It’s been nearly 20 years since George Lucas revived Star Wars on the big screen with Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and for better or worse that remains a life-changing moment for a lot of the franchise’s fans. Though it’s second nature for many to mock the prequels, throwing out jokes about Jar Jar and midi-chlorians, they still do have their defenders, and for a great many fans they’re downright beloved. Whether you love them or hate them, though, you have to agree that the prequels were…different.
Yes, they were still recognizably Star Wars. There were still lightsabers and desert plants and droids and starfighter battles, but there was also the added wrinkle of things like the Trade Federation, the massive reliance on CGI to build worlds, and the sense of some of Lucas’ thematic concerns had shifted in the intervening years. Many of the ingredients were the same, but the recipe had changed, and the final product was and is divisive, particularly if you’re someone who’s been involved with Star Wars since The Empire Strikes Back.
Lawrence Kasdan is perhaps the most influential Star Wars storyteller alive whose name isn’t George Lucas. He first came aboard to rewrite the late Leigh Brackett’s screenplay for Empire and will thus always be remembered as the guy who wrote what is generally agreed upon to be the best film in the franchise. He stuck around for Return of the Jedi, then returned when Lucasfilm was bought by Disney, ultimately co-writing both The Force Awakens and this year’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, the former with J.J. Abrams and the latter with his own son, Jonathan. He’s an indispensable part of Star Wars, but there was a time when he didn’t really want to be.
After Return of the Jedi ended Lucas’ original trilogy plans and began the long big-screen lull between Star Wars films, Kasdan thought he was definitely done with the franchise for good. He spent the late 1980s and much of the 1990s continuing to write, but also devoted much of his time to directing, making films like Silverado, The Accidental Tourist, and Grand Canyon. While he was doing all of that, Lucas had begun work on what would become the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and wanted Kasdan to consider coming back to do some screenwriting work on the films. In a new retrospective of his career with The New York Times, Kasdan explained his reluctance to revisit Star Wars, and his initial reaction to seeing The Phantom Menace.
“I wanted to move on. I was making a lot of movies, and I was doing it on a pretty regular basis. There were many times over the ensuing years when George [asked] me to be involved in all three [prequels]. He said, ‘Hey, how would you like to write such-and-such?’ I said, ‘George, aren’t you supposed to start shooting in two weeks, in Australia?’ He said, ‘Yeah, but it’s not too late,'” Kasdan recalled. “I was at the first screening of The Phantom Menace. And it was just so different that I didn’t really know what to make of it. It had no connection, in my mind, to what we had done. Your eyes are just like, what? How does this work?”
Note that Kasdan doesn’t say The Phantom Menace was terrible or that he hated it, just that he found it very far removed from his own contributions to the original trilogy. That’s something even prequel fans will often acknowledge, particularly in the segments of those films that deal heavily with the machinations of the Republic Senate and the Jedi Council.
Lucas’ interests had clearly shifted, and it’s intriguing even now to think about what might have happened if Kasdan had agreed to do even a little work on the prequels. What characters could he have re-shaped? What sequences would he have influenced? Would the films have turned out better, or would the differing sensibilities of Lucas and Kasdan created something more disjointed? If we ever figure out trans-dimensional travel, we might get to see the alternate Earth versions of the prequels co-written by Kasdan, but until then we’re just left to wonder.