How George Lucas Brought Star Wars to the Big Screen
How George Lucas brought Star Wars to the big screen after years of drafts and dealing with Hollywood.
Since selling Lucasfilm, George Lucas has been very vocal about why he stopped making Star Wars films. The short of it is that making these movies is very hard work, that it takes it toll on a person, and that dealing with public scrutiny while making a film of that magnitude impedes the creative process. And it’s a very interesting thing, the creative process behind the Star Wars saga, a franchise that came from the mind of one man, from one evolution of the script to the next. One only has to look at the earliest draft of the original Star Wars movie Lucas wanted to make to see all the work that goes into just writing these movies. That very first draft of the script is almost unrecognizable from what we eventually got on the big screen.
It’s like Star Wars, but refracted through a strange lens. Here’s Han Solo, but he’s green, like the Toxic Avenger, and has gills. Here’s Luke Skywalker, but he’s a powerful general with a white beard and a flinty look in his eye.
All this can be found in what is now commonly called The Rough Draft of The Star Wars, originally written by George Lucas back in 1974. A kind of mid-point between the somewhat vague ideas Lucas first had for his space fantasy movie earlier in the decade and the fourth draft – which was used as the shooting script for the 1977 film – The Star Wars is a jarring document from the franchise’s early history.
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In 2013, Dark Horse produced an eight-part series of comics based on the Rough Draft, adapted by Star Wars historian JW Rinzler and illustrated by Mike Mayhew (no relation). That series has been collected together in one book, and again, it offers an intriguing insight into how Lucas conceived and reworked his ideas, and gradually amalgamated his influences into something new.
Lucas’ lifelong interest in science fiction received its earliest expression in THX-1138, an unsettling dystopian thriller that was initially a 15-minute student film made in 1967 (full title: Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB), and later remade as a feature starring Robert Duvall in 1971. But Lucas really wanted to make something completely different from THX: something more hopeful, more fantastical.
Although Lucas was left exhausted by the process of making the drama American Graffiti (1972), he continued to think about ideas for a space fantasy epic while that film was in post-production. Star Wars legend tells us that the names of two now famous characters – R2-D2 (“Reel 2, Dialogue 2”) and Wookiee – came during the latter stages of American Graffiti‘s making.
Made on a tiny budget, coming-of-age drama American Graffiti was a huge box-office hit, and was nominated for five Oscars. It was that unexpected success which would ultimately give Lucas the creative latitude to make something as risky (and potentially expensive) as Star Wars.
Lucas’ ideas first took shape in The Journal of The Whills. Less than two pages long, and yet to be officially published in full, it introduced a warrior named Mace Windy and a character called Chuiee Two Thorpe being trained as a Jedi-Templar. Even at this early stage, some of the names that would appear in Lucas’ Star Wars films had already made their first appearances.
By May 1973, Lucas had worked up a synopsis for something called The Star Wars. Although influenced by such writers as Frank Herbert (writer of Dune) and EE “Doc” Smith, as well as old Flash Gordon matinee serials, The Star Wars‘ primary influence was Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress. In fact, Lucas’ approach to The Hidden Fortress wasn’t unlike The Magnificent Seven, the Western based on Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Lucas took The Hidden Fortress‘ story, about a princess and her family escaping from a more powerful rival clan, and turned it into a galactic civil war set in the 33rd century.
Nevertheless, it was this treatment that, after several unsuccessful attempts to sell the Star Wars concept to other Hollywood studios, finally found interest at 20th Century Fox. There are also signs that the elements which would one day form the big-screen Star Wars are beginning to take shape. There’s an evil Empire, a giant space fortress, a general named Luke Skywalker, a planet called Yavin, and a violent confrontation in a space port cantina. As if through a haze of half-formed concepts and borrowed plot elements, something concrete was beginning to coalesce.
The Rough Draft, completed one year later in May 1974, marked another significant breakthrough for Lucas. Although still some distance from what audiences all over the world would recognize as Star Wars, it’s so significant because it’s the first properly completed screenplay to emerge from Lucas’ typewriter. Sure, it’s rough around the edges, with lengthy slabs of scene description and some odd tonal shifts, but there are signs everywhere that the pieces are beginning to move into place. The draft also marks the first appearance of the now-famous opening text crawl:
“Until the recent GREAT REBELLION, the JEDI BENDU were the most feared warriors in the universe. For one hundred thousand years, generations of JEDI perfected their art as the personal bodyguards of the emperor…”
Kane Starkiller is one of the last of these Jedi Bendu. Hiding from the now evil Empire and their allies, the Sith, Starkiller lives in hiding with his two sons, 10-year-old Deak and 18-year-old Annakin, on the Fourth Moon of Utapau. As The Star Wars opens, the Starkillers are found by the Empire and attacked by a deadly member of the Sith. Although the Sith warrior is no match for Kane Starkiller’s superior fighting skills, the villain succeeds in killing his 10-year-old son.
Their cover blown, Kane and Annakin head to Aquilae, where the fellow Jedi, general Luke Skywalker, is about to engage in a full-blown confrontation with the invading Empire and their colossal space fortress. Annakin, a talented but somewhat callow youth, must learn to master his Jedi training and help rescue Princess Leia, whom the Empire has kidnapped with a view to using her as a means of controlling the people of Aquilae.
