Star Wars Star Wasn’t
A Science Fiction Writer ‘Fixes’ the Prequels
Copyright © 2005 by Chris Tannhauser. All rights reserved.
I am torn, as torn as Anakin should have been, between what I love and what I know to be right. On the one hand, I am an old-skool Star Wars fan who has seen all six movies on their opening days and then repeatedly thereafter; when I was 12 I prayed to God for a lightsaber. On the other hand I am a professional writer, a storyteller, one who gets paid real money to ‘punch up’ limp storylines. When I’m not doing that, I write science fiction.
The kid in me desperately loves these movies. The adult professional in me feels ripped the fuck off. So why add another squirt of dung to the peak of Mount Hubris? Because of the love, and because I can. Because it’s easy.
In storytelling terms, the prequels were failures. They don’t play too badly on TV, evoking sensations of brain-in-neutral cruising akin to the Saturday Matinee serials that spawned them. What’s really sad is that they failed on the grand scale of opera — they are supposed to be space operas, after all — and opera, really, isn’t that hard to get right. It’s love, yearning, tears, and blood. It’s bold strokes that smother subtlety, but you don’t care — because it’s big and you’re feeling it.
Honestly, Lucas could’ve just picked up the Cliff’s Notes for Romeo and Juliet and Dr. Faustus, torn the bindings off and riffle-shuffled them together, alternating the pages, and then just hacked a script out of it. It sounds terrible, but it would’ve been better than what we got.
‘Success at the opera’ is one reason why Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is widely regarded as the best of the series. It’s the one with the most genuine and pervasive emotional content. It’s the one with all the kissing and crying.
The prequels, while pretending to opera, come off as two-hour toy commercials. This is sad, ultimately, because of the rich potential of the material. And sadder still because fixing it isn’t all that hard.
The gravest of sins is that there were no surprises; we are given no new lens through which to view the older movies. And even harder to fathom, given a quick review of Mr. Lucas’s Cliff’s Notes: Anakin has no reason to fall other than that he’s supposed to.
As an audience we needed to find Anakin far too likeable to fall; we had to dread its coming, and despair when it did. Basic Romantic Tragedy 101.
To fix this we need no new characters, no new scenes — just some minor emphasis-tweaking and the re-sequencing of a single event. Hopefully, when you see how easily the prequels could have moved from mediocre to metacool you will feel even more disappointed than you already do.
This is the story that should have been.
EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE
The Ugliest Goodbye
Qui-Gon demands to take Anakin as the possible Chosen One who will balance the force. As a six-year-old child, this is very, very traumatic for him; he kicks, screams, tears running down his face as he is torn from his weeping mother’s arms. She knows it’s for the best, but it is nonetheless heartbreaking to behold. The stoic Jedi master pulling them apart, whisking the screaming child away even as his mother falls to her knees, crumpling in despair.
EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES
The genesis of the love affair between Anakin and Padme is tender, deeply felt, and heart-wrenching. There’s plenty of teenage meat-surge involved, but underneath it’s two old souls finding one another again after an eternity of wandering the labyrinth of existence. We realize they belong together, and ache at the denial of their love.
The Jedi pile the pressure on Anakin — he is to be the most powerful Jedi in history, The Chosen One, the one who will bring balance to the force. And he is trying; the light and dark, the yin and yang, swirl in equal measure within him. But the Jedi disdain his passion, chastise him for it, much to his confusion and chagrin. They only know of one way to train and be; it has nothing to do with balance. This is the start of the essential disconnect between the monodogmatic Jedi who can see only good and light and Anakin’s balanced core-self, equal parts light and dark, the churning whirlpool of which gives him his power: a deep and irresistible passion for life, love and being. A staggeringly profound connection to all things. Ultimate power that the Jedi are completely unfamiliar with. They have no idea what ‘balance the force’ even means. Anakin is doing his best, giving it his all, and being cut down daily for it. He is the square peg being hammered into the Jedi round hole. And we all know what that gets. Splinters.
Passion & Murder
Anakin goes to Tatooine to rescue his mother. When she dies in his arms he becomes the six-year-old boy torn from her, in a cry of naked pain, “Mother? Mother?! MOMMY!”, tears coursing down his twisted face.
The cry alerts the sand people and he senses them, drops his mother’s body and bursts from the tent, pauses, drawing himself up, gathering the core of his pain.
The sand people — men, women, and children — seem taken aback at his presence; they hesitate.
Anakin screams with pure, unrefined rage, fists bunched at his sides, head down and every sand person we can see is lifted into the air and crushed alive.
