Sowell on book reviews

Over the years, I have come to find writing book reviews even more distasteful than reading them. Part of this is my own fault, for being one of those old-fashioned holdouts who still believes that you should actually read the book before reviewing it. Sometimes I am only into the first 20 pages of a 500-page book when it becomes painfully clear that this one is a real dog. The rest of the ordeal is like crossing the Sahara Desert—except that often there are no oases. True, the reviewer gets to slaughter the author in print at the end of it all, but this merely appeases the desire for revenge, which only real blood would satisfy. —Thomas Sowell, ‘Some Thoughts about Writing’

The exceptional in fiction

Just as all except bores relate in conversation not what is normal but what is exceptional – you mention having seen a giraffe in Petty Cury, but don’t mention having seen an undergraduate – so authors told of the exceptional. Earlier audiences would not have seen the point of a story about anything else. Faced with such matters as we get in Middlemarch or Vanity Fair or The Old Wives’ Tale, they would have said ‘But this is all perfectly ordinary. This is what happens every day. If these people and their fortunes were so unremarkable, why are you telling us about them at all?’

—C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

How to Shut Down Tolkien

A talk given by Brandon Rhodes at PyGotham 2014, and in my humble but infallible opinion, a very interesting one. Rhodes has much to say about how to encourage the creative faculties and how to bully them into silence. There are one or two minor factual errors. Lewis was not the first person to whom Tolkien showed the Silmarillion matter: he had given some of it to R. W. Reynolds (for whom he wrote the ‘Sketch of the Mythology’ about 1926), and his earliest audience had been his wife, Edith. But these are unimportant in this context. Lewis was definitely the critic and catalyst who awoke Tolkien’s full powers and spurred him on through his most productive period. How he did so, and how he almost failed, makes an illuminating story. Hat tip to Nancy Lebovitz for sending me the link.

What’s that you say? Something sold?

To my astonishment, to say nothing of crogglement, confustication, and gobsmackosity, I have sold an essay to Sci Phi Journal: and for actual money, too. With a speed hitherto unknown to magazine-kind, it has been scheduled for publication in the upcoming issue. Look for Sci Phi Journal #2, containing ‘The Making of the Fellowship: Concepts of the Good in The Lord of the Rings', coming soon to an ebook store near you.
In other news, I am still filled with doubt and concern about Where Angels Die. The first chapter seemed to be a rousing success, but the second has met with dead silence so far, and frankly, I don’t know what to make of that. Are my 3.6 Loyal Readers still waiting for more? Or have I done something dreadful, on a par with the infamous Klingon practice of farting in airlocks? Please advise.

The Art of Courage

The lovely and talented L. Jagi Lamplighter, a.k.a. Mrs. John C. Wright, is starting a weekly series on Superversive Fiction on her blog. I have the honour of being chosen as the first guest blogger in this new series. Colour me bashful. In this short essai, I explain the origin and intended meaning of the term ‘superversive’, particularly as it applies to fiction. I first came up with the term (in that meaning; others have used the neologism for different purposes, but it did not catch on) in a very old essay, ‘Superversive: The failure of subversion in imaginative literature’. This new piece covers some of the same ground, but with a different emphasis and a new twist in the conclusion.

Behold the Underminer! I am always beneath you, but nothing is beneath me!

The Incredibles

For about a hundred years now, ever since the First World War broke the confidence of Western civilization, it has been fashionable to praise subversion. Art, music, and literature, as many of the critics tell us, are not supposed to go chasing after obsolete values like truth or beauty; they are supposed to shock, to wound, to épater les bourgeois – to subvert the values of society.

Read the rest at Welcome to Arhyalon….

