Reading

2015 Reading Journey: William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back

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by Ian Doescher

I’m not big on mash ups, generally, but I saw the individual volumes of the first trilogy in a bookstore and thought it had a lot of potential to be fun. And it did have a lot of potential. It was a lot of fun. For the first couple of scenes. After that, it got old. Fast. That it’s written as a dialogue-only play with very little real direction other than characters entering or leaving helped to speed things along, but there were times I caught myself skimming for the next good line and had to drop back a page or more.

I don’t think there’s a need to share the basic plot of The Empire Strikes Back. For anyone curious, it’s my favourite of the original films, and the best by a fair margin, in my opinion. This is the film with the most character depth, the most emotional content, and the best writing. I hoped most of that would make it through the translation into faux-Shakespearean English.

 

The Dialogue

It’s written as if it’s a play, so it’s all dialogue, but what I mean is the best work is the direct translation of the dialogue works best. And often the best lines work best. If I had to pick a personal high point:

“I tell thee, droid: Assail me not with odds!”

It’s not hard to see Han’s face as he hurls that line at C3P0, and a lot of the true dialogue works very well to pull you through a mirror vision of the story, but there’s also a lot of stuff that shouldn’t be dialogue and is.

Giving actual voice to the Wampa, the AT-ATs, and the giant space worm seems an odd choice. I kind of get that the author want to use them as more than just a noted plot device in the writing, but each of these more or less get completely forgettable short soliloquies.

And the Ugnauts. A voice of their own, but only one for the lot of them, with almost broken, sing song speech. Certainly a different view of the creatures who played keep away with Chewbacca in the film, but we don’t really get to see that, or any potential interplay between them, since Chewy only grunts in between.

Show don’t tell. This is a rule so often quoted at writers that it’s long past the point of being a cliché. This is written as a play and we’re not watching a movie, so there’s definitely got to be room for leeway, but so much of what would be happening on screen is given in dialogue, sometimes by characters who didn’t actually have much in the movie, so that the audience can understand what’s going on by reading instead of watching a play. I get it, but it’s almost always too much. I don’t remember an awful lot of stage direction in the Shakespeare I’ve read, but a lot of the action-in-dialogue here was hitting me over the head.

We’re also given insights into Vader’s character that can only come from taking a good hard look at Jedi. In Empire, he’s pretty much the implacable force until the moment of the big reveal, which is spoiled far in advance using this extra dialogue. Carrying on in this theme, there’s also far too much foreshadowing of the developing relationship between Han and Leia, most of these in the form of asides or short soliloquies as they remark how much they already love each other to the audience long before Leia is at all ready to admit things to herself much less declare to Han.

On a related note, R2D2 has asides for the audience, a Shakespearean tradition. It’s a neat, something to tell the audience here and there things inferred from the other side of the conversation for a character who doesn’t actually speak. But why not give them to Chewbacca as well? His speech is uniformly grunts that don’t capture much.

 

The Iambic Pentameter

Sometimes isn’t. Most Shakespeare is written in iambic pentameter, basically ten syllable lines with the emphasis falling on every second syllable to create a rhythm. This can be split between two characters speaking, but it always adds up.

In The Empire Striketh Back, there are lines that break this rhythm, lines that read more like a syllable count to make things balance than actual iambic blank verse. It’s jarring when it happens, but it does happen more in the front half of the story than in the back half.

The other major breakout of the standard Shakespearean rhythm is intentional. Yoda speaks in the traditional haiku format. Not Haiku, but in the format. His lines are divided by syllable 5-7-5, 5-7-5, 5-7-5 until he finishes speaking. It makes him stand out in a translation where everyone speaks a little Yoda-like, but it’s also jarring.

And Boba Fett is, well, Boba Fett, but he talks too much and while it breaks from the rhythm (intentionally by the afterward) to give a little variety in the pace, he talks too much.

 

The Art Work

The interior art brings a real Elizabethan flavour to things. The characters are recognizable, but their dress is tailored just a little to Shakespeare’s time and the backdrops, when shown, put me in mind of something I might see on a professional stage to give a true view of the setting. My favourite of these is the final one, with Luke, Leia, and the droids staring off the balcony at what is probably a wrought iron star with a lantern in the idle. It’s beautiful.

 

Overall rating: Two Stars. I know I’ve spent most of this saying what I didn’t like about the translation, but it was an okay read taken as a whole. It lived in the Shakespearean paraphrasing of the film’s original dialogue and more or less died outside of it for me. I do wonder if it might work well as a multi-cast audio drama with people voicing the characters who have had just a little Shakespearean practice.

I won’t recommend The Empire Striketh Back specifically, and don’t intend to read more in the series at this point, but if you like Shakespeare and you like Star Wars, you can probably jump into any one of these books as the author has covered all six films now. I’d recommend picking your favourite as you’ll likely only need one taste to satisfy.

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