The Book





Structuring the Prequels: Sequel Construction in Historical Context 

With the Star Wars Saga (seemingly, at least) complete--by which I mean the episodic live-action series created by George Lucas--we are left with a conundrum: how, exactly, does one view this epic? This has become especially relevant now that there are beginning to appear those who were neither alive when the original trilogy was released nor able to see the prequels whilst they were in theaters. A generation that will begin to watch the entire series as a completed entity.

Many Star Wars fans will shift to auto-reply: one merely watches them in episodic order. This is how the creator of the films intends for them to be seen. Indeed, so he says.

It is no secret that Lucas today wishes for viewers of the generation just beginning to emerge to view the films starting with Episode I and ending with Episode VI. Yet, many viewers disagree with this--something I will address in a few moments. Even more alarming, I have noticed that there seems to be an increasing number of newer viewers who feel that either the original trilogy is a let down compared to the prequels or else are in many ways inferior to them. Another notable body of viewers has concluded that, despite being numerically and chronologically linked and supposedly designed to flow as one piece, the two trilogies are just that--two separate trilogies which work as separate, contained entities and not six parts of a singular construction.

It is difficult to say how much of a majority or minority these viewpoints represent, impossible even. Yet it is clear that they are numerous and not merely fringe. This, in addition to the many fans and viewers who outright reject the prequels, or else pay less attention to them due to low opinions of them--perhaps, sadly, a majority of the Star Wars series viewing population--seems to paint a growing picture: that the completed Star Wars Saga is not the narrative success some, including Lucas, may think it is, at least in the manner in which the epic has now been presented.

I realise that many Star Wars fans reading this may disagree; in fact, probably those who disagree are more likely to be reading this article, if only because the more involved fans that would take the time to read a piece such as this tend to embrace all the films. However, whether you agree or not, it is nonetheless undeniable that the previously-mentioned groups of viewers make up a significant number, and this must be confronted. While it is easy to relapse into the explanation of either "Lucas can't please everyone" or "it's not his job to make people like his films" these are cheats in a way--the Star Wars films were designed to engage an audience, and if a significant portion of that audience is failing to connect in the ways that the filmmaker has intended, it is enough to give us pause and probe a deeper analysis of the ways the filmmaker has constructed said films and why or why not this may be occurring, beyond the obvious fact that there will always be a portion of viewers that do not connect.

This article won't be an examination of "why the prequels fail," or any such things, for those who may be wary of such a diatribe. Instead, we will be doing exactly what I suggested above: probing deeper at the way Lucas structured the films and the franchise. While this has been done in various ways by various people already, I have not yet encountered an actual written piece that accounts for a crucial element, perhaps most crucial of all--historical context. The Star Wars sequels were not created in a vaccuum--they existed in a specific time and space. Any attempt to understand the Star Wars films that does not account for the time and environment in which--and most importantly for which--they were written cannot possibly fully understand them, and understand why Lucas made the choices he did.

One thing I will be ultimately arguing here is that there is a self-contradiction to the manner in which the films have been constructed, and in the manner in which Lucas has presented them. To sum up the issue: while Lucas now claims that they be viewed chronologically in episodic order, they have in fact been made primarily for the audiences of their time of production. Each sequel--1980, 1983, 1999, 2002, and 2005--built upon the film that came before it and is dependent on audience familiarity with the preceding occurances to various degrees. In addition, the prequels have not been composed in a manner which fully accounts for the dramatic construction of the original trilogy; what this means is that the originals were constructed in such a way as to preserve the dramatic suspense of not knowing the revelations that follow (i.e. Yoda's identity, Leia and Anakin's familial relation to Luke, the true powers of the Emperor, etc.), while the prequels do not respect this structure and hence introduce unintended structural flaws in the last episodes. In short, what this article will be examining is the dual nature of the completed saga, which is now presented in episode order but constructed in production order, and examining how and why this occurred and what narrative concessions can result.