How not to take criticism

Then Victoriana took a little toy harp and began. The noises of the toy harp were so strange that John could not think of them as music at all. Then, when she sang, he had a picture in his mind which was a little like the Island, but he saw at once that it was not the Island. And presently he saw people who looked rather like his father, and the Steward and old Mr. Halfways, dressed up as clowns and doing a stiff sort of dance. Then there was a columbine, and some sort of love-story. But suddenly the whole Island turned into an aspidistra in a pot and the song was over. ‘Priceless,’ said the Clevers. ‘I hope you like it,’ said Gus to John. ‘Well,’ began John doubtfully, for he hardly knew what to say: but he got no further, for at that moment he had a very great surprise. Victoriana had thrown her mask away and walked up to him and slapped him in the face twice, as hard as she could. ‘That’s right,’ said the Clevers, ‘Victoriana has courage. We may not all agree with you, Vikky dear, but we admire your courage.’ ‘You may persecute me as much as you like,’ said Victoriana to John. ‘No doubt to see me thus with my back to the wall, wakes the hunting lust in you. You will always follow the cry of the majority. But I will fight to the end. So there,’ and she began to cry. ‘I am extremely sorry,’ said John. ‘But—’ ‘And I know it was a good song,’ sobbed Victoriana, ‘because all great singers are persecuted in their lifetime – and I’m per-persecuted – and therefore I must be a great singer.’

—C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress

‘The Island’, in this particular allegory, is the particular experience, partly aesthetic and partly religious, that Lewis referred to elsewhere as ‘Joy’. If you want to inspire Joy in your audience, and you fail, I can heartily dis-recommend this method of dealing with it.  

‘How to read Tolkien’

Michael Drout’s superb lecture, ‘How to Read Tolkien’, is now available on YouTube, and by the magic of the Intertubes, it’s available on this tube too:

Told by an idiot, No. 4

An artist’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s an artist’s statement for? The enormity of our semiotic struggle with reality and truth far exceeds the capacity of mere human language to express; that is why we express it in language. If it merely exceeded the capacity of music, we would have been composers instead. Only plebs and pikers actually say what they want to say. Real literature consists in saying that what you want to say cannot possibly be said.     (signed)     H. Smiggy McStudge

Told by an idiot, No. 3

You must always know exactly what your work is about. If anyone asks, you must be able to express your theme in one sentence, like this: ‘This [novel, story, poem] is about the futility of life in a post-postmodern world of transvaluated values, and the radical failure of the spirit in the face of human cruelty and cosmic despair.’ If this exact sentence does not describe your work, you are writing the wrong story. Get it right, or throw it out.     (signed)     H. Smiggy McStudge

Creative discomfort and Star Wars

The fact is that this script feels rushed and not thought out, probably because it was rushed and not thought out.

—‘Harry S. Plinkett’ (Mike Stoklasa)

They’re already building sets. God help me! I’m going to have to start this script pretty soon.

