Ever since ‘Star Wars’ hit theatres back in May of 1977, the series has dominated the medium of cinema, through its initial sequels (1980’s ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, and 1983’s ‘Return of the Jedi’), which transformed the very way in which Hollywood viewed motion pictures, and truly revolutionised what films could be, creating the very notion of the blockbuster which we have become all to familiar with today. With ‘Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi’ recently releasing only a couple of weeks ago, it’s clear that this now-40 year old series is still an integral part of film culture, and stands the test of time as one of the definitive parts of modern cinema, throughout its 9 major films (including the upcoming Episode IX), and its three iconic trilogies. However, the notion of a Star Wars sequel trilogy was not something solely devised by Walt Disney, as a attempt to further profit from their latest acquisition, but a project that long been in the works at LucasFilm, going through a near 40-year evolution, which resulted in a variety of different ideas and statements, all which paved the way for what we have now.
It is clear that George Lucas always envisaged the Star Wars saga to be told in multiple different trilogies; for instance, he had always planned for three main films (‘the Original Trilogy’), which would then be followed by three Prequel films. This notion actually dates back as far as 1975, when Lucas, in conversation with writer Alan Dean Foster over the novelisation of the original 1977 film, explained that:
“I want to have Luke kiss the Princess in the second book. In the third book, I want the story just about the soap opera of the Skywalker family, which ends with the destruction of the Empire. Then someday I want to do the backstory of Kenobi as a young man – a story of the Jedi and how the Emperor eventually takes over and turns the whole thing from a Republic into an Empire, and tricks all the Jedi and kills them.” read here:
However, while it's evident that Lucas had always planned to follow up his initial series of films with Prequels (which he eventually did in 1999, with the release of ‘The Phantom Menace’), it is possibly more shocking to learn that he also had envisaged yet another trilogy of films, these ones, however, detailing what would happen to the galaxy in the aftermath of Episode VI. Mark Hamill, in a number of interviews, has detailed how during principal photography of the original ‘Star Wars’ film, Lucas had actually asked him whether he’d be interested in reprising his role in an Episode IX, as he mentions in this clip from 1983:
Additionally in 1978 (following on from the smash success of the 1977 debut) TIME Magazine reported that Lucas would produce a sequel (1980’s ‘The Empire Strikes Back’), subsequently followed by 10 other films, creating a total of four unique Star Wars trilogies. As Jonathan W. Rinzer described in a 2012 article:
“the original trilogy occupied Episodes VI, VII, and VIII; a Clone Wars trilogy took up Episodes II, III, and IV, while Episode I was a 'prelude,' Episodes IX through XI were simply left blank – and Episode XII was the 'conclusion’.” read here:
Despite this, it appears that this was later streamlined down to a total of 9 films, with the original trilogy being moved to Episodes IV, V and IV. For instance, while on set of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, Lucas (according to Rinzer) explained that:
“The first script was one of six original stories I had written in the form of two trilogies. After the success of Star Wars, I added another trilogy. So now there are nine stories. The original two trilogies were conceived of as six films of which the first film was number four."
While details on what the plot of this sequel trilogy would have been are scarce, Gary Kurtz (producer of ‘A New Hope’ and ‘Empire Strikes Back’) has stated that, before the making of ‘Return of the Jedi’, Lucas had envisaged the next series of films to focus around Luke Skywalker, following on from the death of Darth Vader in Episode 6, stating that while Lucas’ ideas were still vague, it would focus around Luke’s journey to becoming the premiere Jedi Knight in the Obi-Wan Kenobi mold and his ultimate confrontation with the Emperor. Furthermore, Kurtz, while speaking at the 1999 Sci-Fi Expo in Plano, TX, mentioned how the sequel trilogy would involve Luke’s search for his long lost sister (not intended to be Princess Leia), and a final confrontation with the Emperor. read here:
Likewise, the thematic inspiration for the possible sequel trilogy were outlined by George Lucas himself, in an interview published in Denise Worrell's 1983 book Icons: Intimate Portraits. In the chapter entitled "The Dark Side of George Lucas", Lucas is reported to have only a vague notion of what will happen in the three films of a sequel trilogy. He is quoted as saying:
"If the first trilogy is social and political and talks about how society evolves, Star Wars is more about personal growth and self realization, and the third deals with moral and philosophical problems. The sequel is about Jedi Knighthood, justice, confrontation, and passing on what you have learned."
However, after the making of ‘Return of the Jedi’, Lucas instead decided to take an extended break from filmmaking, partly due to the taxing nature of making the original trilogy, and also to fulfil his obligations as a father. And as a result, these ideas of a sequel trilogy were shelved, with Lucas allowing writer Timothy Zahn to write a series of novels detailing the fallout of Return of the Jedi under the old ‘Expanded Universe’ banner with his ‘Thrawn Trilogy’, and Lucas eventually returning to make his long discussed Prequel trilogy in the mid 1990s.
