1. Forward Unto Dawn, a Better Look at Our Hero
Forward Unto Dawn -- Halo's first, official crack at live-action -- does not have a strong start. The five-episode season spins its wheels for the first two. In that time it establishes a cast of cadets with all the personality of standard-issue combat fatigues. Around episode three, however, Master Chief makes everything better.
Now, the Chief is generally no more charismatic than olive drab himself. That remains the case in Forward Unto Dawn, even after he arrives to save the rookies from their own incompetence, an alien incursion, and a scrappy $10 million budget. What makes Forward Unto Dawn work is contrast.
In the series we get to see Chief through the eyes of actual human beings. Not cyborg killing machines, or Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, but actual human characters portrayed by real actors -- themselves at least 60 percent human at the time of filming. In this light, the Chief is basically walking propaganda. That's the story we've been told since an admiral pinned a military fridge magnet to his robotic pecs in Halo 2, but this was the first time we ever got to see it in action.
2. The Fall of Reach, Where the Chief Began
Do you like a bit more sweeping military critique in your space operas? Halo: The Fall of Reach is probably your best bet (assuming you specifically want a book set in the Halo universe). While The Master Chief is just shy of a silent protagonist in his starring video games, The Fall of Reach digs deeper into the character's background than just about any tome of Halo lore. As you might have guessed, this is a far cry from the nigh-Chiefless video game Halo: Reach.
It turns out that the boy would be Chief's lack of a personality isn't entirely his fault. At just six years old "John," as we learn his friends and abductors call him, was selected to be the United Nations Space Command's very own space-faring Captain America. Unlike Marvel's super-heroic super-soldier, however, Master Chief didn't have any say in the matter. He -- as well as the other members of the Spartan-II program we meet in the book -- were kidnapped, "flash cloned," and replaced in order to leave their parents none the wiser.
The first half of the book follows his off-brand Ender's Game-like exploits as a state-sponsored child soldier. What's slightly worrying is that, unlike his literary predecessor, the Chief was brought up to fight other humans. Specifically, he and his brothers and sisters in arms were made to fight "insurrectionists" who didn't like living under Earth's thumb on the outer edges of humanity's influence. Yeesh.
When the alien Covenant do finally arrive, all of that gets tossed aside. Instead, the latter half of the book explores the titular fall of Reach, humanity's favorite monument to imperialism. It's here we learn of the other Spartans' tragic fate: to be superheated into glass and bones with the rest of the planet. John (and a few others) survived by conveniently spending most of the skirmish in space.
The frustratingly stoic Master Chief was left with some semblance of pathos, and we got a look at the not-entirely-benevolent side of Halo's humans. Of course, digging into either of these concepts any further would make for too compelling a story in the following games. As such, the plots are only addressed for those brave few who still read books.