Prequels in Greater Context -- Beyond Star Wars

Let us start with a simple definition. What is a prequel? This may seem like an obvious and banal question to be asking, but an acknowledgment of the term may help clarify the issues I will be examining. A prequel is a sequel which chronologically takes place before the preceding movie. Obviously, this describes the Star Wars prequel trilogy. And yet, the manner in which Lucas professes the films to be viewed does not fit this definition--rather than prequels, episodes I to III are merely the first half of one large narrative, of which the other half is the original trilogy; Episode I becomes the original, while Episode IV is actually the third sequel. This distinction is key to understanding the nature of the Star Wars Saga and the problems that have therein arisen. "Prequels" are sequels--they build on the original film, or the film that was released before it, but instead of being set afterwards they are set before. They are made by a filmmaker who is constructing them in the context of having already made the film that details the events which follow, and presented to an audience that is aware of the existence of said events and corresponding film or films.

The concept of prequels is not unique to Star Wars. Star Wars may have popularised the term, but the idea of doing sequels which take place before the original, or before the proceeding entry, is nothing new. In fact, it is nothing new to George Lucas--his first follow-up to Raiders of the Lost Ark was a prequel. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a sequel which is set a few years before the events of the first film. And it plays to an audience that is already familiar with that film. When Indiana Jones encounters a band of sword-wielding men near the film's conclusion and casually reaches for his gun only to find its holster empty, the joke was playing on the fact that audiences were already familiar with the same scene in Raiders where he non-chalantly shoots a swordsman. And while Raiders takes nearly an hour of screentime establishing the character of Indiana and his background, there is only the briefest of introduction and development of him in Temple of Doom because the audience is already familiar with who he is from the first film.

To use a non-film example, take the novel and stage musical Wicked, a prequel to Wizard of Oz. If you read or watch Wicked without having seen or read Wizard of Oz, you are going to miss out on much of what is going on. Yet Wicked dispenses with re-caps and review of the essential or necessary information because Wizard of Oz is so culturally ubiquitious. Moreover, Wicked is constructed with the original in mind, and in fact this is part of what makes it so clever and interesting to viewers--it plays off audience familiarity with the original work. 

In prequels--read: sequels--there is little need to maintain the suspense or plot revelations of the previous films because it is taken for granted that the audience is already familiar with such things. In fact, playing with the audience's knowledge of what's to come is one of the ways in which prequels have fun. It is funny on Smallville when Lois and Clark meet and hate each other because the audience knows that they will later fall in love. It is funny in J.J. Abrams Star Trek when McCoy first meets Spock and says that he likes him, because audiences know that the two will become famous for their disagreements. Forward-moving sequels work in a similar way, by taking what has come before and casting it in new light--"revelations" that are ret-cons, retroactive continuity alterations, i.e. "I am your father." Knowing that Luke's father was said to be killed by Vader in the first film makes this revelation more shocking in the second film, and knowing that Vader becomes an evil monster is part of what  makes it so interesting when we see him as an innocent child in the fourth film, Episode I. Sequels are designed not only by filmmakers who are cognisant of what has already transpired, but they are targetted to an audience that is as well. When John Conner says "I'll be back," in Terminator: Salvation, it was saluting fans of the original who were familiar with the famous line from the previous films, and made more ironic since the line was originally uttered by Conner's nemesis.

Prequels also need not involve culturally-significant or dramatically momentous content, like Star Wars, Superman and Wizard of Oz. Regular old B-movies can create sequels which are set before the original as well. Chuck Norris' Missing in Action 2: The Beginning showed fans of the first film how Norris' character's experiences in Vietnam made him the way he was in the original Missing in Action. And it can also apply to books--for instance, a reader would at a bit of a loss reading Tolkien's The Silmarillion if he or she hadn't already read, or been familiar with, Lord of the Rings. One of the most instructive examples of prequelisation and revision of narrative is in an analogous series to the Star Wars situation--the Chronicles of Narnia books.

The Chronicles of Narnia series began with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe . As the first book ever written in the series it had to lead audiences into the magical world of C.S. Lewis' Narnia, and it did so in a very methodical way. Beginning in our world, the characters discover a wardrobe that is revealed as a portal to another land, which they travel to and are bewildered by. A number of sequels followed, further building on the original novel and developing the world further, and the second-last book written actually took place before the original The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In an interview, author C.S. Lewis remarked that he would have liked viewers to read the books in chronological order. Because of this, the publisher now numbers the books beginning with the second-last novel written, the prequel The Magician's Nephew, with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe designated as book two.