After the completion of the Prequels, Lucas appeared to very much abandon the notion of a third trilogy in the saga, seemingly due to the backlash and negative reception received by the Prequels. As a result, during this period Lucas made a lot of definitive statements about there being no Episodes VII, VIII and IX. Despite this, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that Lucas had in fact begun initial work on a story for the sequel trilogy after the completion of ‘Revenge of the Sith’. This second attempt at writing a series of follow ups from Return of the Jedi appeared much different from the original ideas outlined by Kurtz, and while very few details have been revealed about what it would’ve been like, there is a considerable amount we can piece together.
Firstly, we know that Lucas, when he sold LucasFilm over to Disney, had given Kathleen Kennedy treatments to Episodes VII, VIII and IX (he mentions this in the sit down interview the pair did after the deal was complete). Soon after, it was announced that ‘Toy Story 3’ screenwriter Michael Arndt had been brought on to write a screenplay for Episode VII. Arndt, whose treatment was later thrown out and replaced by director JJ Abrams, has spoken in detail about his initial draft of the film, stating that his pitch for the film revolved around a young female protagonist, named Kira, who travels to find an older and more weary Luke Skywalker, now in exile. Similarly, in the recently released ‘Art of Star Wars: The Last Jedi’, several details regarding Lucas’ pitch for Episodes VII, VIII and IX are revealed, many of which appear to be similar to Arndt’s treatment (as the book states that Lucas sat in on the first creative meetings for Episode VII, which took place on Skywalker Ranch in January 2013).
Firstly, Lucas’ outline detailed a Luke Skywalker significantly different from where we last saw him in ‘Return of the Jedi’, now exiled to a remote location housing the original Jedi temple, who is forced out of hiding by Kira, a young 20-somethings padawan who had discovered Luke’s original lightsaber and in search of tutelage. However, in October 2013, it was announced that Michael Arndt had departed from the project, his screenplay as to be replaced by one co-written by director JJ Abrams and ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. Abrams believed that the depiction of the film’s new leads (then-titled Sam and Kira) as young adults (Lucas imagined the new main characters as aged 16 to early 20s) bore too much similarity to the characterisation of Anakin Skywalker in the Prequels, and when their characters evolved into the more familiar Finn and Rey, their ages too were changed. In addition, while Arndt’s version of Episode VII very much focused around the new cast, Abrams and Kasdan instead opted to put a heavier focus on the original characters, both as an attempt to “bring Star Wars back to the fans”, and also to ease in our new heroes through their experiences with the likes of Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker.
|Star Wars: The Force Awakens concept art, 'Sam and Kira'|
In comparison, it appears that Michael Arndt’s work on Episode VII was largely a rework of Lucas’ initial notes, and ideas ironed out during the initial creative meetings which George was present for. In the book ‘The Art of The Force Awakens’, we see several pieces of concept art depicting these ideas, featuring the new lead characters of Sam and Kira, the exiled Luke Skywalker, and the appearance of the film’s primary villain, then known simply as the ‘Jedi Killer’. Interestingly, it appears that the character of the ‘Jedi Killer’ also went through several iterations; firstly resembling iconic ‘Legends’ villain Darth Talon, before being conceptualised as a red-skinned male, before becoming a more Vader-esque figure.
|Star Wars: The Force Awakens concept art, 'Darth Talon'|
As Lucasfilm Development Exec Pablo Hidalgo explained, the earliest versions of Episode VIII saw ‘The Son’ character being seduced to the dark side, with Hidalgo stating that Talon was initially considered as the one to corrupt the son, before the son became an amalgamation of himself and Talon, the seducer and the student, evolving into Kylo Ren. Moreover, in the Visual Dictionary to ‘The Last Jedi’, we see concept art left over from both Michael Arndt’s treatment for Episode VII, and also art from Lucas’ pitch, most notably this bell shaped temple which would house an exiled Luke Skywalker, where he would be tracked down by Kira/Rey.
|Pre-Disney Lucasfilm concept art of Luke Skywalker's Jedi temple|
I find it fascinating that, while George Lucas has so frequently stated that Star Wars is a six film saga, there always seemed to be some version of Episodes VII, VIII and IX floating around, from when ‘A New Hope’ and ‘Empire’ were in production, to the post-Prequel era, and even now, where Disney have finally brought the sequel trilogy to life, George Lucas’ ideas and fingerprints remain firmly entrenched within the series. While the recent entries in the series, 2015’s ‘The Force Awakens’ and 2017’s ‘The Last Jedi’ have been colossal successes, both at the box office and critically, there are still plenty of fans who wonder what a George Lucas directed sequel trilogy would be like, and depending on when you ask, the answer is different, but the core essentials seemed to be there all the way back in the beginning: Luke Skywalker would grow into the old Jedi master and pass down excalibur to the next generation of Jedi. The story of the sequel trilogy’s development is one of the most fascinating ‘what if’’s in film history, and now that we’re firmly entrenched within it, we have the luxury of both appreciating and enjoying the realised visions that are Episodes VII, VIII and IX, and also ponder “what could’ve been?” if those films were made a long time ago.
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