There’s a breathtaking shot in the new Star Wars movie in which an enormous mechanical rack extends itself from the side of a troop-transport thingy, setting down thousands of curled-up robot soldiers. The precision and scale of the movement mesmerizes even as it chills you, like something out of a Leni Riefenstahl daydream.
Substitute books of various sizes for the robots and you’ve got the perfect image of what’s happening in your local bookstore right now, here on Earth: A vast army of tie-in tomes spun off from Episode I — The Phantom Menace has parachuted itself into place in a display of lockstep symmetry that’s truly mind-boggling.
George Lucas’ efficiently structured but woefully worded screenplay, for starters, shows up in no less than three chief iterations: The Phantom Menace Illustrated Screenplay, decked out with passably engaging storyboard pencil drawings; a novelization by boilerplate fantasy author Terry Brooks; and a pocket-size ”Mighty Chronicles” edition for the under-7 set, bound in an appealingly stout, squarish configuration. The last isn’t bad for small fry, but beware umpteen additional kiddie-book spin-offs like Watch Out, Jar Jar! clogging up the checkout counters. Some have a picture of Yoda in the upper corner of the cover declaring ”Read, you will!” If you’re smart, buy you won’t.
What about bigger readers? They won’t find much nutrition in the Brooks book. Nobody reads film novelizations looking for Shakespeare, but did this instant best-seller have to stick so close to straight transcription, especially since Brooks was supposedly given some latitude to improvise? Despite huffing on the jacket about ”rich detail and insight” there’s precious little of it. What’s the deal with Shmi Skywalker, mother of the little boy who’ll grow up to become Darth Vader, announcing that her son was immaculately conceived? No explanation; as in the film script, she simply declares, ”There is no father.” And what’s a ”midi-chlorian,” explained vaguely in the movie as a life-form found in the cells of Jedi that helps them channel the Force? You won’t find specific answers. In fact, it’s the Illustrated Screenplay that yields the best extra-cinematic snippets: It includes scene fragments deleted from the film, such as two droids watching the action early on as one declares, ”I’m not made to think.”
Frankly, the whole concept of experiencing Phantom Menace as minimally adorned text is hopelessly mono-media. Who wants to read hollow extensions of Lucas’ juvenile — even infantile — dialogue without the compensating pleasures of special effects and 120-decibel blasts of John Williams’ rousing score? It’s like trying to salivate over a written description of a Yodel instead of ripping off the wrapper and snarfing it.
If there’s any part of the experience that benefits from being spun into book form, it’s the visuals, not the words. And in Star Wars: Episode I: Incredible Cross-Sections, DK Books has come up with a worthy sequel to a previous Cross-Sections volume that dissected the original trilogy’s spacecraft. Written by archaeologist David West Reynolds, the book treats each piece of made-up hardware as if it’s the product of a long-lost culture. It explains all sorts of things that go by too quickly to grasp (like a Droid Starfighter that’s a self-contained, sentient robot — way cool!). Reynolds also teases out a narrative thread barely articulated in Lucas’ script: Phantom Menace is a tale partly about militaristic ”market forces [that] have begun to undermine the ancient traditions of craftsmanship,” which are evident in the lovely, curvy designs of every kind of spacecraft you’ll find produced on the embattled planet Naboo.
Too much pseudo-art-historical pretense for you? Have a laugh instead with The Star Wars Cookbook: Wookiee Cookies and Other Galactic Recipes, by Robin Davis. I can’t vouch for the dishes’ taste, but the witty pictures of ”Greedo’s Burritos” and ”Han-burgers” made me laugh more than all of Jar Jar’s jokes put together. And if you hunger for simple picture-book showcases of Phantom’s elaborate production design, take your pick of the Queen Amidala Paper Doll Book (all the outfits! all the wigs!) or The Ultimate Star Wars Episode I Sticker Book (conveniently re-stickable). Avoid like an Imperial torture droid, however, the wretched Micro-Vehicle Punch-Outs. The back cover shows elaborate renderings of six ships and vehicles, but when you turn to the actual flat paper sheets inside, they look like somebody drew them with fat-tipped magic markers; all the borders are blurred. In 20 minutes, I couldn’t piece together the Naboo Starfighter properly — and the edges had ugly little white bumps from where you punch out the paper. If that’s an example of Naboo’s vaunted brand of craftsmanship, no wonder the Empire wiped it out.
Paper Doll: B+
Sticker Book: B+