Hasslein Blog: Why the Star Wars Sequels Should Probably Ignore the Expanded Universe


Hasslein Blog

Monday, August 12, 2013

Why the Star Wars Sequels Should Probably Ignore the Expanded Universe

by Rich Handley

With news of the upcoming Star Wars sequels slowly beginning to emerge in dribs and drabs, I've been seeing online fans debate whether or not Episodes VII to IX should be faithful to or ignore the many hundreds of novels, comic books, short stories and sourcebooks comprising the Expanded Universe. I've been giving it a lot of thought, and—much as it pains me to admit it—I'm not convinced that working all of that backstory into the new trilogy would be a good thing.

Let me explain why.

I'm a lifelong Star Wars fan, and for many years, I read every novel and comic as it came out (in recent years, I've not had the time, money or post-prequel interest to do so, to be honest). I've also written a lot of material for the licensed Star Wars universe, including short fiction and a ton of magazine and online source articles. So tossing out all of that backstory—which includes material I helped to create—is not something I do lightly.

But I've given it a lot of thought, and I don't see how it can be avoided.

Many fans hold out hope that the bulk of the EU will remain intact, and that the events of nearly 40 years' worth of fiction will not be discarded. But while I absolutely understand that desire (after all, who wants to feel like they wasted decades reading stories that are now officially out of continuity?), I'd honestly be very surprised if Lucasfilm and Disney didn't opt to entirely ignore the EU with the new trilogy. Although we as diehard fans like to think of ourselves as being vital to the franchise's success, the simple truth is that the vast majority of movie-going fans of ANY franchise, Star Wars included, are not those who buy novels and comics.

Lucasfilm, Disney and JJ Abrams are well aware of this. For the writers to include Jaina Solo and Ben Skywalker and not contradict the Expanded Universe, they would somehow need to explain—without actually showing it—that…

{{{spoiler alert for those who haven't read the books}}}

…Luke Skywalker married a woman named Mara Jade, that they had a son and Mara then died, that Leia Organa and Han Solo had three kids but two of them died, that one of them became a Sith Lord, that Chewie died when a moon landed on him, that the Empire came back several times after the Emperor's death in Return of the Jedi, that the Emperor himself came back and then died again, that the New Republic pushed the Empire back every time, and a slew of other things that wouldn't actually be part of the new movies' plot. They'd also have to somehow not contradict the prequels and The Clone Wars, despite those tales (particularly the cartoons) themselves shooting a slew of Death Star-sized holes in the EU.

In other words, they'd need to waste a lot of time on exposition, explaining a bunch of offscreen events not directly tied into the new films' plotlines—all for the sole sake of not contradicting those same offscreen, non-plot-vital events. As much as I'd love to see them honor the EU's tapestry, both as a fan and as a contributor, I don't think it'd make good sense from a writing standpoint to mention all of that and yet not show it.

Think about it: These are HUGE events—all happening offscreen. An opening crawl and a couple lines of dialog would be woefully insufficient to do it all justice, and people who don't read the books (again, the majority of the movie-going audience) would feel cheated. "What do you mean Leia and Han had two sons who are now dead? Why aren't they showing that in the movie? What do you mean one of the sons went evil? Why aren't they showing THAT? What do you mean Luke had a wife but she's already dead? Why the HECK aren't they showing that? Woah, what do you mean CHEWBACCA IS DEAD? A moon landed on him?? Why the FUCK aren't they showing THAT? What the hell is going on?? Why is all of this incredible stuff being talked about but not shown? This is Jar Jar freakin' Binks and the clonus ex machinas all over again!"

The bottom line is that as profitable as books and comics may be, it's theater ticket sales that matter. In order to justify making future movies, the filmmakers need to put people in seats, preferably multiple times, and they need those folks to get other people to do the same via word of mouth. And for that to happen, theatergoers need to be blown away. They need to be satisfied. They need to be entertained. And they need to be given cohesive stories without a lot of extraneous filler. This can't be another case of not adequately explaining what the midi-chlorians are, how and why they created Anakin, who the heck Master Sifo-Dyas was, why the Sith hated the Jedi, why there are only two of them at any given time, why General Grievous keeps coughing if he's a droid, why the heck Padmé Amidala died, or any number of other things the prequels hinted at but glossed over without really explaining, resulting in many fans who don't read the books (and thus not getting the full story) feeling disappointed and slightly confused.

