Friday, 2 September 2016

Book review: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor

The cover of How Star Wars Conquered
the Universe
by Chris Taylor, published by Head of Zeus

You would need a wookie’s lifespan to read every book published so far about Star Wars – and most of that time would be spent on spin-off novels or the sumptuously illustrated official guides to the films.

But Chris Taylor's book How Star Wars Conquered the Universe is something different: an intelligent, entertaining unauthorised account of the influence Star Wars has had on the world – and a record of the highs and lows experienced by Star Wars fans over the past four decades.

Chris Taylor on Star Wars fans

Albin Johnson, founder of the 501st Legion 

How Star Was Conquered the Universe was first published in 2014, with a revised paperback edition released this year. Its author, deputy editor at the website Mashable, tells readers that his aim was to write "a biography of the franchise that turned Planet Earth into Planet Star Wars".

But Taylor also intended to explore "how Star Wars has affected, and been affected by, its planet of fans" – and that's where much of his first-hand research has been directed. So rather than present his work in strict chronological order, from George Lucas's 1950s boyhood to the global domination of Star Wars in the 21st century, Taylor cuts between stories in a way that Lucas himself might approve of.

He begins with his own efforts to find someone who was completely unaware of the Star Wars phenomenon – a quest that took him to Window Rock, Arizona, and a meeting with an eighty-year-old Native American named George James Snr. After that, there's an account of Star Wars' filmic and literary antecedents, and then we're introduced to young George Lucas, the boy who could have inherited his father's office supplies store in Modesto, California.

But before he gets too far into Lucas's story, Taylor begins introducing us to the fans. The first one we meet is Albin Johnson, who lost a leg after a horrific road accident, and who during his recovery became obsessed with building a set of replica stormtrooper armour. He ended up forming the 501st Legion, a worldwide network of stormtrooper costumers who were not only tolerated but embraced by Lucasfilm itself.

He is the first in a long succession of fans whose stories Taylor weaves into his history of the franchise. There's Ghyslain Raza, the fourteen-year-old whose innocent decision to record himself practising lightsaber moves was turned without his consent into a viral video which is thought to have been viewed a billion times. There are the builders of replica R2 units. There are the jokers in New Zealand and the UK who recorded their religion as "Jedi" on census forms. There are the petitioners who urged President Obama to construct a real Death Star. And there are those who spent 93 days standing in line to see Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

The author has spent a lot of time around some of the world's keenest Star Wars fans, but he doesn't patronise or mock them. His point is that they are a key part of the Star Wars phenomenon – and Lucasfilm, to its credit, loves them back.

George Lucas and the origins of Star Wars

An early 'idea fragment' for Star Wars, or
The Journal of the Whills, by George Lucas

What I'm focused on in this blog, of course, is the original Star Wars, and it's that first movie that gets the most attention in Taylor's book. In fact, we're on page 277 of the 509-page book before he moves on to The Empire Strikes Back.

Taylor has assimilated a lot of information, and he presents it in lively fashion. His account of the influences on Star Wars takes in titles that I hadn't seen mentioned before. And he summarises Lucas's early Star Wars screenplays (three of them, all radically different) in a more readable fashion than I can ever remember coming across. 

Taylor doesn't just accept the version of events that has emerged in official histories and Lucas's more recent interviews. For example, many accounts, influenced by Lucas's recollections, play up the influence of Joseph Campbell and his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces – but Taylor points out that Lucas encountered Campbell's theories quite late in the writing process.

As well as giving a concise account of Star Wars' troubled production, the author uses the opening minutes of the movie to illustrate just how many people's contributions helped make Star Wars what it is – from concept artist Ralph McQuarrie to the effects geniuses of Industrial Light and Magic; from Brian De Palma and Jay Cocks, who rewrote the opening crawl, to the incomparable John Williams.

Taylor also emphasises the contribution of people whose efforts are sometimes marginalised in the official histories – producer Gary Kurtz and editor Marcia Lucas are among the key names. But that's not to take anything away from Lucas himself. He makes it clear that Lucas displayed extraordinary talent and drive in turning his crude initial ideas into the irresistible popular phenomenon of Star Wars.

Sequels, prequels and Disney

George Lucas completes the sale of Lucasfilm
to Disney's CEO Bob Iger, left

On this blog I only concern myself with Star Wars as it was in 1977, but of course that's only the first act in the story Chris Taylor is telling.

He chronicles the sequels, Star Wars' period of relative decline in the mid-1980s, and the hatching of the special editions and prequels. One of the most memorable passages in the book is the build-up to the release of The Phantom Menace, with some fans camping for three months outside the Coronet cinema in San Francisco in readiness for the first public showing. A week before the premiere, Lucasfilm held a cast and crew showing – and fans should have known something was wrong when Francis Ford Coppola came out during the movie to take a half-hour cigar break.

Lucasfilm was so successful at regulating the flow of news about the prequels that there is a limited amount for an unofficial guide to go on. But Taylor marshals the available information well and delineates the weaknesses of the movies perceptively, before moving on to the question of what was to come next.

It's in these closing chapters that we get a sense of the bind George Lucas was still in after making his Star Wars prequels. Here was a film-maker who had achieved the financial independence that would enable him to make the personal films he once talked about. But unless he was happy to lay off hundreds of staff, he would have to keep making Star Wars.

Taylor's book ends shortly after the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney. It's surprising now to read that as part of the deal, Lucas had to finally set down the ideas he had claimed to have for a final trilogy of Star Wars movies. We now know that Disney pushed those treatments to one side. What it really wanted was the value of the Star Wars brand.

How Star Was Conquered the Universe: Conclusions

The US paperback of
How Star Wars
the Universe

Even the keenest nit-picker will find it hard to spot mistakes in Taylor's book. I noticed a couple of typos (the most obvious being that Douglas Trumbull is repeatedly rendered as Trumball), as well as a couple of signs that Taylor isn't quite old enough to be a first generation fan: He identifies the Rebel blockade runner as the Tantive IV, and the Rebel throttled by Darth Vader as Captain Antilles, even though these details were only added later through he 'expanded universe' (the 1981 radio series, in fact). And he forgets that the scene in which Luke meets Biggs at the Rebel base was not part of Star Wars until the Special Edition. But generally this is the work of someone who has done his Star Wars homework and is not easily caught out.

After several biographies of George Lucas, some unauthorised guides to Star Wars and those weighty official Making of... books, you might imagine the market was pretty saturated. But Taylor has found a way to tell the Star Wars story afresh.

Partly this is because of the time he has spent interviewing fans. We get the sense that Star Wars fandom is like the Force – we create it, yet it surrounds us, penetrates us and binds our galaxy together. But it's also that Taylor's prose is so eminently readable. Treating its subject with a healthy mix of affection and irreverence, and telling its story at an appropriately smart pace, this is just about the most enjoyable Star Wars read you could ask for.

How Star Was Conquered the Universe is published in the UK by Head of Zeus (who provided a review copy), priced £9.99, and in the US by Basic Books at $16.99. 

Ordering via the Amazon links below will generate a small commission for Episode Nothing

UK:  How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise

1 comment:

Eric Gilliland said...

I would also recommend The Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski, even more detailed than Taylor.