Book Review: William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace, by Ian Doescher
By the time this book was over, I felt almost exactly the same as when I saw The Phantom Menace. There were parts that I liked, things that were good fun, but those were overshadowed by a lot of missed opportunity. Ultimately, this installment of Doescher’s work just wasn’t as good as its predecessors. At first, it was tempting to chalk this up to the source material, but I think the author is equally at fault.
Doescher’s first three books in the series were excellent (reviewed here, here, and here), but I wasn’t looking for book four to surpass that level so much as carry it on. What makes the others a success is the author’s ability to seamlessly blend Star Wars with Shakespeare in a way which is both entertaining and highly literate. He uses the best features of each genre to compliment the other, drawing out new ideas and reinforcing old ones in new ways. With that sort of expectation established, seeing him miss the mark this time was a tough let down to take.
As a reader, the lack I felt most keenly was that of solid soliloquies. Whereas before Doescher had used the form to expand and deepen characters, even the most well-loved, now the speeches seem almost forgotten. In fact, it’s not until Act 3 that we really see a meaningful soliloquy. Part of this, I think, is down to movie. The first half or so is very busy; there’s a lot of movement that would be challenging to translate for the stage. That said, Shakespeare often used soliloquies to let the audience and action breathe amidst a hectic pace (Macbeth comes to mind). In particular, I thought Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul would be ripe for this sort of development. Instead, it seems that the author spent that energy on a more reviled figure.
In his Afterword, the author calls Jar Jar “perhaps the most hotly debated character in cinematic history” (p. 170). This, I think, is overstating things. Say what you will about the Gungan, but I thought The Phantom Menace had much greater character development issues than him. It’s an interesting choice to have Jar Jar play the Machiavellian fool, using an outward idiocy to steer events. The depth Doescher creates in him, however, so outstrips the other characters that there’s no one to act as a foil. Jar Jar is every bit as marooned in this work as he is in the movie, just for different reasons. I think it would have been fine to see Jar-Jar play the typical clown while other characters received more of the author’s attention. As it stands, Doescher couldn’t quite sell me on the idea that it was really Jar Jar pulling the puppet strings.
I’m not a prequel hater. I never went into those films thinking that they would replace the original trilogy in my affection. True, I find them disappointing, but there’s still plenty to enjoy too. Perhaps I was putting too much on Doescher, hoping he would cure (or at least minimize) the ills of a fundamentally flawed story. Had he gone at The Phantom Menace with an Elizabethan hacksaw, he wouldn’t have stayed true to the original (something I have praised him for in the past). Whatever the ultimate thought process behind the book, it’s something I like for the sake of Star Wars and Shakespeare, but not something I’m now desperate to see performed.