Many fans have voiced serious concern with this. The issue is that The Magician's Nephew was written at the very end of the Narnia cycle and takes the reader's knowledge of the world of Narnia for granted. On the other hand, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe slowly leads viewers into the world through the eyes of the children protagonists; just as they are introduced to Narnia, so is the viewer. Journalist John J. Miller writes in his article on the Narnia order:

"The case for reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe first rather than second is overwhelming. Most important is the fact that the book introduces the world of Narnia to its readers far better than The Magician's Nephew, or any of the other books in the Chronicles. Lucy's initial encounter with Aslan's domain is one of the great moments in whole series, as she passes through the wardrobe, hears the "crunch-crunch" of snow beneath her feet, and walks toward a light in the distance.

The device of the portal, which transports readers from our world to another, is crucial. For starters, it's a traditional feature of fantasy literature for children — see, for instance, the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland or that railroad platform in Harry Potter. The portal described in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is more detailed and compelling than the ones found in subsequent books, which employ portals but don't dwell on their significance. (With the exception of The Horse and His Boy, each of the Narnia books has a portal.) The early chapters of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe focus on the important question of whether there can even be portals. "But do you really mean, Sir," asks Peter, "that there could be other worlds — all over the place, just around the corner — like that?" Replies the professor: "Nothing is more probable." This is a meaningful conversation on many levels, and not least because it confirms the reality of Narnia in the space of the story.

What's more, when Lewis began writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he did not even conceive of writing the other books at all. As a result, he presents Narnia with a freshness that won't be found elsewhere in the series. You might compare it to the freshness of the crunching snow beneath Lucy's feet. Not only does Lewis lead his readers into a new world, but he's looking upon it for the first time himself, and it shows.

There's no such freshness in The Magician's Nephew, which begins this workmanlike way: "This is a story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child. It is a very important story because it shows how all the comings and goings between our own world and the land of Narnia first began." These opening words assume readers will know there's a place called Narnia and that there are comings and goings between it and our world. In other words, the passage takes for granted a familiarity with tales Lewis already has told.

Leland Ryken and Marjorie Lamp Mead make the point well in their new book, A Readers Guide Through the Wardrobe: "To read The Magician's Nephew first would be to undercut the very fabric by which Lewis so carefully constructed his previous tale. Once readers know 'all about' Narnia, they can no longer experience the full strangeness of Lucy's discovery of a mysterious world within the wardrobe," they write. "If the reader first experiences Narnia by reading The Magician's Nephew, all of this significant suspense is lost."

So it is, I will argue, with the Star Wars series. But in order to understand this, we must also examine the time and space unto which each of the Star Wars films was birthed.

The Star Wars Prequels -- A Lesson in Narrative, Marketing and Audiences

Star Wars was a global cultural phenomenon by the 1990s, considered one of the most popular works of fiction of all time, with a massive fan following that not only spanned all ages, genders and ethnicities, but that was still visibly part of the popular media and not just a niche work. Even people that had never seen the films knew who Darth Vader was, who R2-D2 and Yoda and Luke Skywalker were, and what the Force and the Jedi knights were. "I am your father" is probably the worst-kept cinematic revelation in history. Not only that, in the mid-90s, Star Wars was at heights that nearly equalled those of its heyday--the action figures and Micro Machine playsets, the New York Times bestselling novels, the many comic book lines, the award-winning video games, and the ever-popular home video releases, showed that these were not just classic films or popular in the way that other sci-fi franchises like Star Trek were--the Star Wars trilogy was as well known as anything. It is into this atmosphere that George Lucas began scripting the prequels starting in 1994. As he began production, events took on a new level of mania--the original trilogy was released in a record-grabbing 1995 video release, and then released theatrically in 1997, with the original film taking in over $130 million domestically and breaking box-office records. Around this time, Galoob was making over $120 million a year from Star Wars toys. Star Wars was as firmly entrenched in popular culture as the Bible was, and even those who hadn't seen the films could absorb enough anecdotes and references to get the basic gist of the trilogy. In fact, a very entertaining web meme recently circulated regarding this.

This was the environment in which Lucas was writing, and the audience that would be lining up to see the films when they played in theatres. Though concessions were possibly made to keep a hypothetical future audience in mind, the prequels existed in a specific time and place, when Star Wars was was the highest-grossing film of all time and when the trilogy was being featured on the covers of Time magazine and Rolling Stone . Because the films were being released to this audience, there is a certain manner in which the narrative has been constructed, as I explained previously. Before we get to that, however, we can turn to the marketing of the prequels to demonstrate this process.

