Thursday, December 1, 2022

Book Review: WILLOW Novelization (1988)

Since Disney+ is putting out a next-generation sequel to the 1988 fantasy classic Willow, the film podcast Myopia Movies recorded an episode that came out alongside it. I enjoyed the movie, but there were a number of flaws, most notably the lack of explanation and worldbuilding. Given how the movie was intended for children and as-is the host's kindergartner was losing interest toward the end, I figured the novelization would be a big improvement. Fortunately it is available for purchase on Amazon, so I decided to give it a spin.

The Plot

In a faraway land, a prophecy predicts that a child will be born who will overthrow the evil Queen Bavmorda. To that end, Bavmorda, imprisons all late-stage pregnant women and has their child inspected after birth to see if they bear the prophesied mark--and one day the newborn Elora Danan does. A sympathetic midwife smuggles the child out and Bavmorda dispatches her grim General Kael and warlike daughter Sorsha to pursue the child.

But the child falls into the hands of gnomish farmer and family man Willow Ulfgood, who aspires to do magic. Assigned by the gnome village elders to find a human to look after said child, Willow soon encounters the rogue Madmartigan and the transformed sorceress Fin Raziel. Soon they're all allies on a quest to overthrow Bavmorda, with some surprising twists and turns along the way.

(The novelization appears to be based on an earlier draft of the screenplay and includes content cut from the actual film.)

The Good

*The novel beefs up the characterization of Willow himself and emphasizes the danger his quest to protect baby Elora puts him in besides the obvious problem of Bavmorda's murderous soldiers. Basically he's been pursuing his dreams of becoming a wizard to the detriment of working on his farm and owes the bullying village prefect Burglekutt money. Friendly neighbors have had to give him seed for this year's crop and he's apparently one payment away from foreclosure. Although the situation is largely his own fault, if his children had never found the baby he could have easily turned his situation around--he gets a lot of plowing done in a single day.

*Bavmorda, Fin Raziel, and their Fae mentor Charlindea get a lot more back-story and characterization than in the film. In the movie, Bavmorda is basically a live-action version of Snow White's Evil Queen, Fin is a rival she's transformed, and it's not even clear what exactly Charlindea even *is*--on the podcast, I refer to her at one point as the "non-union Mexican equivalent" of Galadriel.

*A monster cut from the film and a monster that appears later in the film have reasons for being there that further build Bavmorda's character. Not only is she a powerful sorceress, but she's also a planner who has fail-safes for her various schemes.

*Burglekutt isn't just an obnoxious small-town moneylender...he's also a prefect in the local government and owns the town's sole seed shop. Willow is not the only person he antagonizes either. If it weren't for his physical cowardice and being completely out of shape physically, he could have been a PG version of small-town gangster Wesley from the Patrick Swayze movie Road House.

*The novel explains some stuff that, in the film alone, don't make a whole lot of sense. For example, the midwife escapes the sinister Nockmaar Castle with the infant Elora by hiding out in some secret passages she knew about (and apparently the guards didn't) until Bavmorda's pursuers are far away before setting off into the wilderness. And once away, she's assisted by people opposed to Bavmorda's regime and even friendly animals. This explains why Elora is a newborn at the beginning of the film but looks significantly older by the time the midwife sets her adrift on the river to save her from the Death Dogs...they've actually been on the run for months. A character who gets captured by the heroes in the film because they insist on being the first one to search a room displays a bit more common sense and sends minions in first.

*The war depicted in the film is also explained in more detail. Bavmorda, having usurped her late husband, rules all the territories he did, and has been making war on the nearby kingdom of Galladoorn. The various rebels, armies, etc. we see in the film are survivors of Galladoorn's army, people within Nockmaar opposed to Bavmorda's rule, etc. The film doesn't really explain the politics of the situation very much or very well.

*There's a scene where we see Nockmaar's army in battle in large numbers (as opposed to Kael and Sorsha's death squad that numbers about fifty people at most) that's pretty cool.

The Bad

*The prose is not very descriptive and doesn't move very quickly until about halfway through the book. There's a lot of telling rather than showing.

*Some of the worldbuilding and back-story is rather silly. Before Bavmorda, apparently all living things in the world lived in harmony and several times characters are assisted by friendly animals. Yes, I know this is a novelization of a children's film and friendly animals are a fairy-tale staple, but still. Although I criticized the movie for oversimplifying matters, the more complex attempts at worldbuilding and back-story raise more questions than they answer. The Willow Blu-Ray has an interview with Ron Howard in which he explains how a whole subplot involving Sorsha's father--the previous king at Tir Asleen and Bavmorda's husband--was ordered cut by the studio and frankly the movie version is better than what's in the novelization. 

(This fan-fic keeps Sorsha's dad dead like the movie at least strongly implies and explains the whole situation better than either the novelization or the film, but beware spoilers.)

Elora's role in the novel is also needlessly complex--some commenter on TVTropes states that she causes Bavmorda's downfall in the film, not by anything she does, but the actions she inspires others to undertake. There's also a lot of Chekov's Guns that aren't fired--worldbuilding that doesn't really tie in with the immediate plot but mostly serves to add pages.

*The way Bavmorda's and Madmartigan's back-stories are explained feature gigantic info-dumps that are basically characters telling stories around the campfire. This is especially the case with Madmartigan. Yes, the back-stories are interesting, but they go on for far too long and are kind of clunky.

*Some stuff from the movie gets left out, like scenes in Nockmaar Castle where Bavmorda interacts with Sorsha and Kael. This would explain the unhealthy family dynamic between Sorsha and her belittling, affection-withholding mother (and why a character's romantic speech, drug-induced though it may be, has such an effect on her) and show the evil kingdom's political dysfunction. Sorsha's first film meeting with the heroes that sets up a lot of stuff that happens later is also left out. Although Willow and Madmartigan benefit from the expanded characterization in the novel, Sorsha (to a point) and especially Kael lose out.

The Verdict

A library read, unless you can get it super-cheap somewhere. Only worth reading once. 6.0 out of 10.

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