—George Lucas

It is not actually true that ‘all good writing is rewriting’. It would be nearer the truth to say that all good ideas are second ideas — or third, fourth, or 157th ideas. Writers are notoriously divisible into two warring camps, ‘outliners’ and ‘pantsers’. One of the most common triggers for a rewrite happens when you come up with a brilliant new idea halfway through a draft — and that idea makes a hash of everything you have already written. This, in the war of the writers, is a powerful weapon against the pantsers. Jeff Bollow, for instance, in his book Writing FAST, recommends that you get your ideas right first, and write the draft later; but he also tells you never to use the first idea that comes to mind, for that only trains your mind to be lazy. If you do your brainstorming properly, and don’t start actually writing until your ideas are solid, you are much less likely to have to tear up a draft and start over. John Cleese touched on the same point in his 1991 talk on creativity:
Before you take a decision, you should always ask yourself the question, ‘When does this decision have to be taken?’ And having answered that, you defer the decision until then, in order to give yourself maximum pondering time, which will lead you to the most creative solution. And if, while you’re pondering, somebody accuses you of indecision, say: ‘Look, babycakes, I don’t have to decide till Tuesday, and I’m not chickening out of my creative discomfort by taking a snap decision before then. That’s too easy.’
That creative discomfort can make all the difference between great writing and dreck. One could argue the point endlessly, for there are examples to the contrary — snap decisions that turned out to be brilliant, slowly gestated ideas that still turned out useless. I would maintain that such cases are outliers: so much depends on the talent of the individual writer, and on sheer luck. What we want here is a controlled experiment. We could learn a great deal by taking the same writer and putting him through a series of similar projects. In half of them, he would have all the time he wanted to brainstorm, to throw away ideas when he came up with better ones, to tear up drafts, to indulge his creative discomfort. In the other half, whenever he had to make a decision, he would simply take the first workable idea that came to mind. Unfortunately, we can’t hire a writer to go through such an experiment. Fortunately, the experiment has already been made. The writer’s name was George Lucas. Michael Kaminski’s Secret History of Star Wars (both the book and the website) describes the experiment and its results in fascinating detail. For my present purpose, however, I will take only a few points from Kaminski’s (and Lucas’s) work, specifically about the writing process: two from the ‘Original Trilogy’, and three from the prequels. To begin, then: In the early 1970s, fresh off the unexpected success of American Graffiti, Lucas decided to try his hand at a rollicking space opera in the style of the old Flash Gordon serials. Thwarted in his attempt to buy the film rights to Flash Gordon itself, he began scribbling names and ideas on notepads, trying to come up with a space opera all of his own. He read and reread pulp science fiction stories obsessively, especially E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman books. After a million and three false starts (this number has been verified by Science), he sent his agent a very brief synopsis called The Journal of the Whills, which began with the following helpful sentence:
This is the story of Mace Windy, a revered Jedi-Bendu of Opuchi, as related to us by C. J. Thorpe, padawaan learner to the famed Jedi.
The agent, Jeff Berg, reacted approximately as follows: ‘Mace Who, a revered What of Where, as related by the Whatsit learner to the famed How’s That Again? You gotta be kidding me!’ He gently advised his client to rewrite the synopsis in English. This was not an easy request for the young Lucas to fulfil. From beginning to end, the Star Wars saga — as it would eventually be called — is filled with characters who speak no English at all. But he did approximately comply, and eventually came up with a treatment for a project called (at this point) The Star Wars. He lifted most of the story from Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. As in the Kurosawa film, the lead characters are a general and a princess, who are trying to escape the clutches of a wicked and decadent empire during a period of civil war. The general’s name is Luke Skywalker. It took four years to turn this sketchy treatment into a movie. Along the way, Lucas put the script through four full drafts and innumerable small revisions. Seldom has a script been so struggled over. In some versions, the hero’s name is not Skywalker but Starkiller. (Sometimes both names, confusingly, are used in the same draft for two different characters.) The Jedi were written out of the second draft entirely, and then put back into the third. ‘The Force’ (sometimes called ‘the Force of Others’) is sometimes a purely mental power, somewhat similar to hypnosis, sometimes a physical super-power accessible to a trained mind. Han Solo was conceived as a repulsive green alien; then the green alien was renamed Greedo, and Han Solo (now a human) killed him. Lucas, in those days, had a well-justified lack of confidence in his writing skills. Fortunately, he had continual recourse to help from better qualified people — Gary Kurtz, Francis Ford Coppola, and his wife Marcia, among many others. Important bits of the script were reworked on the set by the actors. Harrison Ford