Star Wars: The Force Awakens novelization: An interview with Alan Dean Foster

Over the last month, there have been many discussions and debates about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. One area often at the center of these are the story elements either not addressed or left vague enough for there to be lingering questions about what occurred, leaving room for a lot of wondering as fans return to a galaxy set 30 years after Return of the Jedi. Fortunately, some of these questions can be answered in recently released books, including the novelization of the film, which offers further insight into the story while providing its own epic journey to the galaxy far, far away.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

The Force Awakens novel was written by New York Times bestselling author Alan Dean Foster. Foster has written numerous novelizations that include other popular franchises such as Star Trek and Alien, and has written original works in the area of science fiction and fantasy. He’s also no stranger to the Star Wars universe. Foster was the ghostwriter behind the first Star Wars film novelization, released in 1976, which was attributed to George Lucas, and then wrote the first Expanded Universe novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which was set after A New Hope but ultimately considered non-canon. Years later, Foster returned to the universe to pen The Approaching Storm, released in 2002, and followed events set right before Attack of the Clones.

 

The opportunity to return to Star Wars and enter the new canon came when the editor in charge of the Star Wars publishing program at Del Rey Random House, Shelly Shapiro, reached out to Foster through his agent asking if he’d like to write the novelization.

“I thought about it and knew that J.J. Abrams, whose work I admire, was directing, and I thought, ‘Well, heck, why not? It should be fun.’ Of course I crossed my fingers until I read the screenplay, and then I knew it would be fun,” Foster told Blastr.

The screenplay is obviously essential for writing a novelization, whether it’s for The Force Awakens or another movie. Foster said after receiving that, “you beg for additional material, and anything they can send you is useful.”

“I had told them at least could I get pictures of the main characters in costume, so that somebody like Rey, who’s wearing some kind of a sand suit with goggles, for example, at the beginning of the film, is depicted as wearing it," he said. "You want to be as accurate as possible, and you want the book to accord with what people see in the theater as much as possible. So I got some still shots like that. I didn’t see any footage of the film, but I did get some still shots of characters in costume and some of the aliens and props, sets, things like that."

Returning To The Galaxy Far, Far Away

Even though it’s been more than 10 years since Foster has written a Star Wars book, for him, jumping back into this world after so much time away felt “like no time at all had passed.” 

“It felt like yesterday. It felt like I had just walked out of Industrial Light & Magic on Kester Avenue in Van Nuys talking to George and talking to John Dykstra and all these people, looking at all the plastic pieces of the Death Star, and the only difference was I was just writing a different story,” Foster said.

Some things in the process were different, however, this time around. Technology, for example, has changed. According to Foster, with big-screen computers he can now easily have the screenplay up on one side with the manuscript on the other and look quickly between the two, unlike in the past, when a propped-up script had to have its pages turned by hand. Also, the franchise has obviously changed owners since Foster’s first foray into Star Wars novels.

“When I wrote the first novelization of the first film, George was like, ‘Go write a book,’ and I wrote the book and I turned it in, and he said, ‘That was fine,’ and Del Rey, said, ‘That was fine,’ and that was it,” Foster said. “There was no Lucasfilm Story Group. There was no giant corporation chewing their collective metaphorical nails over the box-office grosses. There’s a lot more riding herd over you as the writer, but that’s OK. I knew that from previous experiences. I knew what it was going to be like, and if I had paid $4.1 billion for something I would be nervous and careful over what was going to be done with it, too.”

Not Just A Retelling Of The Movie

If you’ve seen the movie—perhaps more than once—you’ll still find a lot to enjoy in the novelization even before you get to the familiar opening crawl, as the book first starts with a quote from the Journal of the Whills. From there, it moves to the crawl wording before the story begins not with a Star Destroyer above the planet Jakku, but with General Leia Organa thinking about the state of the galaxy and the search for her brother.

Throughout the book, there are added scenes like this one, as well as expanded scenes. These explain certain events the movie doesn’t spend time on or offer greater insight into the characters that make the story even richer. Watching the movie again after reading the book makes it feel like a new experience thanks to this extra information.