Shoehorning 40 years' worth of book and comic backstory in, while a great thing for EU fans, could actually damage the new films' box office numbers—badly—and end up hurting the potential for future films. In the prequels, a lot of time was wasted with characters like Mace Windu droning out exposition. People don't want to see that happening again. It's simply too risky from a monetary standpoint.

There's a lot to love about the Star Wars Expanded Universe, which is why I still write for it from time to time, co-authoring source articles for starwars.com with my buddy Abel G. Peña. So believe me when I say I have a good deal invested in not seeing the EU torn to shreds. But I'd be naïve not to understand if Lucasfilm ultimately chooses to do just that. No screenwriter can be expected to have read, watched or listened to more than a thousand stories released over four decades, and to somehow avoid contradicting them all—and in any case, the majority of viewers don't even know the material anyway. It's just not a realistic expectation.

Don't get me wrong—I get it. Grand Admiral Thrawn, Mara Jade, Sedriss Qaga Lok, Ulic Quel-Droma, Talon Karrde, Baron Fel, Tag and Bink, Silver Fyre, Valance the Hunter, Rogue Squadron, Gilad Pelleon, Lumiya, Corran Horn, Kyle Katarn, Darth Bane and Admiral Daala are all far more interesting characters than Jar Jar Binks, Nute Gunray, Dexter Jettster, Ric Olié or even Padmé. But that's not the main issue here, which is ticket sales. While it may not seem like it to those who buy, read and enjoy the licensed spinoff tales… and I absolutely share their frustration about it, believe me… from a business standpoint, the most sensible decision for Episode VII just might be to assume a clean slate, beholden only to the previous six films.

But mostly to the originals.

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At August 12, 2013 at 7:51 PM , Blogger Greg Mitchell said...

This is how I see it:

The movies will not adhere to the EU, because they never have. Aside from naming Coruscant after Zahn, the prequels do their own thing. Boba Fett's not Jaster Mereel, Jedi don't get married, midi-chlorians, only two Sith, etc. And, most recently with the Clone Wars show, they just do what they want and maybe try to throw us a bone by mentioning something...but of course they always seem to mention it wrong. So, no, I don't expect the new movies to "honor" the EU because they never have.

However, I DO hope that the EU will continue to honor itself and the new movies. Let's face it, I really don't believe that Mr. Lucas cares anything at all about the hundreds of books, comics, games that have come out "continuing his story" beyond the extra pocket change it afforded him. It kept him relevant while he was off not making movies, which I suppose is what it was ultimately meant to do. But every time he's changed something in the movies/show, it's like a gauntlet has been thrown down for all the EU authors to conquer through retcons, creative problem solving, rewriting, etc. But, to me, that's been the fun of it all these years! The work that you and Abel (and Dan, Jason, Pablo, Ryder) have done has been the most exhilarating aspect of Star Wars. With every new article that comes out, the films/EU take on new meaning and new life and it's all fresh again. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I want contradictions from the movies, but when I DO see contradictions (Hello, Mandalore the Peaceable) I'm excited to see guys like Jason Fry and others come up with very creative and interesting solutions to blend the old with the new. THAT'S the fun part. That's exciting to me. So I say bring it on. Bring back Chewie from the dead. That's okay. Someone will come up with some way to make that work, if given the chance. No, it won't be perfect, but I think a lot of the fun with the diehard EU fans is seeing "How are Rich and Abel gonna get out of this one?" And you guys do. Somehow you always do.

I absolutely agree that toooooo much has happened in the post-ROTJ EU to reference it all in the movie. That would be terribly stupid from a storytelling point of view. I don't want that. I don't want Thrawn or Mara getting namedropped.

I don't, however, see why it has to be the end of the EU. I admit, if Han and Leia have three kids, but their names are Billy, Bobby, and Sue, we're in trouble. But, I still hold out hope.

At August 12, 2013 at 7:51 PM , Blogger Greg Mitchell said...