famously told Lucas: ‘George, you can type this shit, but you can’t say it’ — and then turned it into something that he could say. Lucas borrowed lines and motifs wherever he could, and when he could not borrow, he stole; but he remained in control at all times, and gradually shaped this magpie’s collection of material into a classic fairy tale — a fairy tale in space. The original Star Wars became the surprise blockbuster of 1977, the biggest pop-culture phenomenon since Beatlemania. (I first saw it, as a boy of ten, at the old North Hill cinema in Calgary. In addition to the title, the marquee carried a shameless political plug: ‘R2-D2 FOR MAYOR’.) Lucas’s share of the profits was enough to bankroll a sequel without any financial input from a studio. Writing and directing the first film had nearly killed him; this time he hired help. The sequel was directed by Irvin Kershner, who would leave his own imprint on the story; but we are concerned here with the script. For that, Lucas wanted an honest-to-goodness, old-school space opera writer. A friend suggested Leigh Brackett: ‘Here is someone who wrote the cantina scene in Star Wars better than you did.’ Kaminski describes what happened next:
[Lucas] contacted the elderly Brackett, who was living in Los Angeles at that time, and asked her to write Star Wars II. ‘Have you ever written for the movies?’ Lucas asked her. ‘Yes, I have,’ Brackett replied simply — she began recounting her credits, which included Rio Bravo, El Dorado and The Big Sleep, co-written with William Faulkner, the Nobel-prize-winning novelist. An awkward silence followed. ‘Are you that Leigh Brackett?’ Lucas gasped. ‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘Isn’t that why you called me in?’ ‘No,’ Lucas said, ‘I called you in because you were a pulp science fiction writer.’
The Empire Strikes Back took less reworking than the original Star Wars. Partly this was because most of the principal characters had already been established, and much of the world-building was already worked out. Also, Leigh Brackett was simply a much more accomplished writer than Lucas. Unfortunately, she died shortly after completing the first draft, and Lucas was once more thrown upon his own resources. He did a very rough second draft — more like a treatment based on Brackett’s first draft, incorporating some of the changes he wanted to make — before turning the job over to Lawrence Kasdan, whose work on Raiders of the Lost Ark had thoroughly impressed him. The general sequence of the script remained much the same in each version, starting with the rebels on the ice planet, then splitting up the cast as Luke went for his Jedi training, and ending with the climactic encounter with Darth Vader. The love story between Han and Leia was developed — here, again, Lucas stole what he could not borrow — with dialogue lifted from, of all places, Gone With the Wind. Here is a bit of dialogue from the book, between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara:
‘I’ll bet you a box of bonbons against—’ His dark eyes wandered to her lips. ‘Against a kiss.’ ‘I don’t care for such personal conversation,’ she said coolly and managed a frown. ‘Besides, I’d just as soon kiss a pig.’ ‘There’s no accounting for tastes and I’ve always heard the Irish were partial to pigs — kept them under their beds, in fact. But, Scarlett, you need kissing badly.’
A good thief steals without getting caught; a great thief doesn’t care whether he is caught, for he makes the stolen goods his own. Somewhere along the way, someone — Lucas, Brackett, Kasdan, or Kershner — came up with a change that turned this rather arch dialogue into a defining moment for the characters and a classic scene in cinema:
Han Solo: Afraid I was gonna leave without giving you a goodbye kiss? Princess Leia: I’d just as soon kiss a Wookiee. Han Solo: I can arrange that. You could use a good kiss.
This was all very well; and between Kasdan’s snappy dialogue and Kershner’s mastery of emotional range as a director, the Han–Leia element of the story blossomed spontaneously. But that was only a subplot. A terrible shadow hung over the main plot: the shadow of Luke’s father. Father Skywalker had actually appeared in one draft of the original Star Wars script, before Lucas decided that he was already dead when the story began. Now he somehow had to be worked into the sequel. One could hardly film a dramatic scene about a man who had been dead for twenty years. That meant that the other characters had to talk about him. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a much abused bit of advice, but in drama and film, it really does apply. Showing saves time, and uses the full visual effect of the medium to convey an emotional impact that mere talking can never match. The conflict between the good Jedi, represented by Father Skywalker, and the evil Sith, represented by Darth Vader, could not easily be shown. The only way was to bring in Father Skywalker’s ghost along with Obi-Wan’s, as Leigh Brackett did in her first draft; and that, clearly, was one ghost too many. Unless— Inspiration struck. Unless Father Skywalker and Darth Vader were the same person. It was a brilliant idea: simple, dramatic, crackling with emotional force. It simplified the story, got rid of the extra ghost, and gave the whole script a powerful new unity. Before the change, Luke was separated from Han and Leia, not just physically, but thematically. He was going off to Dagobah to follow in his father’s footsteps; Han and Leia were fleeing to Bespin to escape from Vader’s fleet. But if Luke’s father was Vader, that tied their motives together and welded the