January 9, 2017

If I’d written the prequels

I saw Rogue One over the weekend, and while I found it overall pretty enjoyable, one thing it did was reignite a longstanding desire I’ve had to scribble down some thoughts. 

Everyone has a hobby story in their brain. Often these are fan versions of other stories – alterations and fixes you’d like to make to a story that you really like, but you’d like even more if they’d done this instead of that, and so on. It’s like building a model of a historic plane, but altering it just a little bit so it wouldn’t have crashed.

I have no doubt that the Star Wars prequels are a hobby story in other people’s brains. Rarely have we seen so much potential totally squandered. Since Rogue One stirred this up in me, I figured I’d go ahead put down my own thoughts about how, if I had the chance, I’d have totally rewritten the series – specifically in regards to the character arc of Anakin Skywalker, who is basically the whole reason the prequels existed, and maybe one of the key reasons they fail so miserably.

Capture

 The first thing we have to acknowledge is that the prequels were, in essence, pre-destined to be dark.

They had to be. There was no other way to do it. They were inevitably going to be about the corruption of a great person, the genocide and death of a venerated monastic order, and the emergence of a brutal, monstrous, fascistic regime. In a lot of ways, the pre-New Hope Star Wars mythos functions like so many religious myths – things were good once, but then things went awry, the gods failed, and now the world is marred.

This makes it a difficult story to examine from the very outset – gods and saints and legends work so well in stories told second hand, but fare poorer when examined up close. It is very hard to make both the human being and legend work at once without either losing any of their credulity or luster.

The best source material for this kind of thing, then, are stories like Paradise Lost and Greek tragedy. Inhuman stories about human things.

In other words, basically the polar opposite of a gosh-wow kiddie space cartoon, one that practically could have been written by a nine year old.

Anyways. Moving on.

Episode One

I won’t bore you with the beat by beat specifics of how the story should work – which Galactic Republic trade law inspired what diplomatic crisis, and so on – so I’ll get to the point: generally, the protagonist of the prequels feels like it should have been Obi-Wan, acting as the audience’s surrogate as he first experiences Anakin come into his life, comes to love him like a brother, and watches, puzzled, frustrated, and torn as his friend turns into something he doesn’t understand. To start the series off, I’d have kept Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon going to Tatooine and discovering Anakin as a slave child there.

But everything about this Anakin would be very different – because, you know, this is a slave child we’re talking about here. This is an aspect of Anakin’s life that goes almost completely unexplored in the prequels. This kid likely had a horrible life before the Jedi showed up. What kind of person does that make?

Capture

I remember watching Looper years back, which features a traumatized, moody young boy who’s a mechanical genius and also has special powers – but his personality and these powers combine in a manner to make him both totally terrifying and also genuinely heartbreaking. You can see he can’t control who he is or what he does. He’s at the mercy of his nature, and the circumstances that have forged him. I think I would have written a young Anakin Skywalker much closer to this than the cheery young boy in the movie, who seems only mildly inconvenienced by his bondage.

I’d have probably bumped his age up some, to twelve or thirteen, just so the audience can watch what I’m about to put him through without feeling horrified. In this version in my head, Anakin is a slave child who is owned by a particularly brutal owner who has realized both the boy’s incredible mechanical prowess, and his unusual Force powers.

In order to make the boy work for him, he is not only holding Anakin’s mother hostage – he also uses a magnetized restraint system in case Anakin tries to use his nascent Force abilities: if Anakin tries anything, his owner hits a button, and magnetic shackles on his wrists and ankles rip the boy backwards into a large, mechanical metal shell that the owner always keeps close by. The shell would look a like an iron maiden, and the shackles fling young Anakin into this device, which would then slam shut, completely sealing him in. This shell restrains Anakin and keeps his owner protected from the boy’s underdeveloped abilities – and while Anakin is trapped in the shell, his owner whispers threats about the things he’ll do to Anakin’s mother if he ever tries anything again.

This is, in my head, how we and Obi-Wan Kenobe would first see Anakin Skywalker: a young boy, trapped in a metal shell, raging and furious and frightened, peering through a tiny slit at these new arrivals. And this shell, of course, would look vaguely like the final Vader suit, at least in profile.

