The creator of our most enduring franchise has told a lot of different stories over the years.
In 2008, George Lucas declared Star Wars dead and buried. He was three years separated from the conclusion of his prequel trilogy in 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, and production was ramping up on his Clone Wars CGI cartoon series, but in an interview with Total Film, Lucas once again confirmed that there would be no further live-action Star Wars films. “There will definitely never be [any] Episodes VII-IX. That’s because there isn’t any story,” he said. “I mean, I never thought of anything!”
Of course, less than five years later Lucas had changed his tune. When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in a landmark $4 billion deal, the deal included story treatments for a new Star Wars trilogy, written by Lucas himself. It was the conclusion of decades of back-and-forth from the reclusive billionaire, decades during which he was frequently insistent that he’d never even considered sequels to Return of the Jedi. And indeed, until the months before the Disney deal, no concrete outlines of a potential Star Wars sequel trilogy even existed. That didn’t stop Lucas from talking up the possibilities, however.
In the immediate wake of the original Star Wars’ landmark success, TIME Magazine casually tossed off a significant detail in the fourth paragraph of a 1978 profile of George Lucas. “Star Wars Corp.,” the piece read, “will make Star Wars II and the ten, count ’em, ten other planned sequels.” This was the origin of Lucas’ fabled big-picture plan for the series. Later, those ten sequels became twelve. In an interview with Prevue magazine, which Michael Kaminski chronicles in his Secret History of Star Wars, Lucas claimed the following:
So, I took the screenplay and divided it into three stories, and rewrote the first one. As I was writing, I came up with some ideas for a film about robots, with no humans in it. When I got to working on the Wookiee, I thought of a film just about Wookiees, nothing else. So, for a time, I had a couple of odd movies with just those characters. Then, I had the other two films, which were essentially split into three parts each, two trilogies. When the smoke cleared, I said, ‘This is really great. I’ll do another trilogy that takes place after this.’ I had three trilogies of nine films, and then another couple of odd films. Essentially, there were twelve films.
In those early days, Lucas had only a vague sense of where those later films would go. He was firm on the plot of the prequels. As early as 1975, Lucas told Star Wars novelist Alan Dean Foster that he wanted the prequel films to be “the back story of Kenobi as a young man. A story of the Jedi and how the Emperor eventually takes over and turns the whole thing from a Republic into an Empire, and tricks all the Jedi and kills them. The whole battle where Luke’s father gets killed.” But the sequels, as Lucas himself said, were “much more ethereal.”
One thing seemed reasonably concrete, although even here Lucas wavered: Luke Skywalker would have a role to play. In 2004, Mark Hamill described Lucas’ original sequel trilogy pitch to him, years before he was dispatched to recruit the original trio for Disney. “George was talking about this whole thing,” Hamill recalled. “‘Um, how’d you like to be in Episode IX?’ ‘When is that going to be?’ ‘2011.’ […] I said, ‘Well, what do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘You’ll just be like a cameo. You’ll be like Obi-Wan handing the lightsaber down to the next new hope.'”
By the time Return of the Jedi was released, Lucas was utterly exhausted, and his nine-film plan had largely been tossed by the wayside. Rather than continue the series, he chose to streamline the few defined elements of the sequel trilogy into one last final film. Gary Kurtz, Lucas’ longtime producing partner, spoke to IGN about the abandoned sequel trilogy in 2002. Kurtz claimed that “there were outlined materials certainly for a later three that culminated with this big clash with the Emperor in Episode IX.” Instead, the Emperor was defeated in Jedi, and the films came to a premature finale.
For years after the conclusion of the original trilogy, Lucas claimed that there were no further Star Wars stories to be told. The most concrete elements of the mythical sequel trilogy can be found in the restructured Return of the Jedi: The introduction of the Emperor, Luke’s long-lost sister (who was ultimately merged with Leia). In 2008, when Lucas told the Los Angeles Times “The movies were the story of Anakin Skywalker and Luke Skywalker, and when Luke saves the galaxy and redeems his father, that’s where that story ends,” he was telling the truth.
But only a few years later, Lucas casually let slip to his son over a phone call that he was writing new Star Wars movies. He sold those treatments to Disney with Lucasfilm, and they served as the root of JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens, but Abrams seemed only to take the foundation. Lucas revealed to CinemaBlend in January 2015 that “[t]he ones that I sold to Disney, they came up to the decision that they didn’t really want to do those. So they made up their own.”
Based on the two sequel trilogy art books that Lucasfilm has released, Lucas’ Episode VII would have revolved around an exiled Luke Skywalker being brought back to the fight by a young Force-sensitive woman: So, not too far off from what we got from Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. Abrams and screenwriter Michael Arndt had previously kicked back Luke’s character introduction from Episode VII to Episode VIII, finding it difficult to balance the iconic original character with the introduction of new ones. “It just felt like every time Luke came in and entered the movie, he just took it over,” Arndt said in a post-Force Awakens Q&A. By shunting him to the end of Episode VII, Lucas’ treatments were effectively shifted to the beginning of VIII.
We may never know in detail what shape Lucas’ potential sequel trilogy would have taken. It’s possible that Lucas himself didn’t entirely know. In March 2017, Hamill let slip another small detail about the Episode IX that could have been. “I happen to know that George didn’t kill Luke until the end of 9 after he trained Leia,” he told IGN. That’s a far cry from the Episode IX Lucas told Hamill about in 1976 when Luke would just be the briefest of cameos passing along the torch to the next generation. It’s a classic George Lucas move: Always changing your story, until the very end.