plot into a single, consistent emotional arc. This is the kind of idea that is worth tearing up a draft for. From the original Journal of the Whills, it took Lucas five years to come up with it. Fortunately, this change did not require any changes to the first film — though it made Obi-Wan a liar, a fact for which his ghost would offer a lame excuse in Return of the Jedi. (He would have done better to admit that he was afraid to tell Luke too much of the truth.) It turned the second film into a tour de force. And it set up the conditions and the conflicts for the third film. What’s more, it did not require any significant change to the scene-by-scene structure of Leigh Brackett’s first draft; it only gave the scenes a new and deeper meaning. Unlike the four major drafts of Star Wars, which changed the original story beyond recognition, the redrafts of Empire only added strength to a structure that was already sound. When it became clear that Star Wars was a hit, and sequels would be called for, Lucas gave out that it was the first episode in a twelve-part series that he called ‘The Adventures of Luke Skywalker’. In 1979, this idea disappeared down the memory hole. The first film became Episode IV, with the subtitle ‘A New Hope’ — which was added to the opening crawl for the theatrical re-release in 1981. Star Wars became the overall series title — a sound commercial decision, given the immense value of the brand name Lucas had created. The number of films in the projected series was cut down to nine. In a particularly Orwellian move, Lucas published the ‘official’ screenplay of Star Wars in 1979, labelled ‘Episode IV: A New Hope’, and incorporating many changes made between the fourth draft and the final movie; but he let on that this was the actual fourth draft, as written in 1976. It was the first of many attempts he would make to rewrite his own history. ‘Greedo shot first’ has a long lineage, if not an honourable one. The Empire Strikes Back, as it turned out, was a brilliant movie; the trouble was that Lucas didn’t want brilliance, didn’t particularly understand it, and had not much idea how to make use of it. All along, he had wanted Empire to be short, quick-moving, and upbeat, like its predecessor; he was unhappy that Kasdan and Kershner turned it into something slower and grander and more introspective, and furiously angry with Kurtz for letting them go far over budget to do it. The immediate upshot was that Kurtz was replaced: Howard Kazanjian was hired to produce Return of the Jedi, in the hope that he would prove more obedient. Jedi begins the downward spiral of the Star Wars sequels. Already we begin to see Lucas losing patience with his creative discomfort, taking snap decisions, seeking the easy way out of plot difficulties. He had already had the idea that Luke would have a sister, another potential Jedi; she appears under the name of Nellith in Brackett’s draft. That, and Yoda’s cryptic statement in Empire, ‘There is another,’ seem originally to have been intended as setup for Episodes VII through IX — and to heighten the immediate tension, by suggesting that Luke himself was expendable after all, and might not survive. But by the time he began work on Jedi, he was growing sick of the whole Star Wars phenomenon; he no longer had any intention of making six more episodes. So he took the easy way out by making Leia Luke’s sister, and also the ‘other’ that Yoda spoke of. There was nothing in Leia’s character to suggest a potential Jedi; but she was already there, and indeed, the only significant female character in the series. It was simply easier to write her as the ‘other’ than to introduce a new character for the purpose. However, Jedi still works reasonably well. It carries on with the momentum generated by Empire, somewhat diminished by disco dance numbers and burp jokes, and by the need to find screen time for far too many Ewoks. Kershner and Kurtz were gone, but Kasdan was still on board as co-writer, and he outdid himself in developing the final three-way confrontation between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor. Lucas’s snap decisions, at this stage, were all about tying up loose ends of subplots; they could not detract from the main story of the film. Let us skip forward a bit. Fifteen years later, Lucas was hard at work on Episode I, to which he gave the puzzling title, The Phantom Menace. This time, he was the sole (credited) screenwriter, as well as the director, executive producer, chief cook, bottle-washer, studio mogul, greenlighter, Howard Hughes, and Citizen Kane. Unlike Empire and Jedi, the new script was his baby, solely — and he had not improved as a screenwriter with the years. When Kasdan was brought in to rewrite the second draft of Empire, he was incredulous at the sheer badness of the dialogue; he had not heard the inside story about all of Lucas’s helpers on the original Star Wars script. This time, Lucas’s inadequacies would be exposed to the world’s naked and unforgiving gaze. I will pass over the inadequacies of the dialogue in the prequels, except to point out that with a very little more creative discomfort, Lucas could have hired a script doctor — a younger equivalent of Kasdan — to go over the lines and make them read more naturally. Lucas’s dialogue is too literal, too ‘on the nose’: he never learnt the discipline of trusting his actors to act. Things that could be better conveyed by indirection — an elliptical remark, delivered with the right tone and facial expressions — were stated baldly, in terms that left the actors very little to do. Partly, as I have heard, this was done to make the script easier