How Star Wars Conquered the Universe — Chris Taylor

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe isn’t bad but the writer relies overmuch on cliche: “James’s wartime story was enough to make my jaw hit the floor when I met him” or “I must have seen that Star Wars poster a million times.” I kept taking my pen to the book, as there is a better one waiting to unlocked from this one. But the middle section, especially about the creative process that went into Star Wars, is very interesting and even redeeming; the book feels rushed to press, maybe to hit a deadline or because the writer needed the advance money, which is too bad: I’m reminded of Thomas Ricks’ description of the Churchill and Orwell rewrites. Had How Star Wars received the same it might have been a great examination of where art comes from.

Instead, it’s okay, and you have to wade through some tedious chapters. One wishes Taylor had had more time. He loses the war against cliché. He writes of “a genre that liked to recycle plots.” Arguably all plots are recycled, at an appropriate level of abstraction. Famously, few of Shakespeare’s plots are his own. We get many statements about plot like every story being about “A stranger comes to town or someone leave town.”

Some of the best writing comes from others:

Normally, when this most private man [Lucas] goes into public at a press-attended gathering, he wears the face best described by Variety editor in chief Peter Bart, who compared Lucas to a small-town banker: “impeccably polite and implacably distanced, as though fearing you might ask an inappropriate question or request a loan.”

Odd, though, that “editor in chief” isn’t “editor-in-chief,” right?

The close reading of the original script, versus the shooting script, begins on page 111 and continues from there. It’s an impressive section that’s too long to quote, and it’s impressive because of Taylor’s close reading of everything wrong in the original that goes right in the later versions. Lucas’s then-wife, Marcia, played a critical role in the process. Lawrence Kasdan worked on the second two movies. Lucas alone would have created a disaster; he’s like raw iron that needs to be alloyed to create steel. Marcia Lucas and Kasdan helped unlock the good version within; the three “prequel” movies released after the original three were so bad in part because Lucas accepted almost no outside influence and had the money to do whatever he wanted. “Infinite resources” turned out to be a drawback rather than a virtue for him. The parallels between the writing of this book and the making of the movie are notable.

The real question is unanswered, and unanswerable: why did George Lucas do it, and not thousands or millions of others? Why do so many people attempt and fail to do what he did? We don’t find out; likely, we can’t find out.

Here is an article, better written than the book, that covers some of the information. If you deeply like Star Wars or are deeply interested in creative processes (I’d count myself among the latter), this book is for you. Those casually interested in either should read elsewhere.

3 responses

  1. There’s a chapter in Star Wars history that nobody seems to remember anymore: From the mid-1980s to the mid-to-late 1990s, Star Wars fandom was dead, dead, dead. The official fan club ceased to exist; the old toys were available for pennies at antique flea markets and junk shops; Marvel cancelled the Star Wars comic book; cultural references to Star Wars were novelties; nobody cared what Mark Hamill thought about politics; and while I’m sure there were a few die-hard fans out there wearing costumes to cons, most people would have been hard pressed to locate even a vaguely organized fandom.

    So what’s interesting to me isn’t how Star Wars conquered the culture, but how it made a comeback from nonexistence in the late 1990s. Novels and video games helped rebuild the fan base; nostalgia stoked the original fan base (which probably had a median age of 30 in 1999); and a participatory fan culture had already arisen around other franchises. More relevant than what George Lucas got right as a filmmaker in 1977 are the cultural trends that corporate marketers understood how to exploit in 1999.

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    • My impression is that people were still watching the movies on video, and that most kids age 6 – 10 or so saw them. Maybe the modern, obsessive fandom things went away, but I think the movies themselves were still percolating and being shared.

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      • I agree—and I can recall one of the basic cable stations like TNT or TBS showing Star Wars marathons that were meant to be a sort of visual wallpaper on Christmas. But unlike Star Trek fans, who never let the fire go out, Star Wars fans were passive and occasional viewers of old movies—until the culture changed in ways that let them indulge their nostalgia in ways that would have seemed weird and excessive not long before.

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