The Return of the Jedi novelization is mostly interesting for the hints we get of the Star Wars prequels… and the aspects that didn’t ultimately come to pass.
Oh, and also for making Ewok warfare seem a bit more threatening.
The Return of the Jedi novelization was written by James Kahn, a guy who wrote a few more film novelizations (Poltergiest, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Goonies), a few of original books (Time’s Dark Laughter, Timefall), and some TV episodes (Star Trek: TNG, Xena, TekWar, All My Children). And it’s a completely serviceable novel overall. Honestly, the parts where the novel are retreading the movie word for word are boring, and don’t add much to the experience. It’s the asides that you have to watch out for….
For example, this book bothers to discuss the position occupied by droids in the universe, the way they are treated as disposable things without sentience. Threepio frequently complains about it, and we see even more of it in EV-9D9’s droid torture chamber; the idea that droids have sensors that enable them to feel pain at all is mortifying. (Also, in this book and Tales From Jabba’s Palace, EV-9D9 is described as having “female” programming, which I find fascinating for a multitude of reasons.) Oddly, Kahn frequently mentions Threepio “smiling” at one comment or another… which, of course, he cannot do.
Lando’s character is expanded upon in this book, and I can’t decide if I like it better or worse than what we can infer on screen. The novel goes to great lengths to give us Lando’s internal monologue about practically everything that he does in the story–and Lando makes a point of thinking of everything in gambling terms. Literally everything. In some ways it’s charming, but it gets a little wearing after a while. Though it does provide some good reasoning behind some of the choices he makes during the battle sequences.
Leia’s subjugation by Jabba is given more detail that I’d just as soon never read. (And in the book, Jabba kills Oola simply because she won’t get close enough to him.) He kisses her, right at the start of the whole thing. There’s intimation of far worse, but Leia decides that she can deal with it because nothing could possibly be as bad as the time she was tortured by Vader. It’s all discomfiting. On the other hand, the novel makes it clear much sooner that Leia is constantly connected to the Force–only, she doesn’t understand that that’s what it is. (It’s even suggested that she calls on it to strangle Jabba to death, which is cool in theory, but I’m also really fine with figuring that Leia does her push ups.) The narrative also hints even more successfully at her familial relationship to Luke, making it clear how well the two can sense each other, even if they can’t quite understand the bond.
The moral ambiguity of what Luke is doing to Jabba and his entourage is made more prevalent, as well as Luke’s uncertainty in how he’s meant to use his newfound power. In that way, Luke’s journey feels more cohesive, more transparent. He is being cocky on the sailbarge, and he is happy to destroy these people who caused pain to friends and neighbors.
Han’s arc is made much clearer with the restoration and expansion of a deleted scene from the film–one where Han takes more time to thank Luke for the rescue. We begin to understand that this is the point at which Han begins to feel that he belongs with the Rebels. That it took all these people showing up for him to make him realize that this was where he preferred to be. It leads to this adorable aside where Han getting all emotional puts everyone at a loss:
Luke saw a difference had come over his friend, like a sea change. It was a gentle moment; he didn’t want to disturb it. So he only nodded.
Chewie growled affectionately at the young Jedi warrior, mussing his hair like a proud uncle. And Leia warmly hugged him.
They all had great love for Solo, but somehow it was easier to show it by being demonstrative to Luke.
Luke’s affection for both Yoda and Obi-Wan is expanded upon, as well as his acknowledgement of their roles in his life as agents of loss. He loves his teachers while being fully aware that their tutelage is responsible for the painful truths he’s had to overcome, and the innocence he’s lost. His discussion with Obi-Wan shows that the general plan for the prequels had always been in place:
Luke sensed the underlying meaning in Kenobi’s statement, he heard the words as a command. He shook his head back at the vision. “I can’t kill my own father.”
“You should not think of that machine as your father.” It was the teacher speaking again. “When I saw what has become of him, I tried to dissuade him, to draw him back from the dark side. We fought … your father fell into a molten pit. When your father clawed his way out of that fiery pool, the change had been burned into him forever–he was Darth Vader., without a trace of Anakin Skywalker. Irredeemably dark. Scarred. Kept alive only by machinery and his own black will …”
Obi-Wan also shoulders a clearer guilt where Anakin is concerned, insisting that Vader’s fall was his own fault. We get a window in on Vader’s plans, his discontent at the Emperor’s side and desire to train Luke and have him for his own apprentice. It’s chilling mostly due to the fact that it’s clear Vader harbors affection for his child, even if he can’t quite understand the emotion for what it is.
Mon Mothma’s background as a founding member of the Alliance is given all the time here that Episode III failed to give her, explaining the position she was meant to embody as a Senator who saw the corruption in the Republic and decided to act rather than stand still. We get a far more involved story when Threepio tells the Ewoks of their fight against the Empire, and eventually Han, Luke and Leia add their voices to his narrative. (Particularly Han–he gets awfully wordy and emotional here.) Then Wicket speaks to the Ewok council, insisting that they have a responsibility to fight. While I understand the purpose of these exchanges, they are super clunky, and it’s just as well that they never made it into the film. On the other hand, Ewok warfare seems a far better match against the Imperials forces in this book; it’s not because they have better weapons, but because they are described in much higher numbers. Essentially, every time a few of them die (and many of them do), a dozen more rise up in their place. It’s a pretty great image, one that would have been fun to see on screen.
The book makes it obvious that Leia knew her mother for far longer than Episode III eventually allows, so that’s something that was clearly changed when the prequels were made. In addition, Obi-Wan mentions Owen Lars as his brother, which was a sacked piece of canon.
We get a better idea of the push and pull Luke is feeling as the Emperor tries to wear down his defenses. His shock to know the Death Star is functional, his fear at finding the dark side so quickly when cornered. Luke’s thought process during his showdown with Vader is an interesting take, where we learn that Vader only finds out about Leia because Luke can sense her pain in the battle down below, and Vader probes his mind for the information. That violation makes more sense out of his sudden outburst, and his conclusion at the end of the fight leads him to understand that he doesn’t hate either Vader or the Emperor–only the darkness within them. His renouncement of the dark side is an acknowledgement that he can only vanquish it by disengaging from it.
And another interesting take: in the novel, it is suggested that Vader isn’t deciding whether or not he wants to save Luke from the Emperor’s Force lightning in those last moment. Rather, the narrative tells us that Vader is so weak now that he is pooling every last bit of his reserves to commit this final act. He tries to follow the Emperor into the abyss, but Luke pulls him back. On the other hand, there’s a weird thing where Vader is dying in the docking bay, and he’s awfully concerned about how ugly he imagines he looks. I get it, he’s a shadow of his former self, but he just managed to kill the Emperor and save his kid; it seems a weird thing to get stuck on, even in your head. It sort of detracts from that final goodbye.
The book wraps up right quick when all the action is over, and it just sort of stops. And you’re left with a kind of meh feeling. So I’d say probably give this one a pass unless you’re a completist. It’s got some fun bits, but it’s nothing to get excited over.