoke, Hux, and Kylo—works beautifully. Doescher gets out of his own way, and lets the movie dialogue mostly stand. It’s clean, clear, and effective. That’s…not the case for most of the ‘action’ sequences. Although it’s one of my favourite openings to a movie ever, Act 1, Scene 1 of Jedi The Last took me forever to get through. Where the movie is clean, elegant even, the first scene of this play is clunky and weighed down. 

I think part of the problem is that Doescher is really committed to replicating the movie shot-for-shot—this hasn’t always been the case in his previous plays, which makes me wonder whether Disney was exerting some pressure on him. Regardless of the behind-the-scenes reasons, however, jumping between several different ships, as well as the Rebel ground base on D’Qar, all in the same scene was a poor choice. It creates confusion on the page, making it very difficult to tell who is actually in space (lol) together, who can see whom, and who might hear which conversations. I think a skilled director could probably make sense of it on stage, but it would be a heavy lift. 

A better choice, to my mind, would have been to follow the example of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, specifically the battle scenes in Act 5. I may have used this example in a previous post but, to summarize: the end of Macbeth involves lots of encounters on the field of battle, between lots of different characters. Some of these scenes are super short, while others are more extended—but all of them are designated by the exeunt of the characters from the previous encounter and the entrance of the characters in the new one. This gives an energy and flow to the end of the play, and keeps the action moving. 

Doescher’s 1.1 here, by contrast, sprawls to 360 lines, all the way to Finn’s awakening and reunion with Poe. Holy crap, man! That’s too much stuff for one stage scene!! Even in the huge Shakespeare ‘reveal’ scenes, where we get a long Act 5, Scene 1 with lots of different elements to it, the setting remains consistent: we’re in one, specific place, and people may come and go as needed. Here, instead, we’re bouncing between several different ships (I lost count), without entrances and exits to help us keep track of things, and the clarity of that opening sequence really suffers.   

Doescher employs this same technique in later scenes, and the lack of clarity becomes abundantly clear when even he loses track of who’s on stage and who isn’t: there are several places where Doescher drops a cue, forgetting to indicate that a character should enter the stage. Rey and R2-D2, for example, have no entrance cue in 5.1—they just show up out of nowhere when they start speaking. 

Now I will give to Doescher that this is actually a thing that sometimes happens in early modern plays: at some point between the playwright’s manuscript, the promptbook in the theatre, the compositor’s copies, and the printing process, cues do sometimes get dropped. So I guess we can chalk this one up to authenticity! 

Canon Comments – Arezou

So, just where the hell was Rey in this book?

Don’t get me wrong, she is physically there, but I haven’t seen anyone so absent from her own narrative since The Rise of Skywalker.

Though obviously character arcs carry throughout the films of the Sequel Trilogy, it’s safe to say that The Last Jedi is Rey’s story more than anyone else’s. She is the focus, it is her place in the world that is questioned, and ultimately it is her journey to go on. Which is why it’s just so galling to me that she’s omitted almost entirely from her own story here.

None of her internal journey is present in the narrative. She exists at a very surface level, and serves to drive Luke and Kylo’s stories forward. The Last Jedi really drove home for me just how much I loved her character, because of her drive and determination to forge a place for herself in the face of everyone else letting her down. I could, to an extent, understand not including Padmé much in the prequels beyond The Phantom of Menace, or lessening Leia’s role as the originals went on. I don’t like it, but that’s what happened onscreen, so fine.

But Rey? Rey? She’s the main character! She’s the lead! Instead of getting a hint at what might be going on with Rey as a character, we have acrostics suggesting that the nobody reveal is boring, and we have a parade of R’s in the cave scene. Things no one watching would even notice. Which is a whole other thing. If she falls this flat, and becomes this unmemorable on the page, what happens if this play was mounted and all the cutesy literary things are suddenly completely hidden from the person taking it all in?

Take the moment Luke tells Rey to reach out, and she sticks her hand out in front of her. In the play, Luke tells the audience he’s going to tickle her hand to make a point (2.3.106). The scene, therefore, is from his point of view. But how much funnier would it have been if Rey had been given an “aha!” moment of victory, describing the power coursing through her, only to sharply be brought back to reality by Luke smacking her hand.

But of course that doesn’t happen. Because she isn’t the main character in her own story. In turning her into a plot device, I cannot help but feel like he missed the entire point of who she is as a character.

Speaking of missing the point, let’s talk about Kylo Ren (shock).

Or rather, I want to talk about the way Luke talks about Kylo Ren. Throughout The Last Jedi, Luke is grappling with the role he played in the downfall of Ben Solo and the creation of Kylo Ren. I’m almost tempted to say that Rey confronting him with the truth forces him to go through some kind of stages of grief deal. But in Doescher’s hands, though, Luke just…doesn’t give a shit?

The tone is a little odd when Luke first mentions him (2.1.14), but that is understandable enough given that Luke is mourning Han’s death, and is probably still deeply in denial about his own role. But by the time we get to the battle on Crait, when he has had more of a chance to come to terms with his actions we get this exchange in the movie:

Kylo Ren: Did you come back to say you forgive me? To save my soul?

Luke: No.

Whereas in the play we have:

Kylo Ren: Hast thou return’d to offer me forgiveness?/To save my soul like gallant deity?

Luke: Nay. Thine is not a soul I’ve will to save.