Some of the ideas for these scenes originated from Lucasfilm while others were ideas from Foster. The Lucasfilm Story Group vetted everything and while some of Foster’s creations stayed in the book, others he was asked to take out.

 

“In some cases, there were certain things that might reflect upon something they might want to do in Episode VIII or Episode IX or Episode 23, and if you put it in the novelization and you want the novelization to be canon, then they have to be very careful about what they let you put in,” he said. “Because once it’s in, it’s in, so they tend to err on the side of caution as far as new additional material which is understandable when you’re projecting a franchise into the infinite future.”

One element the story group asked Foster to explain since it wasn’t in the film was what happened to Resistance pilot Poe Dameron on Jakku after he crashes on the planet with Finn. In the movie, Poe does not reappear until the Resistance shows up to fight the First Order on Takodana, where Maz Kanata’s castle is located. After that battle, he is reunited with BB-8 and Finn at the Resistance base on D’Qar. Fans wondering how he made it back will get their answer in the novelization.

As for favorite moments Foster, himself, added into the book, he pointed to two in particular. The first is an expansion on a scene that has been discussed among fans because it is one of the few that includes fan-favorite character Captain Phasma.

“In the film, when Captain Phasma is asked to lower the defensive shields at Starkiller Base so that the Resistance forces can get in and attack the oscillator of the Starkiller weapon, in the film basically they point a gun at her and say ‘lower the screens’ and she lowers the screens. I was able to expand on that by having Chewbacca exert a little more pressure both literally and figuratively on the character of Phasma to get her to do that,” Foster said.

The way the scene reads certainly makes more sense with what you would think Phasma’s character is supposed to be like. The other thing Foster points to is his scientific explanation of the Starkiller Base weapon.

“This is Star Wars. This is not Neil deGrasse Tyson doing Cosmos, but I still like the science part of science-fiction and I wasn’t real happy with the way the Starkiller Base operated, let’s say. So, I kind of devised my own bit of destructive physics there. It’s funny, you kind of shrug your shoulders, but I did get fan mail saying ‘what is this nonsense about quintessence and dark energy?’ and I had to explain to these people patiently this is not nonsense. This is actual physics and people can go online and research all of these things and I tried to come up with a mechanism based on actual physics and astrophysics that might work for blowing up a planet, not to mention doing it in real time across a quarter of the galaxy and they left it in and I’m very proud of that,” Foster said. “It’s not a big plot point and it certainly doesn’t involve intercharacter relations, but that was one of the things that I put in there.”

It’s these details, from Poe stumbling alone on Jakku and remembering Finn’s name before his own to the Starkiller Base weapon’s phantom energy to the many other moments like Rey’s encounter with the dark side and even just learning the names of people and places only seen in the film that make the book a welcome companion for anyone wanting a deeper dive into The Force Awakens.

The Future

With more Star Wars books on the horizon, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we’ll see more from Foster. He told Blastr he’d return to the universe if given the chance.

“It’s a fun place to play around in, and I’m as much a 14 year old fan as I am a professional writer. I think that’s one reason why the novelizations that I do are as popular as they are. People can detect that. It’s like James Blish. James Blish was a wonderful writer, but his novelizations of Star Trek were not his best work because he didn’t have that kind of 14 year old boy enthusiasm in him and basically he just transcribed the screenplays and then they were published as books,” he said. “I can’t do that. I go into a novelization with the attitude that I get to make my director’s cut and I get to add the stuff I’d like to see and I get to try, if they let me, fix the stuff I’d like to fix. That’s the fun of doing it and Star Wars is just as much a fun a place to do it as other places.”

While we wait and see if Foster might return for another Star Wars novelization or other book in the new canon, the author has other releases fans can check out. Right before The Force Awakens novel came out his epic fantasy Oshenerth debuted and in February his first young adult novel The Deavys will be released.

In the meantime, The Force Awakens novelization is available now and for fans that still might have questions about the film or just want to become even more absorbed in the movie, its setting, and its new characters, it is definitely worth a read.