A blockbuster special effects film is an enormous financial undertaking, typically in the $100 million range, and must gather a massive amount of ticket sales to pay for this. When films were less expensive, in the 60s and 70s for instance, they opened in a small amount of theatres, and then slowly expanded as word of mouth built a bigger audience over the months. Star Wars was released on the tail end of this era, debuting in only 32 theatres on May 25th, and then (relatively rapidly for its time) expanding as the distributor realised it was a breakaway hit. Yet since the 80s, the process has changed, and it especially began to change in the late 90s. Now, films rely on heavy pre-release hype; trailers and advertisements have always been a staple of pre-release awareness, but now they are accompanied by a full-on campaign which includes contractual touring of late night talk shows by the film's stars, merchandising and fast-food tie-ins, video games and collectables, and publicity stunts. It was reported that the pre-release marketing of 2001's Pearl Harbor, complete with a media premier on an actual Destroyer, cost more than the film itself. Films are expected to make most of their money in the opening weekend, thus all advertising effort is aimed at creating maximum awareness before the film opens.

Even amid this modern atmosphere, the first prequel, Phantom Menace, was marketed to extreme proportions. It is unofficially considered the most hyped film of all time. Toy stores opened at midnight to accommodate the mobs of fans eager with anticipation, the trailer for the film was the most downloaded item on the internet at the time, and fans began camping out in lineups a month in advance. The awareness of the film extended far past fanatics, however--there was such interest in the film that CNN reported it was estimated that the United States would lose almost $300 million in revenue from people skipping work to see the film on opening day. The effect of all this demonstrates how intimate the world was with the franchise.

This means that for a new Star Wars film opening in theatres, the audiences lining up, the critics reviewing, the fans buying the merchandise--this is the primary audience of the work, and the form follows its function in this respect. Advertising communicates this. For example, here is the film's teaser poster, which was seen everywhere in the months leading up to the release.

The point of the poster, of course, is the foreshadowing that Anakin will one day fall to the dark side and become Darth Vader. It relies on the reader knowing the original trilogy, knowing that Anakin becomes Vader, for it to make any sense. That audiences knew the original trilogy with the intimacy its status suggests was one of the fascinations Lucas had in constructing the highly-anticipated prequels--it allowed him to play on their expectations, and to surprise them by twisting around what they thought they knew. "I became fascinated by the idea of making a new trilogy that would forever change the way we see the original movies," he comments further. (i) "Part of the fun for me was completely flipping upside down the dramatic track of the original movies." (ii) Here we see a function similar to the aforementioned examples in Wicked or Smallville. As Lucas has described the films many times, they were conceived, and then constructed and presented to us, as "backstory"--they function as a predecessor to the later episodes already released and rely on viewing the story in this retrospective manner.

As Lucas further says: "When you're making a $100 million movie and it's your own money--pretty much all the money you've got--there's a huge risk. If I didn't get my money back on Episode I, I wouldn't have been able to make Episode II." (iii)  In a practical matter, the films had to play to the audience of the time if for nothing but to make any money. Hence the marketing capitalises on presenting the film as a story told retrospectively in light of the successful original trilogy. Given its heights in popular culture at the time, the pressures of this status would have been quite pressing on Lucas to deliver a film to the immediate audience, and Lucas acknowledges this--a deciding factor in his decision to actually make the films, a decision he finally committed to only in the early-mid-90s, was seeing how much of an audience there still was to see the films at that specific time. " [I realised the] Star Wars audience was still alive--it hadn't disappeared after fifteen years," he says. "I decided that if I didn't do the backstory then, I never would. So I committed to it." (iv)

Yet, do the films hold up should one view them in chronological sequence? In many ways they do. Seeing Anakin Skywalker as a happy-go-lucky child was interesting to us because we only knew him as Darth Vader, icon of evil--yet watching this child turn into a monster, without knowing beforehand that he becomes evil, is equally dramatic. The sly nods to the audience about the true nature of Palpatine work for us, knowing what he will become, but I imagine his tyrannical transformation should have even more impact in not knowing he will become a dictator. Not every example works only one way--many twists are ironic for us, yet work on a second level as a forward-moving narrative, instead of the retrospective "backstory" narrative it was for us. Lucas comments: "It's a very different suspense structure...If you watch them the way it was released, IV, V, VI, I, II, III--you get one kind of movie. If you watch I through VI you get a completely different movie. One or two generations have seen it one way, and the next generations will see it in a completely different way." (v) Some level of second-layer forward-moving storytelling has been built into the films.

