What Star Wars Can Teach Us About Editing
I was talking to one of my friends the other week and he told me he'd written a novel. I was excited, I wanted to read it. He said I couldn't because he'd deleted it. He had read it back, not liked it and dragged it into the Recycle Bin. Over fifty thousand words, gone.
I couldn't believe it. It baffled me because that's what editing is for: taking that first draft you don't like and turning it into a second draft that you like a little better, and then into a third draft that you like even more.
He was adamant: his story was beyond help. And I was adamant: those stories are always the best to edit.
We all edit. When we tell our mates what happened on the weekend, and subtly embellish and omit stuff to make ourselves look better, we're editing. When we come out of a movie and say, "Yeah, I liked it, but I wish they'd done x and y a little differently," we're editing. This brings me to the picture of Yoda, because there has been no film series that has ever inspired more of that that "I wish they'd done..." than the Star Wars prequels.
Fans have spent the better part of one-and-a-half decades debating them. What they'd tweak, what they'd overhaul, and what they'd do instead. In the same way that the original trilogy inspired fans around the world to dream of adventure, the prequel trilogy inspired fans to become editors.
It's May the Fourth, the unofficial Star Wars Day ("May the Fourth be with you"), so I thought, what better time to talk about how an editor would have fixed the prequels?
Yesterday, I went to a screening of the three films back-to-back. Watching them in this way makes a few things clear: the big one? There's no clear main character in these films. Yes, the original trilogy is about a group of people too, but really, it's the story of Luke. The Phantom Menace has no clear protagonist, and Attack of the Clones has no clear villain, just people behaving like villains. One of my favourite fan theories promotes Obi Wan to the status of protagonist in Episode I, and keeps Darth Maul alive to act as the Darth Vader of the series, so that with each encounter, it becomes more tense, and the stakes rise.
While an editor would have prescribed The Phantom Menace a slight rewrite (perhaps modelling the Gungans on Native Americans rather than clumsy whatevers-they-are, chopping out most of Jar Jar's "jokes", and streamlining some of the action), Attack of the Clones needs a complete rewrite (it needs to spend more time building the two relationships we know will be ruined by trilogy's end: Anakin and Obi Wan's friendship and Anakin and Padmé's love story – improve those and the stakes are hgiher and the series more tragic).
With the pieces George Lucas gave himself, Revenge of the Sith does a mostly adequate job of wrapping things up. For me, it's the first time the humour actually hits in the prequels, and I'm sad we didn't get more of the banter from earlier in the film throughout the trilogy. Its scenes are longer, which helps build relationships and tensions. In The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, scenes are very short, some are only a few lines long. It feels like we're just being moved from set-piece to set-piece rather than following a clear story.
Other thoughts? Jedi need to jump less. It gets really Cirque du Soleil and it's all a bit ridiculous by the end. Like, when Mace Windu approaches Palpatine in Sith, instead of leaping forward and shrieking like in the trailer, which is actually menacing, instead, Palpatine does some weird gymnastic flip. Compare the agility of the Jedi in the prequels to the tense but stilted battles in the original trilogy and it's just odd.
I only saw the original trilogy a couple of times before the prequels. Others had that trilogy for a decade before the release of The Phantom Menace. So I tapped my friend Sue Lawson, of You Don't Even Know fame, to share her perspective of the newer films:
"The story, characters and effects blew a much younger me away, and kept me enthralled throughout the following two movies," Sue says. "I totally engaged with C-3PO, R2-D2, Chewie and especially Yoda. Even the Ewoks didn’t kill my enthusiasm for the movies, though they did dent it slightly. Then, along came Jar Jar Binks and the magic was shattered. Maybe it was because I was older, maybe it was his ears, his tongue, or maybe just his walk, but whatever it was, Jar Jar Binks punctured the suspension of disbelief and the thrall exploded."
"So I guess as an author who places importance on developing believable characters, my ‘I wouldn’t have done that’ is Jar Jar Binks. I’d have reworked him, or even deleted him and picked a more believable character to perform his dramatic role. Jar Jar Binks broke the Star Wars spell for me. And highlighted the importance of characters in fiction."
Do you agree? If you could alter something about the prequels, what would you change?