Anakin lights his saber and wades headlong into the late-comers…
Minor changes, to be sure, but important ones; we see that the trauma from Episode I is still fresh and harmful and that his power is far greater than could be imagined.
When Anakin meets up with Padme after the massacre, he says nothing of it. He seems dazed, off-balanced, in the grip of a confusing fog. He is suppressing his memory of it. Now we see the first real cracks in his sanity forming…
EPISODE III: THE REVENGE OF THE SITH
The Chafing Facade
Anakin is slowly eroding. Keeping his love, his passion, secret and in check is difficult enough without the constant misunderstanding of the Jedi. He experiences light and dark equally, being pulled to extremes within, but the Jedi are incapable of counseling him in how to deal with it, channel it, survive it.
Motivation for Anything: The Death of Love
Padme gives birth in secret and is killed; the Jedi lie to Anakin that the child is dead as well. Yoda believes this best, given Anakin’s instability and his need to drop all his external attachments and ‘go ascetic’ in order to fulfill his promise of balancing the force. This is the major miscalculation on the part of the Jedi that essentially seals Anakin’s fate. His mourning is legendary, his sanity webbed with fractal cracks. Now we have proper motivation for the Faustian bargain.
When Mace is going to murder Palpatine, Anakin beseeches him not to. “You can’t — You can’t ever come back from that.” Mace senses that Anakin knows what he’s talking about, that he’s committed murder, and this is the moment of distraction that gets Mace killed.
Knowing this, witnessing this, is the final splitting blow to Anakin’s sanity.
Palpatine oozes into the breach by telling Anakin that he has the power to bring them back to life, Padme and his child, but only Palpatine can teach him how. Anakin, completely broken, falls to his knees and accepts the Faustian bargain.
At last, we have the proper motivation for what follows: bringing down the Jedi, and the hands-on murder of children.
Yoda orders Obi-Wan to kill Vader; Obi-Wan goes, but only because he believes that he alone can save Anakin, pull him back from the abyss.
They duel. Obi-Wan wins, force-pushing Vader to the edge of the lava. Obi-Wan listens, eyes shut, face turned away and dripping with tears, as Anakin screams in slow agony. Unable to kill him, or even to leave him, Obi-Wan acts and pulls Anakin back from death. The Emperor arrives and Obi-Wan flees.
The Fine Print
The final Vader rises from the slab, all the broken glass of Anakin held jumbled in dark armor, and makes his demand. “I have done everything you asked. Show me, now, how to bring them back.”
The Emperor smiles languidly and shakes his head. “Ah, my dark apprentice, we are far, far beyond that now.”
Now Vader can truly clench his fists and howl from deep within his carved-out soul. Now it really means something. He gave everything, betrayed everything, lost everything and the Faustian deal has closed escrow. Caveat emptor, indeed.
The Discussion That Should Have Been in the Multiplex Parking Lot
Holy crap! It was all the Jedi’s fault!
They took him from his mom, they couldn’t properly train or guide him on his Buddha-like lonely path, they stripped him of the only thing that meant anything, and then they couldn’t kill him to prevent empire!
Anakin was unbalanced by the unyielding orthodoxy of the Jedi, and then toppled over into darkness by the slithery pull of the Sith.
This lays the blame for all that happened at the feet of the Jedi. Vader’s fall due to a gross mis-management of The Chosen One, a lack of understanding of what balance means. The destruction of the Jedi and subsequent destruction of the Republic can all be traced to their rigid orthodoxy.
This really makes the earlier films more interesting. Now we can see Episode IV: A New Hope in a new light. When Obi-Wan faces Vader again, and looks over at Luke before giving himself over to death… He is atoning for past sins. And he has a lot to make up for.
Luke, who was not trained in the standard way, is a more balanced Jedi, wearing black, embracing his passion, even drawing power from it. His love for a father he never knew allows him to overcome the Sith in the end.
The funny thing is, I believe that Lucas thinks that all this is already in there. He suffers from an essential problem that all writers face, one of emotional encoding. You see, when writers write a scene it is, for them, loaded with emotional triggers-the writer experiences the pain, the joy, and everything in between that the characters experience. The problem is one of encoding. All these feelings must be reduced to code, words on a page, and then subsequently decoded by another brain. The words will always hit the emotional triggers for the writer; whether or not the reader experiences them is largely a question of the writer’s skill. This is why it is of utmost importance that writers get honest criticism of their works before calling them done.
I do believe that when Lucas views these films he aches, and weeps, and is deeply moved. But no one told him it doesn’t translate. He truly made the movies he wanted to make, and left the rest of us to hang, pondering what could have been.