to translate into foreign languages, in which the subtleties of the original might be lost. If that is so, it would have done no harm to save Lucas’s version as a master script for translators, and then hire a script doctor to translate it into English, inserting subtleties as required. But nobody seems to have thought of doing this. What made Phantom so disappointing to grownups, and especially to those with fond memories of the characters and lines from Empire and Jedi, was that apart from the brilliant CGI work, it seemed to be built out of Tinkertoys. Every character and every action were obviously designed to get from one plot point to the next with a minimum of creative effort, and most of the plot points were apparently designed to lead into the visual set-pieces — the pod race, the battle on Naboo, and the utterly ridiculous scene in which the nine-year-old Anakin blows up the droid control ship with a one-man fighter that he doesn’t even know how to fly. The cumulative effect is bizarre: you might say that the picture had the brush-strokes of a Turner landscape, but the composition of a connect-the-dots puzzle. Lucas did not write the Phantom script quickly; but he had many other cares, thanks to the multitude of hats he was wearing, and the script shows abundant signs that he skimped on the work. I will take one case as a sufficient example: the dire origin story of C-3PO. Let us begin with the obvious. Young Anakin claims that he built Threepio to help his mother around the house. His mother, mind you, is a slave: she is supposed to be the help, not receive the help. This raises an awkward question. Droids are the accepted substitute for slave labour in the Star Wars universe. Why, then, does a scrap dealer, with a shop full of robots in assorted states of repair, need an organic slave as well as all his mechanical ones? It is never made very clear what kind of work Shmi Skywalker does for her master; her only function in the plot is to be owned, and to make her son grieve when he is separated from her. One wonders why she would be allowed to have a robot to help her at all. Why not just have the robot, and dispense with the human slave? Suppose we let all this pass. Why, then, did Anakin build a protocol droid? Surely, if your mother were a maid-of-all-work and you wanted to build a machine to help her, you would not immediately think of making a slow-moving mechanical man who was ‘fluent in over six million forms of communication’. Owen Lars, in the original Star Wars, had no need for an interpreter; he bought C-3PO from an obvious fence, presumably at a bargain price, to talk sense into his moisture vaporators. But apparently Shmi, a scrap dealer’s slave on the same unimportant desert world, does need a translator; needs one so badly that her son decides to make her one out of spare parts as the ideal gift. It does not begin to be plausible; it hardly even pretends to be. But these are side issues. The crucial fault, of course, is that young Anakin (as we, the audience, know in advance) will turn out to be Darth Vader; and yet, when they meet face to face after a lapse of many years, neither will recognize the other. Lucas made an attempt to save the appearances in Episode III, where Threepio’s memory is wiped. Even devoted fans of the series admit that this is clumsy. So why was it done this way at all? The only answer appears to be that Lucas wanted C-3PO in all six episodes, and he needed a way to shoehorn him into Phantom — a film that otherwise had no need of him. So he gave him a cameo in the first place he could think of. This, surely, was a case that cried out for some creative discomfort. Lucas settled for a lazy idea when it would have been much easier, and immeasurably better artistically, to sweat over the problem until he came up with a good idea. Before I sat down to write this essai, I spent a few minutes brainstorming for ideas on how better to introduce Threepio in Episode I. By your leave, I will offer the one that seemed to work best — the one that solved the most problems in the story. I don’t claim that it is the best possible idea; it is merely the most interesting of several that occurred to me when I troubled to think about the problem. Here it is: What if C-3PO was a protocol droid working for the Trade Federation? We see an almost identical droid (silver, not gold) in the opening scene aboard the Trade Federation flagship; it’s the one that serves drinks to Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan while they wait in the conference room. This would improve the story in several ways. To begin with, it would give some personality to the protocol droid in the conference room — a scene that desperately needed something to make it interesting. It would give the two Jedi a better motive for going down to Naboo. Their stated motive is nonsense: you can’t warn somebody that an invasion fleet is coming by stowing away on the invasion fleet itself. But as a protocol droid, Threepio would have been a witness to the machinations that led the Trade Federation leaders to the brink of treason and open war. That information could have been vital to the Naboo side, and politically important to the Republic itself, and to the Jedi Council. One can easily imagine the two Jedi taking Threepio by force, removing the restraining bolt that his previous master presumably gave him, and using him to bluff their way through to a shuttle that would take them down to Naboo. Threepio would likely have helped them, moved by a combination of gratitude (they set him free of the restraining bolt and some unsavoury owners) and timidity (these are, after