Whether you read the original screenplay or Dark Horse’s comic book adaptation, there are at least two striking things about The Rough Draft. The first is just how hard-edged it is: sure, it’s a space opera, but the tone’s closer to something like Dune than a fairytale set in space. Although a little of this draft’s harshness and violence remained in 1977’s Star Wars – the horrifyingly casual deaths of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, the blood-spattered severed arm in the Mos Eisley cantina – we can only imagine what young audience members would have made of seeing a 10-year-old boy mercilessly slain by the Sith in the opening five minutes.
The second thing to note is the sheer number of characters Lucas stuffs into his 129-page script. While some are recognizable and quite likable – not least Han Solo, who’s the same cynical rogue we all know and remember, despite his frog-like appearance – others are downright bewildering. There are two seasoned Jedi (Kane Starkiller and Luke Skywalker), Princess Leia’s extended royal family (including two young brothers called Biggs and Windy), a young rebel spy named Whitsun, and numerous other bit-players and nefarious villains.
Despite his name, Annakin is the closest thing we have to a proper Luke Skywalker – he’s a young Jedi with much to learn, and proves himself to be quite a hero by the story’s end. But he’s also a difficult character to like: witness, for example, the moment where he first meets Princess Leia, who initially refuses to be rescued. Annakin’s solution? A solid punch in the face. (“Starkiller punches her square on the jaw and knocks her out cold.”)
Lucas would be the first to admit that he struggled with writing screenplays, and the stress of the whole process often made him feel quite ill. There’s a sense, going through The Rough Draft, of a writer feeling his way around his subject, of having certain scenes clear in his mind – an assault on a battle station, laser sword fights, and so forth – but not the tone.
The Rough Draft also suffers for the lack of a specific point of view, with the action frequently chopping between different sets of characters without a solid protagonist at the story’s core. R2-D2 and C3PO are in here somewhere, but Lucas hasn’t yet made them the audience’s waypoint into the saga, as he would in the second draft (another idea inspired by The Hidden Fortress). Their distinct personalities aren’t in place yet, either. Instead of the plucky, bleepy R2 and the cowardly yet earnest Threepio, we get a pair of bickering robots who are both as infuriating as each other. Reading The Rough Draft for the first time, it’s quite a surprise to see Artoo (or Artwo, as it’s spelled here) speaking English (“You’re nothing but a dim-witted, emotion-brained intellectual!”).
The more endearing nuances of Lucas’ characters didn’t appear until later. The comedy pairing of R2-D2 and C3PO worked so well in the final film because R2-D2’s cheerful whistles and chirps (not to mention bravery) served as a counterpoint to C3PO’s whining verbosity. Similarly, Princess Leia needs the now-familiar hint of saltiness and sarcasm to really make her character resonate – in The Rough Draft, she’s little more than a stubborn love interest for Annakin.
Having said all this, The Rough Draft, particularly in the form presented by Dark Horse’s comics, really begins to pick up pace towards the second half, and it’s exciting to see how many of the action scenes already appear here in nascent form. There’s a moment of peril in a trash compactor, a rip-roaring space battle, and fights between Wookiees and the Empire (a clear precursor to the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi).
Lucas’ friend and mentor Francis Ford Coppola liked this latest draft, yet Lucas clearly realized that his story was still too dense – or, at the very least, too expensive to shoot. In subsequent drafts, Lucas juggled around character traits and names, taking the attributes of Kane Starkiller, with his largely robotic body, and applying them to Darth Vader. He gradually chopped away extraneous characters and chunks of plot, too, such as the somewhat odd strand that sees the young boys Biggs and Windy put into hypersleep and ferried around the galaxy hidden in oval metal containers.
Through repeated rewriting and reordering, Lucas gradually drew closer to the Star Wars we recognize today. The second draft, published in 1975, reintroduces Han Solo and Chewbacca as friends and renegade pilots, Luke Skywalker as an ordinary farm boy rather than a grizzled general, and Darth Vader as the black-clad Lord of the Sith. Draft three, subtitled From the Adventures of Luke Starkiller, brings in Obi-Wan Kenobi and generally tightens up the story and the depictions of the characters – the sniping banter between Leia and Han Solo, for example, is now present and correct.
It was The Rough Draft, however, that provided Lucas with the road map to Star Wars‘ future. Although certain ideas were edited out for what would ultimately become Star Wars‘ shooting script, they would turn up again later on. Annikin’s depiction as a somewhat aggressive young upstart would be reprised in the Anakin character we’d see in the Star Wars prequels, and The Rough Draft’s bearded general Luke Skywalker is markedly similar to the young Obi-Wan in the prequels, too.
The Dark Horse adaptation of The Rough Draft, with its design work inspired from Ralph McQuarrie’s early production art, is a fascinating entry point to Star Wars‘ creative development. Through it, we can see how Lucas was slowly working out how he could make a modern fairytale with a technological edge, blending eastern religious ideas with classical myths and pulp sci-fi action.
As an early version of Star Wars‘ oft-repeated motto proves – “May the force of others be with you” – Lucas still had a lot of work still to do. But The Rough Draft provided a solid foundation on which the now iconic franchise could be built.