Why I do not consider the Star Wars prequels canonical

The other day I happened to rediscover this interview from three years ago with Gary Kurtz, who produced Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Among the interesting tidbits:

IGNFF: From your personal experience, how would you compare the George you worked with on American Graffiti to the George you worked with towards the end of The Empire Strikes Back?

KURTZ: It was quite different, actually. He was very different. I think the most unfortunate thing that happened was the fact that Indiana Jones came along, and Raiders of the Lost Ark had come out in between. George and I had many, many discussions about that, but it boiled down to the fact that he became convinced that all the audience was interested in was the roller-coaster ride, and so the story and the script didn’t matter anymore.

Now Raiders is not a bad film, but the script actually was much better than the finished film. There were a lot more nuances in the character, and there was less action. It would’ve been a better picture if that script had been made. But, as it is, it’s an interesting and entertaining film — it’s just that this idea that somehow the energy doesn’t have to be put into getting really good story elements together. One of the arguments that I had with George about Empire was the fact that he felt in the end, he said, we could have made just as much money if the film hadn’t been quite so good, and you hadn’t spent so much time. And I said, “But it was worth it!”

[ snip ]

IGNFF: Well what were the original outlines for the prequels? Since they can be compared and contrasted now that the first one’s out there, and the second one’s soon to be out there. Were there major differences from what you saw, from the original outlines of prequel ideas?

KURTZ: Well a lot of the prequel ideas were very, very vague. It’s really difficult to say. I can’t remember much about that at all, except dealing with the Clone Wars and the formation of the Jedi Knights in the first place — that was supposed to be one of the keys of Episode I, was going to be how the Jedi Knights came to be. But all of those notes were abandoned completely. One of the reasons Jedi came out the way it did was because the story outline of how Jedi was going to be seemed to get tossed out, and one of the reasons I was really unhappy was the fact that all of the carefully constructed story structure of characters and things that we did in Empire was going to carry over into Jedi. The resolution of that film was going to be quite bittersweet, with Han Solo being killed, and the princess having to take over as queen of what remained of her people, leaving everybody else. In effect, Luke was left on his own. None of that happened, of course.

IGNFF: So it would have been less of a fairy-tale ending?

KURTZ: Much, much less. It would have been quite sad, and poignant and upbeat at the same time, because they would have won a battle. But the idea of another attack on another Death Star wasn’t there at all … it was a rehash of Star Wars, with better visual effects. And there were no Ewoks … it was just entirely different. It was much more adult and straightforward, the story. This idea that the roller-coaster ride was all the audience was interested in, and the story doesn’t have to be very adult or interesting, seemed to come up because of what happened with Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Indiana Jones films — and the fact that that seemed to make a lot of money and it didn’t matter whether there was a really good story or not — that wasn’t what this kind of film was about. We had serious differences about a lot of that.

IGNFF: Well it’s ironic to me … I was talking to somebody who has a lot of good friends at ILM, especially in the conceptual department, and he said that George has basically a new catch phrase in the development process. His new catch phrase is “It’s good enough,” and they say he uses it all the time now. When you’re talking about that idea of only going to a certain depth because the audience only wants the quick and easy impact, and then move along…. That somehow the audience isn’t observant, so why should we be overly detailed… it’s just fascinating to compare that with the observations you made.

FWIW, I am on record as saying that the Empire / Raiders duo of 1980-1981 represent Lucas’s peak as a filmmaker, but I am also on record as saying that the Indiana Jones sequels, produced in 1984 and 1989, were cartoonish disappointments. And of course, Lucas’s decline really began with Return of the Jedi in 1983, but nobody realized it at the time. For me, it wasn’t until I saw the “special editions” in 1997 that I realized just how different the films were; I went back and saw Episode IV again a couple times for the pure nostalgia value, and I went back and saw Episode V again because it was a beautifully realized bit of world creation, but after seeing Episode VI, I had no urge to see it again whatsoever.

Anyway, after skimming that interview, I flipped through the last pages of Alan Arnold’s Once Upon a Galaxy: A Journal of the Making of The Empire Strikes Back. This book is as “official” as they come: it was copyrighted by Lucasfilm Ltd. and published by Del Rey in August or September 1980, and on pp. 247-248, there is this interesting tidbit from a transcript of an interview between Arnold and Lucas conducted on October 29, 1979:

AA: Tell me more about the overall concept of the Star Wars saga.

GL: There are essentially nine films in a series of three trilogies. The first trilogy is about the young Ben Kenobi and the early life of Luke’s father when Luke was a little boy. This trilogy takes place some twenty years before the second trilogy which includes Star Wars and Empire. About a year or two passes between each story of the trilogy and about twenty years pass between the trilogies. The entire saga spans about fifty-five years.

AA: How much is written?

GL: I have story treatments on all nine. I also have voluminous notes, histories, and other material I’ve developed for various purposes. Some of it will be used, some not. Originally, when I wrote Star Wars, it developed into an epic on the scale of War and Peace, so big I couldn’t possibly make it into a movie. So I cut it in half, but it was still too big, so I cut each half into three parts. I then had material for six movies. After the success of Star Wars I added another trilogy but stopped there, primarily because reality took over. After all, it takes three years to prepare and make a Star Wars picture. How many years are left? So I’m still left with three trilogies of nine films. At two hours each, that’s about eighteen hours of film!

AA: What will the next chapter be?

GL: The next chapter is called “Revenge of the Jedi.” It’s the end of this particular trilogy, the conclusion of the conflict begun in Star Wars between Luke and Darth Vader. It resolves that situation once and for all. I won’t say who survives and who doesn’t, but if we are ever able to link together all three you’d find the story progresses in a very logical fashion.

This 26-year-old interview would seem to corroborate Lucas’s claim that the series was originally meant to be a six-part story, though I don’t know whether it would corroborate his assertion or insinuation at Cannes this month that it was the media who started the rumour that he was going to make nine movies in total.

But his claim that the prequels would take place while Luke was a boy — and in contact with his father Anakin, it seems — sure scotches any claim to the effect that the current prequels represent the story that Lucas had in mind back then!

So, just as my friend Betty refuses to recognize Voyager and Enterprise as canonical Star Trek series, I refuse to recognize the prequels as canonical Star Wars movies, and I refuse to recognize them no matter how many prequel elements Lucas shoehorns into current and future “special editions” of the original trilogy.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).

  • Anonymous

    Bravo! I agree 100%. I always suspected Gary Kurtz was the one keeping Lucas from getting too stupid with his movies.

  • Anonymous

    My friend, first of all I appreciate your insight, but I must disagree, I consider all Episodes 1 through to 6 canon (and Voyager and Enterprise too)!

    Life brings you a mixed bag you either take the bad with the good or none at all, just put episodes 4and 5 on your shelf and throw the rest away.

    The fact that you don't like certain shows, books or films doesn't stop the fact that the manufacturer made them and claims they are canon.

    The opposite is true, both Marvel and DC have annexed certain stories from continuity!

    Learn to accept there are things you can't change and move on.