Most people acknowledge that the Star Wars prequels are flawed at best and substandard at worst. I don’t imagine there are many people who would say they’re great films, though I’m sure if you looked hard enough you could find diehard fans who would claim they’re amazing. Those people are wrong.
Truly, objectively wrong.
But I’m not here to beat the dead AT-AT that is the Star Wars prequels.
Most people agree that the prequels have their flaws, and most people tend to agree that George Lucas is at the heart of those flaws. The most common reason being that Lucas has “lost” it, but to me, the question isn’t whether or not Lucas lost whatever special magic he might have had. It’s where that magic came from in the first place.
The problem I’ve always seen with the prequels is that they were Lucas given an unlimited budget and no oversight. The prequels are a mixed bag, but for better or worse, they are exactly what George Lucas wanted them to be. If we were to look at the difference between the classic trilogy and the prequels, I’d say that more than anything else, it was all the difficulties and limitations that made the original trilogy great. Those difficulties are absent from the prequels, and that is why, whether fans want to accept it or not, the prequels are the films Lucas always wanted to make. The original trilogy are the films he ended up making despite himself.
Limitations and happy accidents often end up making great stories.
Absolute control often works against that.
As a novelist, you would think this wouldn’t come up quite as much as a filmmaker. Film has an element of logistics that novels lack. If I want to create a scene with a million space ninjas or have a dragon as big as a continent, it’s as easy as typing a few words. That unlimited canvas is a novelologist’s most perilous asset. It’s something most of us learn to adapt to fairly quickly. After a while, you learn to limit yourself, to pick and choose what you will do from EVERYTHING you want to do, and that, usually, your story is better off by focusing on a few really awesome ideas rather than a ton of good ones.
The other truth I’ve come to accept is that often the best ideas are the ones you never quite saw coming. Whether it’s a malfunctioning robot shark forcing Spielberg to rely on other, more subtle methods to portray the shark in Jaws or an under-the-weather Harrison Ford deciding to just shoot a bad guy rather than get into an elaborate swordfight, there are a lot of great moments in the films we love that were improvised or altered due to circumstances and a willingness to experiment in the moment.
Writing novels is a little different again, but there are plenty of happy accidents in my own stories. In my first novel, Gil’s All Fright Diner, I created a ghost named Cathy. Originally, she was going to be a male character, but I decided at a spur of the moment to make the ghost a woman because I wanted another important female in the story. I also added, without much forethought, the idea that vampires could touch ghosts. Both ideas weren’t considered as necessarily vital when I came up with them, but they ended up creating the foundation for a romantic element that became integral to the story.
(Not that there couldn’t have been a romantic element between two male characters, except that just wouldn’t have happened. At that time, I wasn’t comfortable enough in my own writing chops to attempt a homosexual character, much less any kind of same sex romance.)
This is true for all my stories. Elements just pop in my head and sometimes, I run with them. There was initially no reason for Mack Megaton to have a talking gorilla for a friend other than I liked the idea. Chester the paper gnome was simply a cool image (i.e. an assistant Monster could carry in his pocket), who became a character in his own right. Franklin, the orc wannabe, was just there to be the butt of some jokes and ended up becoming something more.
It’s mostly in the development of characters that I trust the happy accidents. The plot can benefit from them too. I find if I hold too tight to an idea or plot point, even when it’s not working, I can often end up wasting a lot of time not adapting to the great idea before me as I cling stubbornly to the bad idea I want to work so badly.
Flexibility makes great stories, and limitations encourage flexibility. It’s cool to have a vision and, if you’re fortunate, that vision can be exactly the story you need to tell exactly the way it should be told. But, more often, you end up with something as uneven and confused as the Star Wars prequels or Star Trek: Into Darkness. By being chained to their creators’ vision, such stories are hobbled.
This is also why I’ve so rarely experienced a prequel or reboot worthy of the original. Flexibility and experimentation is exactly the opposite of what most prequels have in mind. Lucas knew the ending he had to get to, and he had no choice but to railroad the plot along those lines. Into Darkness is a bit stranger, considering it has more innate flexibility. Yet in the end, it chose to revisit older material, cramming it into the tale in nonsensical ways, and there were so many scenes that seem to be storyboarded first, then justified later. I’ve often heard it said that Lucas planned the sets for the prequels before penning the script. Even if this isn’t true, it often feels like it.
Creativity isn’t a straightforward process. It’s a mysterious affair, and if I could tell you how to do it, I would. I rarely understand it myself. I just trust that if I make myself sit down and write AND I focus on what is important while being open to the occasional happy accident, then everything will work out in the end (with the help of judicious editing). But the more I write, the less I concern myself with knowing all the cool stuff I want to put on the page and the more I benefit from being open to discoveries along the way.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,