By Guest Contibutor Louie Land
A few weeks ago I told a few of my friends that I wanted to make a trailer for a re-edit of Revenge of the Sith that focused on Obi-Wan Kenobi instead of Anakin Skywalker. His relationship with Skywalker is complex, part father-son and part sibling. He is resistant to taking on Anakin as an apprentice, agreeing to do so only because of the last requests of his dying master. Yet the films reduce their relationship mostly to lecturing and eye-rolling. I told my friends that I wanted to make a trailer that dealt with the emotional impact of Skywalker’s fall (and Kenobi’s failure) instead of simply detailing the event itself.
The next day, I found Star Wars: Kenobi by John Jackson Miller in hardback outside my local bookstore, released just the day before, beckoning to me (and at 20% off, too!). This was the Kenobi story I was waiting for, the one that not only filled in the gaps between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope but one that explored the emotional fallout after the events of Revenge of the Sith in a way that George Lucas never could. It was the Kenobi story we deserved and needed right now.
Well, no, it wasn’t. The book seems split in half by two opposing desires: Miller wants to tell a Star Wars story on his own terms but he seems to struggle with the hand he’s been dealt. Kenobi is equal parts rewarding and disappointing.
Taking place in the immediate aftermath of Revenge of the Sith and following the early days of Kenobi’s self-imposed exile on Tatooine, the book focuses less on Obi-Wan Kenobi (in fact, titling the book Kenobi says less about his importance as a character and more about book marketing) and more on two Tatooine residents, shop owner Annileen Calwell and moisture farmer/entrepreneur Orrin Gault. Annileen provides supplies for most of the locals. Gaunt operates the Settlers’ Call, an alarm system designed to alert the locals to Sand People attacks. Lately the Sand People have intensified their raids against the settlers. In addition to operating the Settlers’ Call, Gaunt leads the militia that rallies against the Sand People and also collects dues from the locals under their protection.
To be honest, Kenobi isn’t really a factor and his inclusion is why the book falters. To me, he represents the weight of the expectations of the fan base and of the problems those expectations bring. On the book jacket he holds his lightsaber in his hand, guarding the homestead visible just over his shoulder while the twin Tatooine suns blaze overhead.
But that’s not the Kenobi in this book. Kenobi is hiding from the Empire and can’t stand like a shining beacon of truth and defend the settlers from the Sand People. As a result, Miller seems uncertain what to do with him. The first half of Kenobi feels like The Magnificent Seven or another classic Western, and we as readers want Kenobi to step in like Yul Brynner and company and teach the settlers to fight back and overcome their opponents. The second half tosses aside most of the Western premises. While it features Kenobi more prominently, the conflict between Annileen and Orrin takes center stage, with Kenobi flitting in and out. He might be the famous character but Annileen and Orrin steal the show. Annileen feels trapped on Tatooine, raising her children alone after her husband passed away several years ago. Day after day she opens the store, which was once her husband’s. When once she dreamed of escaping Tatooine, now she cannot fathom leaving the store and all she knows. Orrin, on the other hand, seems the noble hero, leading the retaliatory strikes against the Sand People, but his character has sinister underpinnings: the more successful the counterattacks are, the more people pay dues to the Settlers’ Call, but if the Sand People are wiped out altogether, there is no longer a need for the Call and thus Orrin’s income evaporates. In this section, A’Yark (the Sand People leader and antagonist of sorts) and the rest of the Sand People more or less fade into the background. While I enjoyed reading about these characters and their struggles, in the context of the first half the book feels unbalanced. Did I enjoy it? Yes. But does it feel like Miller isn’t really sure what to do with the characters, especially Kenobi? Yes.
Kenobi seems like a perfect case study for the incoming Star Wars films. In concept, a story about Obi-Wan Kenobi and his life on Tatooine seems like a good idea. It’s uncharted ground, right? And people love the character. But honestly, because of the nature of his time on Tatooine, a novel covering the years between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope would probably read more like Old Man and the Sea. I want to point out that that would be awesome. The problem? It probably wouldn’t sell.
Similarly, a novel about a Jedi Knight helping a group of Tatooine farmers ward off Sand People raids could be equally awesome. It could follow the formula of The Magnificent Seven or the Jedi could fall prey to the Dark Side, more in line with Unforgiven or High Plains Drifter (I’m mentioning Westerns because of how much Kenobi evokes Western archetypes). The problem? You can’t tell that story with Obi-Wan Kenobi. We already know where he ends up in A New Hope. He can’t go on a crusade against the Sand People twenty years before.
Herein lies the overarching problem: Kenobi could have been very good if it hadn’t been about Obi-Wan Kenobi. But it was, and he was forced in at every turn, and to Miller’s credit, the book is still plenty enjoyable. In my opinion, the possibilities could have been endless had the book featured some other Jedi of Miller’s creation and not Kenobi, but it’s Kenobi we’re stuck with, limiting the author considerably. The book suffers as a result.
In the end, Miller is limited. It’s as if he was told “go ahead and write a great Star Wars Western” and then after he finished a draft he was told he had to put Obi-Wan Kenobi in it. This is my fear regarding the new Star Wars films. If they are stories in the Star Wars universe but the directors can tell whatever story they want to tell, I think everything will turn out all right. I can’t imagine how good a Guillermo del Toro Star Wars film could be, or a Joss Whedon one (though let’s face it, The Avengers is pretty much A New Hope with superheroes). But these directors have to be free, the same way Miller should have been. I want a Star Wars Western, or I want a Kenobi story. I don’t want a Western where the writer seems to say, “Also, here’s Kenobi” at every turn like a non sequitur in a Facebook post.