Anakin’s owner extracts a hefty price from the shipwrecked Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan in exchange for forcing Anakin to fix their spacecraft. The two immediately realize the boy’s incredible powers, and then have to debate what to do about him. (It goes without saying that I would cut the immaculate conception and mitochondria bullshit.) They eventually take him, and I’d pencil in (this is one of those points in outlining where you write “some bullshit happens”) that they take his mother with him, though they make him understand that if he wants to become a Jedi, he’ll have to leave her behind. This causes a great deal of torment in the young man.

Anyways, Anakin is now with the Jedi, and he has a super big problem with them that would form the foundation of his eventual corruption – if the Jedi are so great, why do they permit planets like Tatooine to have, you know, slavery? If they can do anything, why can’t they fix everyone’s problems? Qui-Gon and Yoda would try to explain to him that power has consequences: the more you use it to force your will on the world, the easier it becomes to do so over and over again, until you’re forcing your will onto someone who doesn’t deserve it – if anyone does.

To Anakin, who’s suffered for years and grown up deeply traumatized, that answer naturally sounds like bullshit. They try to explain to him that their power is different – the more powerful you are, the greater the temptation and consequences. But, again, he remains unconvinced.

Then episode one draws to a close. I will be frank and say I don’t know what the hell the overarching plot is, really. My general idea is that Palpatine wants to essentially mount a false flag Sith uprising in order to push the Republic into embracing fascism under his rule. There’s a million ways to do that, with the main question being – how is Anakin at all important to how that goes down? I barely recall the logic from the prequels in this regard, so, hey, let’s forget it and continue on with the vague outlining.

Episode Two

Another thing I can barely recall from the prequels is Amidala’s character – as in, who she is and what she wants. I think it’s smart to pair Anakin with a strong, political woman in the series – mostly because then you have a perspective into the political stuff going on in the Republic as well as the Jedi fun. I suspect I’d try and make her a passionate idealist, much like Anakin is at the beginning, someone who favors active interventionism in planetary affairs rather than conservative caution – she’d absolutely be down with making some planets free their slaves and end their regrettable practices. Anakin, who would be steadily growing disaffected with the Jedi Order’s tendency toward reticence and balance, would be drawn to her like a flame.

Speaking of which, I’d completely skip Anakin as gawky teenager, and in Episode Two I’d jump directly to him being closer to thirty – a fully grown man, in other words. In the period between Ep One and Two, Anakin would have evolved into a fearsome, accomplished Jedi warrior, one who is famous and beloved among the Republic but increasingly criticized among the Jedi Order. Anakin is a for-reals Man of Action, and tends to act boldly, risk his own life – even suicidally so – and he’s much more in keeping with the tall, brooding, weapon-of-mass destruction we see in Darth Vader later. The other Jedi respect his abilities, but worry about his total indifference to his own well-being, thinking him somewhat mad. I imagine a Fassbender or a Tom Hardy type as Anakin (Fassbender is probably way overused for the fallen hero type) rather than some kid. While Anakin himself is totally indifferent to his popularity, the Jedi are unnerved with how common citizens are reacting to him, and his influence among the younger Jedi.

I would keep Qui-Gon dying in the first episode, as well as a too-young Obi-Wan agreeing to become Anakin’s master, and this is where the Greek Tragedy stuff comes in. Obi-Wan is naturally a little miffed by how his student has rapidly outstripped him in but a handful of years. The two are much closer to being competitive brothers than a master and a subordinate, and since the two are closely bound by their experiencing Qui-Gon’s death, their feelings about each other are deeply complicated. They love each other, and help one another achieve great things, but they don’t understand each other.

Each man is envious of the other – Anakin envies Obi-Wan’s respect among the Jedi, his political power, and his maturity; Obi-Wan envies Anakin’s raw power, brash populism, and confidence. Anakin finds himself bewildered by how Obi-Wan’s pacifism keeps earning the respect of the elites; Obi-Wan is frustrated by how Anakin’s impetuous derring-do makes him a populist hero. Anakin is also quietly furious that he hasn’t been made a Jedi Knight yet, despite being, you know, a badass – but this is because he still can’t accept the Jedi’s sense of restraint. Why not go into cities and free the slaves? Why not act, why not be bold? There’d be a bit of Hotspur/Prince Hal going on here, in other words.