Though, on another note, why in the world does it have to be Luke's son/daughter taking over the franchise? In my perfect world, I crave to see some anonymous farm boy/girl on some backwater planet, and lo, Old Luke comes stumbling out of the desert with an adventure in mind. If that's the case, we don't HAVE to mention the Solo kids and the Vong and Trioculus and what not. Assuming this all occurs in realtime, this could be set even after the books and the spotlight can (finally) be given to some completely separate character for a whole new generation to get behind. Sure, a lot of people want to see Luke, Leia, and Han--I get that--but they don't have to be the stars. And, realistically, they SHOULDN'T be. Heck, when the prequels came out, "youngins" latched onto them because they didn't have those "old people" in it. As impossible as it is to believe, some think the OT is boring and I can't imagine that they would be thrilled to hear that, not only are we bringing back the "old, boring people", but now they're "wrinkly and grey" to boot. I can't imagine that'd do much for ticket sales either, as much as people who were turned off by the PT might like to see just that.

So, yeah, I agree that the movies should focus on giving my kids their own heroes with their own amazing stories.

But I DO expect the EU writers to come up with some way to make it all fit :p

So get to work, Rich. You've got a lot of retconning to do.

At August 12, 2013 at 7:57 PM , Blogger Joe Bongiorno said...

Sorry Rich, I love ya', but I disagree. The Lord of the Rings books and films are but the finale of aeons of history that's only hinted at in the trilogy, but enough that it leaves LOTS of questions that fans can explore in The Silmarillion (and the appendices).

Fans don't need everything spelled out. And it HAS been 30 years since these characters last graced the screen. Things have happened, whether they're in the EU or not, there IS backstory to explain. Han, Luke and Leia weren't just sitting around playing sabacc for three decades.

So, if the writers were smart, they would simply touch on the tragedy that lies behind the lives of Han, Leia and Luke. No need to get into Jacen going to the dark side. It's enough that the two boys are dead, Chewie sacrificed his life, and Luke's wife died in battle. The Empire's status doesn't much matter. They were defeated at the end of ROTJ.

So, really, not much exposition is needed. Just enough to tantalize the viewer and give her a realistic sense that things have happened, as they do in life, and especially with the passage of so many years.

At August 12, 2013 at 8:19 PM , Blogger Greg Mitchell said...

This just came to mind:

I remember when the OT was re-released to theaters in '96/97 and me and my friend went to watch them and were having a real geek conversation in the car afterwards, talking about how Vader got that way because he fought Obi-Wan in a volcano and fell in and got scarred.

How in the heck did we know that about the volcano? That wasn't even hinted at in the movie, and I wasn't an EU fan back then. I didn't really even know the EU existed, come to think of it. But somehow I knew that. I think we saw it on the back of a toy package or something when we were kids. I was so excited when the Prequels were announced because I thought "I finally get to see Vader fall in a volcano!" That's a pretty important piece of backstory that was never given to us, EXCEPT in the EU. Or what about all the cantina aliens' species? Not in the movie. The fact stormtroopers were clones? Not in the movie. What was the Clone Wars all about? Not in the movie. Who's Luke and Leia's mom? Not in the movie.

When Old Ben Kenobi makes his dramatic appearance in Ep IV, we have no idea about Duchess Satine, about Qui-Gon, about Maul, about any of it, but it didn't affect the story because it wasn't relevant to that part of it. Of course you could make the argument that none of that existed yet, but the point still stands. When Empire came out, it didn't stop to reference the few years' worth of Marvel comics that happened. There was no mention of Jaxxon in the opening crawl (pity).

Long rant to say that it's not unprecedented to have all that backstory occur off screen--be it in previous movies or in the EU. Hopefully, in Episode 7, the heroes are going to be too busy running and gunning and flying fast ships amidst exploding fireballs to mention ANY backstory period, be it from the comics or something new :)

At August 13, 2013 at 1:53 AM , Blogger game convention said...

I agree with you. There are going to be contradictions and many fans won't be pleased with them. I know fans who love and hate the prequels. Bottom line: you can't please everyone. And while it's not the same case it's going to be the same with the sequels. Others will like that the film started a fresh story as it doesn't contradict the EU, others will hate it for ignoring the EU. I think it's a real pity that fans are so divided, instead of being one fangroup who adore star wars.


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