However, this does not hold true in each case, and in one of the fundamental cases--the overall mechanics of audience involvement. While Lucas could construct the prequels to work as a forward-moving story while simultaneously working as the primary "backstory" retrospective, the storytelling choices in the original trilogy had already been made decades earlier and could not be made to account for this new I-VI secondary structure. Here we will examine the actual narrative structure of the films.

Structural Choices

These structural choices mainly relate to how the audience is guided and led through the films. I will invoke the crucial comparison to Chronicles of Narnia here. The original trilogy is a classic example of an introductory original, followed by sequels which increasingly rely on the viewer having seen the preceding film. Episode I of the prequels too does a fair job of laying out the various characters and environments of the two films to follow and establishing how the world of the Republic works, yet the films nonetheless are a basic continuation of the sequel mechanics which left off with Return of the Jedi. This is due to the aforementioned points made: the world was more than well aware of the previous Star Wars films and their content at the time Phantom Menace was released.

When one compares Star Wars and Phantom Menace, one finds a remarkable disparity in the manner in which the viewer is led through the films. This is because Star Wars is structured as an original film, while Phantom Menace is esssentially still just a sequel, the backstory to the original told retrospectively. In Star Wars , Luke is the audience member's avatar, and he leads us into the world of the galaxy far, far away--just as he discovers the world beyond Tatooine, so does the audience along with him.

The most obvious example of this is the early scene between him and Ben Kenobi. In this scene, we learn a number of crucial expository information necessary for the comprehension of the rest of the series--we establish who the Jedi knights were, and how they functioned, and we are explained in considerable length what the Force is and how it is used. We also are introduced to a lightsaber, and how it works. All of this we discover along with Luke. Onboard the Millennium Falcon, it is further illustrated how Jedi knights, the Force, and lightsabers connect through the training lesson. The two immediate sequels, of course, dispense with such lessons, because it is assumed that the audience has already seen the first film and understands what is going on, and build on this first experience.

Yet, so too do the prequels follow suit. In Phantom Menace, we are not explained who the hooded figures we are introduced to in the opening are. The crawl mentions "Jedi knights," but we don't know exactly what that means. The first lines of dialog in the film get into philosophical discussion on the nature of "the Force", yet the audience has no idea what the Force is. We are later introduced to a Jedi council, and master Yoda, but no explanation is given still as to who these people are, and how they function in relation to the Republic.

This is because the introduction and explanation already occurred in 1977. As established, the prequels were written for an audience that had practically memorised the original trilogy, at a time when the films were enshrined on Time magazine and Rolling Stone covers and when the films were still breaking box office records (as the Star Wars Special Edition still holds the record for best January opening, even 12 years later). This level of short-hand construction even extended into costume designs--after a number of choices based on Luke's Return of the Jedi costume, which was supposed to be a Jedi uniform, costume designers mimicked Obi Wan and Yoda's robes so that audiences would identify. "George wanted to make sure that when the audience saw these characters for the first time, it would immediately register that these were Jedi knights," says designer Ian McCaig. "We had to establish some familiarity in the costumes with those existing films." (vi)

What is explained is also as important as what is not. We are treated in great detail to an explanation of midichlorians--what they are, how they function and how they are measured. This is because this aspect was new to audiences of the time, and so the film's biggest expository scene goes over them in great detail. Viewed in episodic order, this lengthy science lesson has little relevance considering the solitary, passing reference to them in the remainder of the series, especially when the Force itself is still unacknowledged.

At the same time, structural issues are not simply in the negative--what is not explained to the audience at the appropriate times--but the positive as well--what is explained to the audience at appropriate times. Not only is the audience thrown into Episode I blind, but by the time the audience lesson comes it is completely redundant. Audiences, after three films, have figured out what the Jedi and Force are, and have seen lightsabers ad nauseam. Thus it is very disruptive to the pace of the overall story to sit down in the middle of the series and then give the audience lesson, when it comes in Episode IV. Yet, the pre-meditated existence of the original trilogy was damning in another way--even if Phantom Menace had explained things the way Star Wars did, there would still be the explanation in Star Wars nonetheless, thus the redundancy exists, arguably in even bigger proportions had Lucas gone that route. Additionally, the background Obi Wan gives about Vader and the old Republic becomes redundant as well--for audiences at the time of the film's release in 1977 who didn't know this history it was interesting backstory that developed the characters, yet now it simply retells what the audience has just seen, the number one no-no in screenwriting.

