On Thursday, news broke that Michael Arndt's script for Star Wars: Episode VII was being rewritten by J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, effectively booting Arndt off the project. (Arndt is best known for writing Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3.)
There's a lot of doom and gloom accompanying this news, with speculation that the project is in trouble because of a major overhaul in the story coming so late in the game, or that this change could force Disney to push Episode VII to a 2016 release (which is a legitimate concern, especially if you've already rented your Bossk costume to wear to what you thought would be the 2015 premiere).
All of this seems eerily similar to the last time a Star Wars script was scrapped from a writer who had very little to do with the final product: The Empire Strikes Back, which is regarded as the best of the series.
After the success of Star Wars, George Lucas tapped Leigh Brackett, best known for co-writing the Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall classic, The Big Sleep, to write the script for the sequel. Brackett was also an acclaimed science-fiction writer. Unfortunately, what she turned in was not what Lucas wanted.
To be fair, unlike Arndt's situation, Brackett would have most likely been allowed to revise her own draft. Sadly, Brackett died from cancer before she was given a chance. This left Lucas with an almost unusable script and no writer.
Lucas doesn't get near enough credit for turning Empire into the movie we know today. It's become the norm to blame Lucas for writing the sterile prequels (and, yes, he deserves his share of blame for that), but Lucas is mostly responsible for writing Empire as well, even though Lucas did not award himself a writing credit. It was only after Lucas finished his draft that Lawrence Kasdan was brought in to polish up some dialogue. (Kasdan played a much larger role on Return of the Jedi than he did Empire.)
The original Leigh Brackett draft of Empire is a bit of a marvel in and of itself. It's online if you want to read it (which I have), and it is really drastically different than what appeared in the final film. And it's an oddity worth exploring to illustrate just how much a story can change from the first draft to the final draft.
Brackett's version of Empire -- titled Star Wars Sequel Screenplay -- still starts on an icy planet that we all know now as Hoth, even though this planet's name is never identified (though Hoth will play a role later on in the script). The Wampas, which are basically relegated to the beginning of the final film, play a huge role in the first script, to the point that a massive battle breaks out between the Wampas and the Rebel Alliance (oh, also, Wampas have the power to freeze people with their touch).
During this battle, Luke Skywalker basically gets his ass handed to him by a Wampa, resulting in Han Solo barking sarcastic lines like, "The Force is not with you today, kid." Then Han explains to Luke how a lightsaber works (which is just weird in every way), "Those lightsabers were ceremonial weapons, even for the Jedi Knights."
Speaking of Han Solo, in this version he's tasked with the duty of trying to convince his stepfather, a man named Ovan Marekal, to join the Rebel Alliance -- a man who happens to be the third most powerful man in the galaxy.
As in Empire, Luke winds up on a mysterious bog planet. Only, instead of meeting Yoda, Luke encounters a less cryptic creature named Minch. Minch eventually introduces Luke to the ghost of Ben Kenobi and, most surprisingly, the ghost of Luke's father.
Yes, one of the biggest twists in cinematic history -- Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker's father -- was not in the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back. And, to be honest, it's not much of a meeting, except that Papa Skywalker explains to Luke that Luke has a sister named Nellith that Papa Skywalker hid in another part of the galaxy. Eventually, Luke takes the "Jedi oath," which is as corny as it sounds. (Also: this pretty much proves that the Vader-Luke, father-son relationship was not Lucas' plan all along.)
The oddest character in this script is Darth Vader. To be fair, the Darth Vader we know today wasn't really fleshed out that much in the original Star Wars. Seriously, go back and watch it, Vader's barely in it. And now that he's not Luke's father, he's just an evil thug who says stuff like, "The coordinates, man!," when an informant isn't giving directions to the Rebel base fast enough.
Han, Leia, Chewbacca and C-3PO wind up hiding on a cloudy planet called Hoth (all of this after an extended period of hiding, where Han and Leia played three dimensional chess and made out with each other to pass the time) where Han's old friend, Lando Kadar, runs things. Oh, also, Lando is a clone. We know this because Lando explains how he's a clone of his grandfather, which honestly doesn't seem to have much bearing on the plot other than that it's weird. As in the movie, Lando winds up betraying Han, but here it sets up the most ludicrous (and my favorite) part of the script.
Lando escorts Han, Leia and Chewbacca to dinner and, as in the finished film, Vader is waiting for them. But then this dinner actually happens. Vader explains to the group that he's looking for Luke and he needs them to stay on the planet because Luke will eventually come looking for them. Leia yells at Vader for the way she was treated on the Death Star (which seems reasonable). Then Vader quasi-apologizes by explaining that she had valuable information that he needed! Now that she doesn't, he's basically like, "No hard feelings?" While this is going on, Han Solo drinks a lot of wine, gets mad, then eventually excuses himself from the table and leaves with Leia. (Really, I hope this somehow becomes the entire plot of Episode VII.)
Luke eventually does show up and has his showdown with Vader -- with Luke saying to himself, "May the Force be with me," which seems a little self-centered, before the fight begins. It doesn't go well, but at least Luke doesn't lose a hand, and Vader actually makes him a reasonable offer. (At least when Vader isn't calling Luke "little Jedi.") Vader explains to Luke that, "Hey, you're a nice guy and would make a better leader than the Emperor. Why don't you join me, we will kill him, and you can run the galaxy as a nice guy?" (I'm paraphrasing.) Luke turns the offer down, jumps through a ventilation shaft, then lands on the Millennium Falcon as it's leaving. All of our heroes escape fairly unscathed.
The story ends with Han and Chewbacca leaving on a mission to meet with Ovan Marekal. As the Millennium Falcon flies away, Luke ignites his lightsaber as a dramatic salute. THE END.
Look, my point is that just because the script for Episode VII is being completely reworked doesn't mean we are in store for any kind of disaster. (To be fair: It doesn't mean we aren't either.) But it's that this kind of thing happens and it happened almost the same way 35 years ago -- and we all love how that would-be disaster turned out.
Though,maybe J.J. Abrams should whisper to himself "May the Force be with me" ... you know, just for luck.
(Expect Star Wars: Episode VII to be in theaters sometime between 2015 and 2020.)
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.
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