No, Percy, thou art but dust, and food for worms

No, Percy, thou art but dust, and food for worms

 

Things get even worse when the two are assigned to help Padme on whatever the hell she has going on in Episode Two. (I would junk the “Jedi can’t get married” thing.) It’s clear that both men are attracted to her, and a sort of love triangle evolves here. Since I’d be drawing from Greek tragedy here, it would be easy to amp up the brotherly love Castor/Pollux angle on Obi-Wan and Anakin until you’re a little, “Uhhh, are they sure it’s Padme they’re attracted to?” but I’m pretty sure Lucas wouldn’t have let me do that. Or any of this.

Again, the usual stuff is happening with the emperor in the background. At some point, Anakin’s mother gets captured or imperiled by the bad guys, perhaps aboard a giant spaceship, and a massive space battle ensues. Anakin and Obi-Wan board the burning craft, and are forced to decide whether they’re going to save Padme and Anakin’s mother, or fulfill Some Important Jedi or Republic Mission or Whatever. Obi-Wan chooses the Mission, whereas Anakin chooses to save Padme and his mother. Unfortunately, he is only able to save Padme, and his mother is murdered. The bad guys then think they have Anakin cornered – imagine the hold of a failing, burning ship where fifty to a hundred soldiers are all pointing weapons right at his head. But then Anakin, enraged and grieving, shows the full extent of his powers – and uses the Force to snap all of their necks at once. Everyone in the room with him except Padme is suddenly dead in an instant.

Padme is the only witness to this act. Since she’s grateful that he saved her, and she witnessed the murder of his mother, she understands what he’s going through, comforts him in his grief, and keeps his secret.

As Episode Two draws to a close, Anakin becomes a Jedi Knight for his conduct in the battle, though only he and Padme understand what he really did, since the bodies were destroyed as the ship crashed. Obi-Wan’s misgivings about Anakin increase, and Anakin blames Obi-Wan’s commitment to the Jedi sense of balance for his mother’s death. The two find themselves not only drawing apart, but actively opposing one another. Padme and Anakin, meanwhile, begin having an affair, and the Clone Wars begin. (Again, For Presumably Very Good Reasons that I won’t bother thinking too much about here. Though one thing I would definitely change is make the bad guys the Clone Troopers are fighting actual alive people rather than robots, to reduce the whole video game feel and make the war have actual stakes.)

Episode Three

In Episode Three, Anakin is closer to forty years old, and Obi-Wan several years older than that. (Again, I can’t emphasize enough how much these need to be mature actors playing mature roles here.) Palpatine is now actively courting Anakin’s favor, eager to use the Jedi’s populist power to sway the Republic. Anakin – who finds himself more and more frustrated with the obstructionist Jedi – is an eager participant, but Padme is not on board with the idealistic-zeal-thing anymore. Though she was once as passionate as Anakin about intervening in planetary life, she senses that she’s let the genie out of the bottle, and sees that all this populism and fear is drawing the Republic into a dark place. She finds herself identifying much more with Obi-Wan than Anakin, her lover. Anakin suspects something, but he’s not quite sure what’s going on.

Padme, of course, eventually becomes pregnant, and confides not in Anakin but in Obi-Wan. She knows it’s twins, and is increasingly worried about Anakin. She tries to confess what she saw Anakin do – killing a hundred people at once – but can’t bring herself to betray him. While this is going on, she and Obi-Wan begin to suspect that Palpatine is up to no good, and she goes to the Council to tell them their suspicions while Obi-Wan goes to Mustafar to investigate something that Palpatine has going on there. (Maybe the Death Star plans? Sure, why not.)

Things draw to a head on the Galactic stage. Palpatine uses manufactured excuses to increase aggression abroad with the Clone Troopers, to the objection of the Jedi Council – an objection that is deeply unpopular with the public. At one critical battle, the Jedi – who have begun to suspect what Palpatin is – are reluctant to send in reinforcements, to the fury of Anakin, who’s leading the assault. The battle is a failure, and he goes to Palpatine about it, just as Padme and the Jedi Council are confronting him about being a Sith.