This "redundancy" issue extends as well into the pace of the film. Consider, for example, C-3P0's trek through Tatooine. In the original film, audiences had never seen the planet before; the droids were simply stranded on a mysterious wasteland, and who knows what terrors or mysteries lurk within it. The shots of C3P0 lonesomely walking through the dunes had an alien beauty to them that was dependant on the audience having no idea where 3P0 was. Yet, it feels like half of the prequels' screentime takes place on Tatooine--this is no longer a desolate alien planet, but a familiar locale populated by cities that the audience knows inside and out. Similarly, R2-D2's encounter with the Jawas, with its suspenseful build-up showing mysterious hooded figures barely glimpsed between rock crevices, no longer works since the audience has encountered the harmless Jawas in the previous episodes. The long, lingering shots in both of these scenes has often been described as boring and draggy by newcomers--for precisely these reasons.

Finally, of course, is the eradication of the revelations of the original trilogy. The reveal of the crazy frog-creature really being Yoda, "old Ben" being Obi Wan,"I am your father", and the odd 'Sister Leia" twist are no longer twists. Yet the editing of the film is constructed in such a manner so as to service them as twists, to maintain and build suspense--while the twists also work from the perspective of observing characters reacting to information the audience already knows, this is merely a compromise, since the writing and editing was structured to maintain suspense.

Finally, we must consider the jarring stylistic incongruity between the two trilogies.

The prequels were first conceived not as part of a single storyline, but as a trilogy to be viewed separate from the original trilogy, as its backstory, viewed afterwards in a retrospective fashion as indicated by such a term as backstory. The political and melodramatic prequel story poses no problem viewed as a retrospective prologue to the main story, the original trilogy. Yet, it is a jarring about-face when one integrates it as the first half of the light-hearted-adventure-nostalgia original trilogy's narrative. Also jarring is the focus and character shifts--for example, the prequels focus on the political processes which lead to the establishment of the Empire, yet once in place this focus falls by the wayside. Corsucant, too, seat of the Empire and the main location of the prequels, is not seen or heard from again except for one shot at the very end of the series. Surely, audiences must be wondering what developments have been occurring on the metropolis which has been home to most of the story thusfar and what further political entanglements are afoot. Palpatine, also a main character of the prequels, is hardly heard from again except for one scene until the final film, which may be off-putting to audiences. Seeing the acrobatic lightsaber fights of the prequels lead in to the comparatively slow fencing of Kenobi and Vader is disappointing to say the least--the excuse of "old man vs half machine" does not hold up when audiences just saw Christopher Lee backflipping around a twirling Yoda and General Grievous, not even a half-machine but a mere sack of organs, bouncing around Utapau swinging four lightsabers at once.

The content of the prequels changes audience expectation from the original trilogy.

This issue is also present in the aesthetic of the two trilogies: the original trilogy, photographed on film, using actors and sets and real locations, using only limited special effects work by todays standards, and utilising mainly puppets and models--things with a real texture and screen presence--contrasts greatly with the prequel trilogy's colourful, glossy, digital look, where every inch of the screen is populated by visual stimulation, utilising CGI and bluescreen and all-digital environments, and filmed with a frantic pace. This is not to pass judgement on which set of styles is better--it is enough simply to note that they are so different that placing them side by side is as contrastive as placing black and white by colour. The original trilogy is unmistakably a product of the late 70s and early 80s, while the prequel trilogy is unmistakably a product of the early 2000s. Joining films from these two time periods seamlessly together in a continuous narrative is a relatively futile task--Lucas' "Special Edition" of the originals attempted to bridge the gap by adding more special effects, altering the color pallete and inserting a few prequel references, yet the effect is nothing more than a bit of new frosting on a cake that is clearly 30 years old. The visual incongruity is real and so jarring that it is entirely unsurprising to find that viewers either continue to view the series as two trilogies or, coming off the CG-teeming, visually intense prequels, to be incongruous and with a disappointing, or at least disorienting, second half.

