As the normally passive and cowardly Trade Federation makes their move on a pacifist planet, the Jedi- guardians of the Republic- set out not only to end this threat to peace, but also to uncover the mysteries surrounding the act. What they find will change the galaxy forever...
How do I start a review of a movie novelization? The Phantom Menace is a movie with millions of fans worldwide. Millions of people love it; millions of people hate it. I don't have the numbers, but I suspect there's an equal number of millions like me who can't help but simultaneously hate and love this movie. How does the novel stand up with this?
Well, let's start off with the things many people liked the least about this movie. Jar Jar Binks stands out in many people's minds as obnoxious, grating, and even offensive. Qui-Gon Jinn has been quoted by well-known movie reviewer James Rolfe of Cinemassacre.com as "he's just there", and Obi-Wan Kenobi is, if anything, even more of a decoration piece. The movie is decorated with CGI backdrops and characters that many viewers find almost as obnoxious as the CGI mascot of the movie: Jar Jar. And of course there are gripes about young Anakin.
Jar Jar Binks is, actually, more able to be claimed as a Jamaican stereotype than before in this. Novelizations are based off an incomplete screenplay, not a completed filming of the movie, so Terry Brooks had yet to hear Ahmed Best's now-famous Gungan speech. For a canon-hound like me, this is actually more bothering than quoting the movie directly, although it would have been nice if Jar Jar had spoken this way the whole time. In any case, these two cancel each other out and become duly irrelevant as, as usually happens when I read a novelization, I hear the movie in my head while reading scenes that match the film. Even better than the changes in Jar Jar's own portrayal, we get POVs from other character who actually dislike him. This was probably my favorite change in the novel version as I read Obi-Wan's internal monologues about the Gungan.
Qui-Gon is great in this book. This is probably the better of the two novels I can recall reading with his point of view, and it really improves his character. Rather than merely an example of an enigmatic and stereotypical Jedi (but not too stereotypical!) we get a man who is faced with the perils of aging, struggling to survive against a younger and more energetic foe. While we don't receive all the details, we learn patterns in his behavior and the beliefs that fuel them. In short, Brooks changes an archetype... to a character.
Similar to Qui-Gon, Darth Maul is greatly enhanced in this version. Rather than a young, impatient assassin who barely speaks and is overconfident in his lightsaber skills, we're faced with a highly trained and focused individual. The written Darth Maul is a master swordsman at the peak of his skill and phyical ability, a being who truly puts Qui-Gon to the test and is able to remain on the offensive even when faced with both Jedi during the climax of the novel.
On to the things people love about the movie- the child-friendly atmosphere, the excitement of the race, and Darth Maul. I've already gone over Darth Maul, so I'll expound on the action in general. This may be a personal thing with me, but I rarely get drawn into "action" scenes in a novel. There's just not as much suspense when you read about a waterfall rushing on as the protagonist looks on in terror before leaping blindly onto the awaiting ledge... you get it. Space battles and even duels attempting to replicate a movie scene just tend to get more confusing than action-filled, and I often find myself struggling not to just skip over the scenes (once I realize nobody dies) and to the next. Thankfully, this didn't happen with The Phantom Menace. I could contribute this to the fact that I was already familiar with the scenes, but for now I'll contribute it to the skill of the author. I don't think this is exactly giving much more credit than deserved, in any case. The scenes were easy to follow, but they still weren't particularly exciting or emotional. There was a bit of characterization as you could see some of the on-the-fly planning that took place, and that was nice, but there was nothing "epic" in what I read. There was some suspense, which would have been nice if I hadn't watched any of the movies, and I would have liked the chance to have read this prior to watching any of the Star Wars episodes. That said, I was spoiled to all of the major events before I even picked up the book, so keep that in mind if you're new to the Star Wars saga.
All in all, I would recomend The Phantom Menace to most Star Wars fans. It's entertaining and a nice companion to the movie, but not really essential unless you're a hardcore fan, or a serious fan of one of the main characters (in addition to the three I expanded on, Anakin and Jar Jar both get some nifty POVs. I can't recall anything new from Padme's perspective, unfortunately). There's some nice bits of canon, but they're not perfect (Darth Bane, for instance, was not a follower of the order that Phanius created). I think if Brooks had taken more free reign, falling away from the "novelization" mindset and more into that of a novel, this could have been a much better book. In other words, it's pretty much of the same caliber as most of the other Star Wars film novelizations.