Palpatine easily convinces Anakin, who has grown to detest the Jedi, that his old masters and comrades are trying to seize power, and a massive battle commences, in which Anakin delivers an absolutely brutal, murderous beatdown to about twenty Jedi single-handedly, though he’s gravely injured in the fighting by Yoda. Anakin, who now believes Padme has cheated on him with Obi-Wan, grievously injures her in a fit of rage, unaware than she is pregnant with his children. Yoda quits the battle to save Padme and try to keep her and her unborn children alive, though Anakin believes her to be dead.

Anakin, recovering from his wounds with the help of Palpatine, goes to Mustafar to stop Obi-Wan, whom Palpatine has convinced him is trying to sabotage the Republic. Anakin confronts Obi-Wan on the lava planet, screaming and ranting about how Obi-Wan and the Jedi have betrayed him from the beginning, how they’ve never tried to fix anything, claiming that it’s Obi-Wan’s fault that he killed Padme. Obi-Wan, grieved to hear about Padme’s death, implores Anakin to stop this, saying that his rage will destroy him and everything he loves. Anakin, still wounded, engages him in battle, and Obi-Wan kicks the ever-living shit out of him, cutting off his arm and whatnot, though Anakin just keeps coming. Obi-Wan finally subdues him, though, and refrains from killing him. Obi-Wan damages whatever it is that Palpatine had going on on Mustafar, and though it delays the Emperor’s plans, everyone knows it hasn’t stopped the Empire that’s coming.

Back with Yoda, it becomes clear that though Padme is alive, she’s also brain dead. Using their advanced scientific technology, they can keep her body alive long enough for her to bear her (probably very premature) children, but she dies upon childbirth. While they go through this process, artificially sustaining her life while she dies giving birth to her children, it cuts back and forth between another, darker birth as Palpatine reforges Anakin’s scarred, mangled body into Darth Vader. Palpatine claims that the Jedi tried to seize power from him, and that Anakin Skywalker died defending him – this inspires the Republic and the military to betray and assassinate the Jedi Order, with Darth Vader taking his place at the Emperor’s side.

Anakin, bitter, wounded, grieving, and furious, completely gives in to Palpatine’s influence. He ends the prequels much as he started – trapped inside of a metal shell, obeying the brutal, malicious whims of a cruel master. The difference is that though he was once a slave, and fought for freedom and equality, he is now the oppressor, and is a tool of the slavers. He has abandoned everything he believes in, and thinks he has destroyed everything he loved, and he becomes the monstrous weapon of mass destruction we all know and (somewhat) love.

***

Anyways. That’s how I’d do it. If I could do it, that is. I think there’s a lot to the idea of Anakin acting as a bit of a Lucifer in this story – he is a product of the world, he understands the nature of good and evil in this universe, and this is what leads him to reject the divine detachment of the Jedi Council. He’s a creature of impulse and desire, of strength and brute passion, rather than a moody child. His complaints about the world are very real, and his reactions to the Jedi’s precautions are justified to his perspective, though they spin out of control.

This would be contrasted with Obi-Wan, who grows steadily more cerebral and removed as the series goes on, perceiving the larger moral arc of the Force. The two contrast and compliment each other – one perceives, the other acts; one looks inward, the other outward. This helps them accomplish great things together, but their worldviews grow further and further apart until they’re no longer speaking the same language. At this point, Anakin becomes a bit like Hercules, always seeing snakes around him and murdering those he loves.

And that’s the aspect that I think works for him and translates most easily into Vader. The Anakin of the prequels we know is not a strong person. He whines. He pouts. He is angry, but somehow he is not deserving of this anger, even though the story gives him very good reasons to be angry – a slave ascended to monk, and then to general and commander, before finally evolving into an oppressor. This figure would not be a spoiled, refined brat, I believe. He would be a scarred thing, a wounded animal trying to veil his injuries behind the decorum and rites of an enigmatic religion, wishing to be the sort of person who would prevent the pains he’s suffered from ever being inflicted on another, before finally surrendering to his darkest impulses. He feels in his heart he does not belong in this world of elites and royalty. And then, like many who have been abused and lived lives of fear, he comes to respect the only thing that has dominated his life since he was a child – strength, power, and pain.