Audiobook Review: “The Last Jedi” Brings a Little Whiz-Bang to a Heavy Story

Audiobook Review: “The Last Jedi” Brings a Little Whiz-Bang to a Heavy Story

I’m just old enough to be an original Star Wars kid: a trio of bounty hunters from Empire were among my first toys, and I went to see Return of the Jedi for my eighth birthday party. Listening to the Last Jedi audiobook took me back to the ’80s in a couple of ways.

First, it reminded me of the particular fascination of the novelization as a genre. Back before my family had a VCR, the only way to revisit a movie’s story in detail was to read the book based on the screenplay. In addition to walking you through the plot points, novelizations would also reveal additional details about events and characters. I distinctly remember first encountering the name “Palpatine” in the Return of the Jedi novelization and thinking it was significant: the Emperor actually had a name.

The Last Jedi audiobook took me even further back than my chapter-book days, though. My family had a collection of square storybooks with 45 RPM records tucked into cover pockets: you’d read along as a narrator told the story, with music and sound effects.

Marc Thompson would fit right in among the narrators of those books. Reading Jason Fry’s text, he spares no opportunity to emote, allowing minimal ambiguity regarding the characters’ thoughts and feelings. When there’s a lightsaber battle, he practically pants with exertion. When a character is struck with wonderment, Fry sounds like his producer has just cracked the Arc of the Covenant open in the studio. When someone’s sad, you’d think the engineer was garroting a corgi behind the glass.

He also does an uncanny job imitating the voices of the film actors, aided by effects for characters like the masked Kylo Ren and C-3PO, although the latter always sounds like he’s lost down a well. Further, there are foley effects for blasters being holstered, droids walking, and of course all the various guns firing. These are the Star Wars, after all.

The audiobook further includes a generous helping of John Williams’s music, which — as in the movies — does more than anything to locate us squarely in the cinematic universe formerly known as George Lucas’s. It’s an incredibly lavish production, a luxurious listen for those used to the spare sound of a dry narrator (even Bobcat Goldthwait’s dry compared to Thompson) simply reading a book.

It’s advertised as an “expanded edition” of the story, indicating that Fry incorporates Rian-Johnson-approved scenes drawn from alternate versions of the Last Jedi script. The best of these help to fill out the film’s biggest character-development stretch: the fall of Luke Skywalker from eternal optimist to bitter Jedi skeptic.

For Star Wars superfans, the book starts with a bang: a fantasy sequence that references deleted scenes from A New Hope. Other new material is less compelling. For example, it’s hard to imagine anyone finishing the book and thinking it was a loss that the film didn’t include a scene with Luke and Rey dancing together at a Lanai folk celebration. (Luke is a good dancer, Fry insists.)

Released months after the film, Fry’s book is scrupulously faithful to the onscreen dialogue and action. You wouldn’t expect any notable stylistic excursions from a novelization, and Fry doesn’t produce any. Such a visually-oriented series is bound to lose something in translation from screen to page (the throne room battle with Praetorian Guards, for example, is tough to follow), but the Random House Audio crew can’t be faulted for lack of effort in achieving cinematic scope.

If you’ve been missing the gee-whiz awe that’s distinguished the Star Wars series since the first time we met a last Jedi, this audiobook delivers.

Jay Gabler