Imagine it’s 1977 and you’re waiting in line to see the latest sensation, Star Wars. There’s been all this hype but no one, not even the creators of the film itself, really know what to expect. All you know is that it should be a fun adventure.
And to this day it still is. Star Wars—Episode IV: A New Hope, as it was later retitled–was the film that launched a cultural phenomenon; a billion dollar creative empire of sequels, spin-offs, merchandise and more. But this iconic piece of cinematic history was not the guaranteed success we know it as today.
TROUBLE FOR THE REBELLION
At the time of its release, Star Wars was the biggest box office success in motion picture history, so it might surprise fan to know exactly how much trouble writer/director George Lucas had in getting his film made. Namely, in getting a studio interested.
The 1970s were not a good time for science fiction in the United States. Star Trek had just wrapped on their original (and at the time, only) series due to low ratings and much of the general public’s primary experience with science fiction on the silver screen was from 1950s B movies. Of course, Tom Baker was still in the early days of his memorable run as The Doctor across the pond in the UK, but Doctor Who had yet to gain traction in the States.
Inspired by the Flash Gordon serials and classic spaghetti westerns that he was raised on, Lucas wanted to tell a story of action and adventure, of romance, and, most importantly, of heroes. However, despite his recent success with American Graffiti, Lucas was not a well-known director yet, and even though he eventually got Universal Studios on board with the idea, they only offered him a minimal budget to work with. No one knew if there was even a market for the kind of movie that he wanted to make.
Even during production, Lucas became so sure that Star Wars would flop that he made a deal with his good friend and fellow filmmaker, Steven Spielberg: the exchange of 2.5% of Star Wars for Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which would come out that same year. Whichever director ended up making more money off of their film would have to pay the other royalties, a deal that Spielberg still makes money off today.
A LONG TIME AGO…
An early draft of the script he presented was titled Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars. In it, you can see the framework out of which the original trilogy was built: Luke–then Starkiller–was already a Jedi apprentice whose title was Skywalker, Alderaan was described as a floating city, not unlike Cloud City, and the deus ex machina Kaiburr Crystal–although unmentioned in the films themselves until Rogue One, would go on to be an irreplaceable part of the Jedi lore.
That was the draft that legendary artist, Ralph McQuarrie, became involved with the project and things really began to take shape.
McQuarrie is responsible in no small part for the visual tone of the original trilogy and the Star Wars universe. He designed several of the most iconic characters including Chewbacca, R2-D2, C-3PO, and is even the reason for Darth Vader’s iconic breathing apparatus.
As the story evolved, Luke ended up personifying what Joseph Campbell describes as the Hero’s Journey. Campbell based this generalized plot structure on stories from mythology and folklore from around the world.
The hero’s adventure begins with a Call to Action–the loss of a loved one (Luke’s aunt and uncle) or a mission that only they can undertake (delivering the Death Star plans to Alderaan)–summoning them from their ordinary world into that of the unknown–a realm of strange possibility. Along the way, they’re aided by a mentor (Obi Wan Kenobi), someone older and wiser who knows what they have to do but whom the hero must ultimately leave behind or lose in order to continue on with their adventure. They face challenges and enemies and doubt, but ultimately embrace their destiny to overcome the ultimate ordeal.
The primary difference is that that’s where A New Hope ends, with the heroes receiving their reward. Campbell’s Hero must still return home, changed by their adventure either for the better or the worse and face the repercussions of their departure.
Over the course of several more drafts, the galaxy we today recognize slowly came into being, becoming a rich landscape rife with opportunities for fans to fill with their own worlds and people and stories.
FOR THE PEOPLE, BY THE PEOPLE
Star Wars became a successful franchise primarily due to the vast, empty creative landscape that the original trilogy created. Throwaway lines about moons never shown and races never described, mysterious characters and connections never explained, and most importantly, an incredible fallen Order talked about in hushed tones with ancient teachings and abilities, lost to the ages.
Lucas rang a bell and the world’s collective creativity began to salivate. The original trilogy inspired creators to fill the Star Wars galaxy with thousands of years of history and folklore and backstories for countless worlds and strange alien peoples in the form of comics, novels, video games, and more. They took advantage of the openness of the universe and tied it all together with the powerful mythos of the Force–an ineffable power that both shapes and is shaped by everything. Creators even continued the story of the Skywalker family, envisioning Luke’s tumultuous journey as the last of the Jedi Knights, Leia’s struggle to create a new, fair government in the power vacuum left by the fall of the Empire, as well as the lives of future Skywalkers and the difficulties they face in choosing their own paths with both the Force and their family legacy weighing heavily upon them.
In 2014, however, just as the world was preparing for the next wave of Star Wars films, it was announced that the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII would not be staying true to the pre-existing, post-Episode VI stories of the Expanded Universe. Although many people were disappointed that they would not be seeing Mara Jade or Thrawn brought to life, this was done in the interest of giving filmmakers the ability to tell new stories and introduce new characters.
After the creatively disastrous but financially successful prequel trilogy, fans were naturally resistant to the idea of more films, however, when Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney (who already shared some of the Star Wars marketing rights as well as popular theme park attractions) people became more open to the idea. This was in no small part thanks to Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Studios and the popular success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Now we’ve had Episode VII: The Force Awakens and Rogue One, with Episode VIII: The Last Jedi out later this year, and we’re also scheduled to see Han Solo and Boba Fett origin films as well as Episode IX by 2020.
HEIR TO THE EMPIRE
In the meantime, there’s plenty of parodies and references to tide fans over. Notable mentions include Robot Chicken, Family Guy, and Saturday Night Live. Or, if you’re interested in more canon content, there are plenty of comics you can check out. And if collectibles, clothing, or plush creatures are more interesting to you, there are any number of places you can find those items thanks to Lucas’s forward thinking approach to merchandising.
While negotiating his contract to make the original Star Wars, Lucas took a lower salary from the studio in order to maintain licensing and merchandising rights. The money he made on toys and Halloween costumes was enough to build and develop his brand, founding Skywalker Sound as well as Industrial Light & Magic (two companies you’re sure to recognize from the end credits of almost any film made after the 80s) and build Star Wars into the franchise it is today.
Say what you want about Lucas for his abundance of branding–Mel Brooks sure did in Spaceballs–but it’s a big part of the reason that Star Wars has become so intrinsically entrenched within the unconscious collective of the pop culture hive mind.
Now excuse me while I go replay Knights of the Old Republic while catching up on the most recent season of Star Wars: Rebels and wearing my Expressions of Vader shirt.
May the Fourth be with you!