How different would Star Wars have been if George Lucas began with The Phantom Menace? Lucas has always liked to claim he had the entire Star Wars saga planned out from the beginning, but in truth, there's pretty sparse evidence for that claim. He certainly had many ideas in mind as far back as 1977 - such as how the Emperor rose to power - but a lot changed during production. In fact, even the famous "I am your father" twist was entirely absent from the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back.
It's important to understand, back in 1977, nobody knew how big Star Wars was going to be. George Lucas was a relatively untested filmmaker, with only two prior movies to his name, and his space fantasy film was viewed with a degree of skepticism. But Lucas' creation was perfectly timed to become a blockbuster hit, inspired by classics such as Dan Dare and Flash Gordon, pushing the boundaries of existing cinematic technology to the limit (albeit on a shoestring budget). It drew inspiration from the Westerns of yesteryear, blending them with the cinematic approach of Akira Kurosawa, and absorbing major elements of Campbell's now-famous Heroes' Journey. Star Wars was an unprecedented success and launched one of the biggest film franchises of all time.
Lucas stepped away from Star Wars for a while after Return of the Jedi, weary of film-making and emotionally worn out due to his divorce in 1983. He only decided to return to the galaxy far, far away in the early '90s, when the franchise was unexpectedly resurrected by a series of popular comic books and New York Times bestselling novels. Lucas returned to his notes on the galaxy's past, and over the course of the '90s fleshed them out into a full story. This time around, he was confident he could make the Star Wars film he'd dreamed of, and nobody was going to overrule his scriptwork and dialogue. Where the first Star Wars films had been informed by the Vietnam War, The Phantom Menace was linked to the politics of the '90s, including the trade disputes of 1994, when Lucas began work on the script.
But what if Lucas had told the Star Wars story the other way round? What would the franchise look like if the legendary writer-director had started out with Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and kicked things off with the story of Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader?
What The Prequel Story Was In 1977
First, it's necessary to reconstruct Lucas' original vision of the prequels. Surprisingly, a lot of the details appear to have been planned out even at that early a date; for example, he always imagined a corrupt Chancellor as having taken control of the Republic, manipulating his way into extending his term beyond the standard limits. He imagined Palpatine as a skillful manipulator who used a crisis - presumably the Clone Wars - to persuade the Senate stability was needed. "[He] began subverting the Senate and buying off the Senators with the help of the large intergalactic power companies," Lucas suggested in one note. "By the time the third term came along, he had corrupted so much of the Senate that they made him Emperor for the rest of his life."
The Senators who opposed the new regime mysteriously died before they could begin impeachment proceedings. The Jedi Knights attempted to side with the Senate against the Emperor, but they too were defeated. "There was a plot afoot," Lucas revealed. "When the Jedi tried to restore order, Darth Vader was still one of the Jedi. What he would do is catch the Jedi off guard and, using his knowledge of the Force, he would kill the Jedi without them realizing what was happening."
In this earlier version, the Jedi Purge seems to have been a more drawn-out event, with the treacherous Darth Vader leading his elite forces against the Jedi. They attempted to regroup, but Vader outmaneuvered them, and only a few were left alive. Anakin Skywalker appears to have been one of the last Jedi to be killed by Vader. This fits perfectly with Obi-Wan's comments in A New Hope, which were originally intended to be completely accurate. "He was the best star-pilot in the galaxy," Obi-Wan reminisced when talking about Anakin Skywalker, and went on to explain Darth Vader was seduced by the dark side, and betrayed and murdered Anakin.
How The Phantom Menace Would Look Different In 1977
The broad brush strokes of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace would have remained roughly the same; the films would still be charting the political story of the Republic's fall, and critiquing the orthodoxy of the Jedi Order blinded them to Palpatine's influence. But the details would have very different, simply because Lucas would have been more strongly influenced by the space fantasy serials of the time, and the film would probably have been a bit more action-packed. It's reasonable to assume the Trade Federation would have had Stormtroopers, possibly even Clones, rather than Droids due to available VFX at the time; given Lucas' fondness for superweapons, the first Death Star or a precursor could have been constructed back then, and destroyed at the end by Lucas' Jedi heroes.
