Star Wars was a work of accidental genius. I mean both the original film that we now know as A New Hope and also the entire saga – although each is its own accident. George Lucas himself never understood the true reasons for their respective successes, and that’s why he wasn’t able to replicate it with the prequel trilogy.
99% of the philosophical depth of the Star Wars universe was added by people other than George Lucas. In Part 1 I noted that the original film is nothing more than a solid, fun adventure romp. The philosophical depth of it is minimal. Yesterday, I noted that the philosophy underlying everything else came from the second installment in the series, The Empire Strikes Back.
It’s important to understand that a large portion of the depth, however, came from entirely outside of the official “canon” of the series. I’m hardly the first person to note, for example, that certain non-canon entries – the so-called “Extended Universe” or EU – are vastly superior to some of the lesser films. Several of the EU novels – including the Thrawn Trilogy that kicked off the modern EU – are absolutely amazing, and add quite a bit of depth to the series. Even some of the video games are better than the prequels. Knights of the Old Republic was better than any of them, as was its sequel, despite being seriously hamstrung by Lucas Arts.
The backstories of both the Sith and the Clone Wars were handled better in a half dozen different EU settings – each. KOTOR in particular developed a massive world in the Old Republic, adding tons of history and giving a rich mythology to the Sith. The aforementioned Thrawn Trilogy hinted at a version of the Clone Wars that was far more interesting than anything we’ve seen on screen – but even the animated Cartoon Network series proved a more interesting take on this event than Attack of the Clones.
The brilliant thing that George Lucas did in his accidental genius was to create a framework that was solid and compelling yet vague enough to allow others to fill in the gaps in even more interesting ways. The Force can become philosophy, magic, or religion depending upon your interpretation. Jedi Knights are hinted at in a way that allows all of us to fill in the gap, conjuring up endless tales of excitement. The gigantic universe – only hinted at in the original trilogy – could hold any number of tales. And who doesn’t love space ships, blasters, aliens, princesses and laser swords?
A whole generation of talented authors and game designers filled in this void of vagueness with interesting ideas. They fleshed out the universe, adding depth far beyond what Lucas ever did. Yet when compared to the real drivers of the Star Wars mythos, even these extremely talented writers look amateurish.
Tomorrow: the real depth of the Star Wars franchise came from the imaginations of the fans.