What I Learned From Reading "The Star Wars"

After reading the Dark Horse comic adaptation of George Lucas' original screenplay for The Star Wars, I'm amazed that the movie ever worked at all. Star Wars (the movie) ended up a nearly perfect distillation of the hero myth, but what Lucas started with was so much more confusing. Someone had to see the diamond in that lump of story coal, and the first thing I learned is that i wouldn't have been able to find the heart of the story in that draft.

The Star Wars is full of the characters and setups that you'll remember from the movies. It features a stubborn, fiesty princess, lazerswords, a giant space station, ships careening through asteroid belts, a trash compactor, and some mumbo jumbo about Jedis and Siths. It also turns much of what you'll remember upside down. Luke is a fatherly figure. Darth Vader is an Imperial General who honestly doesn't do a whole lot. Han Solo is not the handsome, dashing pilot that audiences fell in love with. The story features some of the same basic arc, but along the way there are several sit-down scenes where people talk about the senate and treaties and all of the boring nonsense that ended up in the prequels. The second thing I learned is that George Lucas doesn't like to let an idea go, even if it was cut for a good reason.

Turning a story like The Star Wars into something filmable must have taken a tremendous amount of creative work. This book has too many characters, too many threads to follow, and not enough satisfaction in the way that late-forming relationships resolve. I've not read the original screenplay, but I suspect that the fault here is the source material moreso than the work that writer JW Rinzler did to bring this story to the comic page. Every few pages yields an idea that ended up in a movie other than the original Star Wars and yet most of those ideas seem so unnatural and jarring in the context of this story. What reading this taught me was that you have to hone in on the core of the story you are trying to tell and not allow any scene to run off spending time developing a thread that doesn't help that primary story along.

Star Wars was always Lucas' homage to Flash Gordon and the pulpy serials of his youth, and that shines through in this version. We get not only a Skywalker but also a Starkiller. The plot spins off into details about Leia's royalty and the role that she plays as the future Queen of her people. There's a knight who is more machine than man, lots of daring sacrifice, and a thudding, wrong-headed love story that seems squeezed in just because such a thing would be expected. And it all fails to come together as simply as you remember because there is no central hero to follow. This isn't Luke's story, or Leia's or even Annikin's--it's just a tangle of characters barelling through space to stop an evil empire. I learned that all of the pulpy, amazing stuff in Star Wars is memorable because it serves the right purpose--not just because it's cool to see a man with a robot arm wielding a lazersword.

If all of this makes The Star Wars seem like a complete drag--it's not. The art is wonderful and the designs are intentionally inspired by a combination of the films and Ralph McQuarrie's original concept drawings. The comic book storytellers have chosen to work in familiar faces like the bounty hunters for some extra cognitive dissonance, so the whole thing plays out like a fun "What If" book. But the dialog is hard to get through. Characters spit out so many detailed numbers and descriptions of this tech or that and in the end I just wanted to skip those panels and get to something that illuminated the characters. I learned that no matter how fantastical and complex your imaginary world is, you don't need for your characters to spend time talking about it. Just let people see it!

One of the reasons that I picked this book up in the first place was to use it as a case study in the way that a screenplay changes from rough draft to the final thing that we see in a theater. On that front, the book is not disappointing at all!