The Star Wars Expanded Universe as Corporate Storytelling by Dom Nardi
The most controversial issue in contemporary Star Wars fandom isn’t Jar Jar Binks, Kylo Ren’s lightsaber, or even whether or not Han shot first, but rather the status of tie-in media. On April 25, 2014, Disney and Lucasfilm announced that the Star Wars Expanded Universe—all the books, comics, and video games—would no longer be considered part of the Star Wars canon. In other words, those stories no longer happened in that Galaxy Far, Far Away. Only the six movies and The Clone Wars animated TV show made the leap to canon. Moreover, from that point on, any future tie-in media would have the same canonical status as Star Wars films and the Lucasfilm Story Group would vet it to ensure internal consistency (that means you’d better start brushing up on your comics!).
*As well as the comic Son of Dathomir, which is based on an unaired TCW script.
The online debates about the EU reboot makes the 2016 Republican presidential campaign seem downright civil. Many fans felt that Disney had casually brushed aside their favorite stories and characters. It’s not uncommon to find fans who liked a particular EU author’s take on Star Wars more than George Lucas’. Other fans point out that the quality of the EU was uneven, at best (I don’t think anybody misses The Crystal Star). Even if Grand Admiral Thrawn and the Ebon Hawk no longer official exist, it’s worth understanding the EU reboot because it says much about how Disney plans to approach Star Wars, as well as the nature of modern franchise storytelling in Hollywood.
In the official announcement on StarWars.com, Lucasfilm justified its decision as necessary to give future filmmakers “maximum creative freedom.” With literally hundreds of novels, comics, and games spanning thousands of years within the Star Wars chronology, the EU encompassed a lot of material. Not did Han and Leia marry and have children, but Luke rebuilt the Jedi Order, aliens nearly destroyed the galaxy, and Chewbacca died. Lucasfilm could not realistically expect the average moviegoer to read dozens of novels for homework just to understand what had happened in between Episodes VI and VII.
Although this concern about accessibility is valid, I don’t entirely buy it as the sole, or even primary, reason behind the reboot. Disney had other options, including a selective reboot. Yes, the stories set after Return of the Jedi probably had to go, but what about the rest of the EU? Would Knights of the Old Republic, set 4,000 years before A New Hope, really tie the hands of filmmakers?** Many of the stories were relatively self-contained and hardly impacted the wider galaxy. Disney could easily have established some sort of cutoff to preserve select EU stories while still allowing the filmmakers creative freedom.
**Admittedly, KOTOR is my favorite Star Wars video game, so I’m biased.
To understand the real reasons behind the EU reboot, we have to look at the changing relationship between author and story in Hollywood. When Lucas wrote the first draft of Star Wars in the mid-1970s, the American New Wave had taken over. Big studios granted more control to young directors, such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, letting them make slightly edgier, even experimental, films. This led to the rise of the auteur theory in America, which posits that authorial credit for a film should go primarily to the director (as opposed to the scriptwriter, cameraman, etc.) because the film represents the director’s vision.
Thus, when Star Wars came out, the public readily viewed it as a “George Lucas film” rather than a “20th Century Fox film.” Lucas had negotiated a contract with 20th Century Fox that gave him rights to all sequels, tie-in media, and merchandising, so he had more legal rights to Star Wars than most other directors have over their franchises. Like J.R.R. Tolkien with The Lord of the Rings, Lucas was the “author” of Star Wars. Over the years, Lucas has repeatedly emphasized his authorship. When discussing the changes he made to the Original Trilogy in the Special Editions, he frequently states that they’re “my films.”
As the Star Wars phenomenon grew, Lucas Licensing commissioned tie-in media, which ironically led to more authors participating in the storytelling. The early EU works tended to be standalone adventures with little impact on the overall saga, but in 1991 Bantam Spectra published Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, which was the official sequel to Return of the Jedi. Soon, dozens of authors not named “Lucas” introduced entirely new characters, aliens, and planets to Lucas’ galaxy. Individual artists took the lead in creating new stories, while Lucas Licensing tried to ensure it all (loosely) fit together. By 2014, the vast majority of Star Wars storytelling had little to do with George Lucas.
Lucasfilm’s model for tie-in media reflected a tension between George Lucas the auteur and George Lucas the corporate executive. Lucas himself had relatively little involvement with the EU. He invited other artists to play in his playground, but always considered their work separate from his vision. In fact, Lucas regularly contradicted the EU in the Prequel Trilogy and The Clone Wars. It isn’t even clear how much of the EU Lucas read.*** Yet, the EU was profitable business. Lucas Licensing promoted sales by marketing the EU as the “official continuation” of the Star Wars saga. It also kept the franchise alive and generated income when Lucas himself was not working on new Star Wars stories.
***On the one hand, Lucas liked the Dark Empire comic so much that, according to Star Wars Insider #159, he gave copies to Lucasfilm employees as Christmas gifts. On the other hand, Lucas Licensing apparently neglected to inform him that Luke Skywalker had a son in one of the novels.
Of course, other franchises had produced tie-in media, but none as successfully as the EU. For example, Star Trek had commissioned novels since the early 1970s, but these were standalone stories that had little impact on the franchise. Since the mid-2000s, most major movie franchises had followed Lucasfilm’s lead in commissioning tie-in media that promised to directly connect to and expand upon the film. The directors—the auteurs—often have little to no involvement with tie-in efforts. Producers and marketing departments now have a much bigger claim to authorship.
Although Star Wars led the way in corporate storytelling during the 1990s, by 2012 imitators and copycats had developed more streamlined models for tie-in media. In many franchises, the studio takes the lead in crafting the overarching story. For example, Marvel regularly requires scriptwriters to change scenes in order to connect each movie with the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe. By contrast, the Star Wars EU never had a single guiding hand, but rather had developed haphazardly over three decades. Some pieces of the story came before Lucas decided to make the Prequels. Some books came out before Lucasfilm had even decided tie-in media would form a cohesive continuity. In a way, it had become a story that grew organically, a story without an author.
With Lucas’ sale of Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, the auteur retired and the corporation remained. Disney’s subsequent decision to end the EU in 2014 simply represented the culmination of a decades-long trend in Hollywood of ceding more storytelling authority to producers and studios. Having wiped the slate clean, Disney can now tell a single, unified Star Wars story as befits its creative and marketing plans. For example, Disney has packaged all of the sequels to Return of the Jedi as “The Journey to the Force Awakens,” ensuring that both old and new fans experience the works when Disney wants them to, in a way that builds anticipation for the new film. If anything, Disney’s decision to reboot the EU was less a rejection of the works as art and more an attempt to streamline the storytelling model.
About the Author:
Dom Nardi is the Contributing Writer for Star Wars at Legendarium Media. He has worked as a political scientist and as a consultant throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published articles about politics in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. You can find more of his writing at NardiViews.