The series is also presented in a way where each film built and one-upped the last--for example, Empire Strikes Back increased the intensity of the lightsaber battle of Star Wars, while Return of the Jedi upped the ante by filling the battle from start to finish with dramatic music (a first); Phantom Menace was a natural continuation, adding incredible acrobatics and a full-on choir. This form of progressive one-upping is the norm in sequels, where each film must be bigger, better, and show the audience something they haven't seen before. The Star Wars series, when viewed in production order, is no exception to this--however, this sense of "building" evaporates under the episodic configuration, making the series seasaw in a random and uneven way: beginning with the mid-point of the build (Phantom Meance), and then moving from the peak of the build (Revenge of the Sith) directly into the beginning of the build (Star Wars), and then ending the saga at the mid-point (Return of the Jedi ). For example, when the Emperor unleashes his lightning on Luke, it was a shocking surprise that was a display of a Force power more powerful than anything we had seen before; instead, this reveal now occurs in Episode II with a character that is ultimately rather inconsequential and dies in the opening scene of the following film (Count Dooku), making the climactic display of the Emperor's power in retribution of Luke's defiance comparatively ineffective.


In this article, we have examined the many issues surrounding structure and form in the Star Wars Saga. It is a series which has a unique, and often bewildering, layout due to the backwards and improvised manner in which it was built. Because it was built backwards, targetted at an audience which viewed it as such, yet professed as being narratively intended for a hypothetical audience viewing it in a forward-moving manner, we are witness to a number of minor and major issues relating to the way in which the story unfolds and the manner in which it is told. In order to understand why these issues are there, and why the films are structured the way they are in the first place, we must first understand the historical context in which the films were made, and recognize the manner in which the prequels are not the first half of a narrative, but rather exactly what the term prequel means: sequels set chronlogically before a previously-existing work.

Writing just after Phantom Menace was released, author Anne Lancashire acknowledged this in her article The Phantom Menace: Repetition, Variation, Integration :

"The Phantom Menace, as the fourth installment in the Star Wars saga, is not a film intended to stand alone, or simply as a regular sequel (or prequel) or a serial episode; and to read it in any of those ways (as most reviewers have done) is inappropriate in terms of its design and purpose. The film is very much, though chronologically the first episode in the Star Wars story, the beginning of a second trilogy and the fourth-made part of an epic sextet, with patterns of plot and structure, cinematic allusions, and visual imagery acquiring meaning above all from its interrelationships both with the three prior films (episodes 4-6) and with at least two more (episodes 2-3) yet to come. Building backwards as well as forwards, each Star Wars episode also revises in retrospect our readings of some aspects of the earlier films. The Star Wars films have thus together become a unique spectatorial experience for Star Wars-knowledgeable popular audiences, who, despite lukewarm and sometimes hostile media reviews, have placed The Phantom Menace far at the top of the 1999 film box office...In proceeding to expand his first Star Wars trilogy into a six-part integrated whole, Lucas counts on an audience already immersed in the saga to recognize and to appreciate, consciously or subconsciously, and eventually if not immediately, his intertextual patternings based on repetition, variation, and, most importantly, integration."

That is not to say that these issues mean the series does not work in an episodic context--as I acknowledge, there is a second layer to the prequels in which they work as forward-moving narratives. Yet the contrast one gets in the original trilogy is real and cannot be denied---the films were already made and could not account for the prequels; Lucas could only do so superficially, by adding CGI in his "Special Editions". Whether the series works in spite of these shortcomings is up for you the viewer to decide; to some it does, to others it does not. In many ways, the imperfect nature of the Star Wars Saga is what makes it so fascinating to analyse--its flaws invite us to scrutinize in further detail how the films are constructed.

i) "Director George Lucas Takes a Look Back—And Ahead" by William Arnold, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 12th, 2005

ii) Rinzler, Making of Revenge of the Sith, p. 84

iii) Hearn, Cinema of George Lucas, p. 197

iv)George Lucas on Star Wars, Fahrenheit 9/11, and His Own Legacy" by Steve Silberman, Wired online exclusive, May 2005,http://wired.com/wired/archive/13.05/lucasqa.html

v) Rinzler, Making of Revenge of the Sith , p. 85

vi) Bouzerau, Making of Episode I, pp. 23-24


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