Remember what I said about lines in TLJ being quick and gut-punchy when needed? Not only is Luke’s “no” in the film exactly that in response to Kylo’s more dramatic statement, but the great thing about it – like so much dialogue in this movie – is that it’s ambiguous. What does “no” mean? Does it mean that Luke doesn’t care? Or that Kylo is beyond saving? Does it just mean Kylo has misunderstood, or is Luke being literal because he didn’t come there at all? It’s an open-ended statement that adds stakes for Kylo, whose arc is the one being furthered in this scene.

But what Doescher does is he definitively chooses a meaning for this exchange, and honestly chooses the one that makes the least sense. By this point, Luke knows full well that Kylo’s soul was lost in part because he failed him as a master. It’s not that he doesn’t want to save him, it’s that he knows he can’t. Doescher has completely missed the point of Luke’s arc in this movie.

Pedant’s CornerNora

I’m going to get really, really pedantic and annoying for a minute, so feel free to scroll down to Arezou’s next, much more interesting section! 

There are a few teeny, tiny, really minor and irrelevant things that bugged me. As I’ve said before: if you’re going to brand yourself a “Shakespeare guy,” I feel like you need to at least get the basics down. 

1. That’s not what a doublet is. 

In Act 3, Scene 3, we get the infamous shirtless Kylo Ren scene. Rey and Kylo connect in the Force, and he happens to not be wearing a shirt. I mean, no one’s mad. BUT! Doescher’s stage direction reads: “Enter KYLO REN aside, sans his doublet.” A doublet is an item of clothing commonly worn by men for about 300 years in Europe. It is a close-fitted jacket which, crucially, is worn over the shirt. As an early modern man, your shirt is basically your underwear: it’s the garment you’re wearing closest to your body. And yet Rey, at the start of this interaction, refers to Kylo as “deshirted” (3.3.33). Either Kylo takes his shirt off between the stage direction and Rey’s first three lines, or Doescher doesn’t actually know what a doublet is, and couldn’t even be bothered to Google it. Wikipedia would have given him this information. 

2. Sort out the pronouns. 

In the early modern period, English had both a formal and informal second-person pronoun, like French and Spanish do today. Now, we just use “you” for everything—but “you” was actually the formal version of the pronoun back in the day. “Thou” and related forms (thee, thy, thine) was the informal pronoun. This can sometimes be hard to grasp for modern English speakers, because “thou” just sounds so fancy! However, in Shakespearean terms, it’s the form of address you’d use for someone either very familiar to you (family, friends, etc.), or someone beneath you in social status. 

When Rose Tico first meets Finn, she’s star-struck. In Doescher’s version of this scene, however (Act 2, Scene 2), she jumps really immediately to using the familiar pronoun for him: “Thou art Finn, verily—the Finn!” (2.2.79). As an actor, this would throw me for a loop. Rose Tico, a ship’s mechanic, who is so excited about meeting a Resistance hero, is addressing him informally?? It makes no sense. She would use “you” and related forms in this scenario, at least until she realizes that he’s trying to flee in the escape pod. In fact, that would’ve been a really fun way to hint at the moment that the makes that realization: if her pronouns switch, that’s a subtle clue to those in the know that she’s changed her opinion of him. 

Edits Mean Things – Arezou

Adapting across mediums is a thankless task. There are certain things that work very well in one medium, that simply do not translate. The Last Jedi, I’d argue, is the most film-like, and medium specific of all the movies, and it was in seeing where Doescher falls short in telling the story that that became apparent. His biggest impediment? A lack of cinematic editing.

Editing is one of those things that you don’t miss until it’s gone. Good or bad editing can make or break a story. It also helps guide the audience by drawing our attention in a certain direction, or by adding a tangible separation between ideas.

An example of short but brilliant editing that got overlooked here, is when Luke realizes Rey has made the trip on the Falcon without Han, he asks her where he is in a panic. The camera then cuts to…Kylo Ren. The reason Han isn’t there. All he does is walk into the room where Snoke and Hux are talking, and it’s that conversation where Doescher chooses to start the scene. No content is lost, but the emotional aspect doesn’t survive.

But the part that really stuck out to me was the way the Force bond was written. Granted, it’s hard to convert mood or supernatural elements on stage through something like playing with sound mixing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do something to convey that their interactions aren’t like the ones they have in person. One idea that comes to mind is having them speak in rhyming couplets, but only when in Force-bond mode, which gives the audience some kind of auditory distinction.

This would have come most in handy during the infamous hand touch scene. In the film, Rey and Kylo have their conversation where he has misplaced every shirt he owns, then she goes outside, and has her moment in the Force cave. The audience is stunned at the end of that sequence when they hear her narrating and see that she’s relating the whole event to Kylo, in a later conversation. That’s the strength of being able to cut away, it’s much easier to show a passage of time. But as seen on the page (Act 3, scene 3), they start their conversation with him doublet-less, she tells him about the cave, then they end their conversation. It’s all happening in the same scene.

Technically it’s not all happening at once, and perhaps it appears better on the stage, but as written there isn’t much separation in tone, in scene, in setting, to make it appear as the distinct life changing moment it’s supposed to be.

Final Thoughts

Nora: Overall, disappointing. But at least the dialogue in The Rise of Skywalker is so bad already, I don’t think Ian can make it any worse.  

Arezou: There are so few moments in The Rise of Skywalker that I genuinely like, and I worry they won’t make it out in one piece.

***

I can’t quite believe that this series is coming to an end next month. It seems only yesterday we were getting started on this whole project.

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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