Some of Lucas' notes from '77 suggest he was originally just as interested in Obi-Wan's backstory as Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader's. Star Wars really became the story of Anakin Skywalker when he planned out the Vader twist in The Empire Strikes Back. So Obi-Wan would most likely have been the star, with his own main Heroes' Journey. The Jedi Council subplot would still have been there, but there likely wouldn't have been based on the city-planet of Coruscant, as that wasn't conceived until the '90s. If they were to have attempted something like Coruscant in '77; however, it likely would have been an interior city not unlike the Death Star, or maybe taking more from Cloud City, as the vast cityscapes would have been much harder to pull off as anything more than matte paintings through windows.
About Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker
Of course, the biggest change would be that Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader would have been different characters. Obi-Wan would most likely have been the lead, analogous to Luke in A New Hope, but he'd have been supported by Anakin, Vader, and presumably some form of Padmé. Lucas doesn't seem to have originally had any idea why Vader fell to the dark side, so it's possible he'd have done a love triangle that went wrong; he's always been rather fond of love triangles.
But this version of Star Wars is a whole lot darker. The heroes aren't members of a plucky Rebel Alliance; rather, they're Jedi who are unwittingly serving a corrupt Senate. In the politics of the '70s, they're the United States in the Vietnam War, who think they're heroes but are doomed to be defeated. The most probable shock-twist in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones would be the revelation Palpatine is the true villain (a proper twist since fans had no prior knowledge of him), when he reveals himself to Darth Vader and seduces him to the dark side. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith would probably launch off the back of this, with the Jedi Purge as the main plot. This version of the prequels would thus end with tragedy, with the heroes defeated - but with a promise of hope, the birth of a new generation of heroes.
How Star Wars Would Be Different Told Linearly
Of course, this is a massive change to the entire Star Wars saga; this linear approach means the franchise's themes and core ideas are represented in a very different way. Where the Star Wars we know and love is the story of hope and redemption, this would have been a much more sinister tale, space fantasy as a cautionary tale, warning how easy it is for a democracy to fall. Oddly, there's a sense in which this version of Star Wars would have captured the mood of the Vietnam War a little more accurately than the original trilogy did, wearing its politics on its sleeve.
Assuming the Expanded Universe launched in a similar way, though, it would be very different. In the real world, Lucas told EU authors the Clone Wars were off-limits, because he suspected he might get around to do something with them himself. In this imaginary scenario, he'd have probably imposed the same restrictions for Tatooine and the Skywalker children. The EU would most likely have focused in on the Dark Times, the age in which the Empire ruled the galaxy with an iron fist. A handful of Jedi survivors may have formed the core of a narrative, with hints of them attempting to form a rebellion. And then, in the late '90s, George Lucas would probably have released a version of the original trilogy.
The Original Trilogy Would Be The Prequels
The changes would ripple on to the original trilogy, of course; viewers would immediately recognize the name "Skywalker," and would be primed for great things from Luke. They'd likewise have figured out Leia was his sister right from the start, and it's safe to assume Lucas would have avoided that infamously awkward kiss between Luke and Leia. There'd be no "I am your father" twist, of course, while Vader was still a fallen Jedi, his lack of relation to Luke would have meant his Return of the Jedi redemption would lack the same significance, and Lucas may have simply had him die along with the Emperor.
Lucas would have been delighted at the opportunity to tell the story of a galactic rebellion using the best CGI available to him at the time, but as a result it would have been the original trilogy that dated as the technology advanced at a pace. They'd also have allowed Lucas to indulge his desire to create far more alien races, so the Rebel Alliance would have been even more diverse, and meanwhile, the Empire may have utilized droid armies instead of stormtroopers as Lucas sought ways to utilize cutting edge effects.
It's also interesting to speculate whether or not these versions of the original Trilogy would have the same much-criticized humor as the real-world prequels. That's not necessarily the case; many critics speculated Lucas added the Jar-Jar Binks pratfalls in a misguided attempt to distract from the darker themes of the prequels. If that is true, he may not have felt the more optimistic tone of the original trilogy would have needed them. Alternatively, of course, it's entirely possible Lucas could have gone overboard with it instead; it's worth remembering Lucas still considers Jar-Jar Binks to be his favorite character.
But how would this trilogy have been received? This would have been very different to the morally complex Prequel Trilogy, with a much clearer sense of good and evil. As such, there could well have been just the same kind of backlash, with audiences arguing this wasn't the bleaker and morally ambiguous Star Wars they were used to. The inversion would have been perfect.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019