all, Jedi, and we see them using the Force to smash droids into kindling). On Naboo he would have met R2-D2, who was assigned to the Queen’s yacht. They would have been a robotic Montague and Capulet; much could have been made of the process by which they learnt to work together, and turned from official enemies into bickering but steadfast friends. This kind of comic relief was something Lucas knew how to write and direct; the byplay between the droids is one of the best things in the original Star Wars, and indeed they carry the action all by themselves for much of the first act. That suggests the best reason of all for introducing C-3PO this way: it would have cut Jar-Jar Binks completely out of the story. The idea of Jar-Jar was not fundamentally a bad one, but the execution was embarrassing. He introduces an element of the lowest slapstick into otherwise serious, or at least seriocomic, scenes; and Lucas simply has not got the skills to handle slapstick. Physical humour is a ‘low’ form of comedy, in that it makes few demands on the intelligence of its audience; but it requires tremendous technical skill to do properly. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were enormously respected by their fellow actors, who knew how hard it was to make people laugh in that way. Episode II sees Lucas resorting to more and more implausible devices to rescue himself from his own hasty decisions. The movie scarcely hangs together at all: the characters go rabbiting all over the Galaxy on slight pretexts, and in consequence, have little time to interact with one another. What this episode should have done — what it needed to accomplish — was to show Anakin growing into an idealistic young Jedi knight, ‘the best star pilot in the galaxy’, and ‘a good friend’, as Obi-Wan called him in the original. The romance between Anakin and Padme could have been deferred to Episode III; or it could have been made a complication in the second act of Clones, a wedge that came between Obi-Wan and his apprentice. But here again, Lucas took the easiest way out. Instead of showing us these things, he simply told us — in the most static and unconvincing way, by having Anakin and Obi-Wan reminisce about their adventures together for a minute or two in a moving lift. The adventure they alluded to would have made a splendid overture to the main story. It would have served the same function (and could have been about the same length) as the battle of Hoth in Empire or the Jabba the Hutt section of Jedi. That would have put the characters, especially Anakin, on a firm footing, and given the audience a solid impression of Anakin as a good guy. Instead, our first long look at the grown-up Anakin comes in static indoor scenes, where he paces up and down and complains incessantly about Obi-Wan to anyone who will sit still for it. He comes across as a whiny, spoilt adolescent, self-important, consumed with petty grievances, but too cowardly to complain to Obi-Wan himself. This is a disastrous error. It undermines the whole character of Anakin; we almost feel that his turning to the Dark Side is redundant. Lucas, in his own mind, firmly believed that the story arc of the prequels was about the good and virtuous Anakin being seduced by evil. But the good and virtuous Anakin only existed in Lucas’s mind. He never made it into the films. Let us finish off with an example from Episode III: the death of Padme, which is a crucial point in the plot. We have a world in which the most hideously maimed and broken men can be put together again with prosthetic parts. We see it done with Anakin, who loses all four of his limbs, has the skin burnt off the rest of his body by hot lava — and lives. He is rebuilt into the dark and menacing form of Darth Vader. And yet Padme, having what (as far as we can tell) is a perfectly ordinary pregnancy, lying in an aseptic delivery room, surrounded by droid doctors and the best medical technology in the nascent Empire, can die in childbirth — not even from eclampsia or an infection, but simply from a broken heart. Women do die in childbirth sometimes, even with advanced medicine, and it is at least debatable that some women die of broken hearts; but never the two in combination. The presence of a newborn child concentrates the instincts and the affections wonderfully; it gives the most broken-hearted mother something to live for. Worst of all, Anakin has just turned to the Dark Side specifically to learn how to prevent Padme’s death — and yet he does absolutely nothing about it. Once again, a few minutes’ thought suggested a number of alternatives to me; here is the one I personally like best. Lucas himself almost stumbled into it — but instead of filming it, he made it a lie told by the Emperor. When the newly built Vader takes his first lurching steps (so painfully reminiscent of Frankenstein), he asks what has happened to Padme. ‘You killed her,’ says the Emperor. Very well: What if Anakin really did kill Padme? How would that come about? We know that Anakin saw little of Padme during her pregnancy — the Jedi and the Emperor kept him too busy, and usually too far away. On the evidence of Vader’s dialogue in Jedi, he never knew that she was carrying twins. Let us suppose, then, that Padme is safely delivered of her two children while Anakin was away; that she knows he has turned to the Dark Side and is now the Emperor’s apprentice. What does she do? The obvious thing is to hide the children. She places Luke in the care of Anakin’s kinsman, Owen Lars — on the face of it, a fearfully stupid thing to do, for Vader knows that place all too well. But we may suppose that she works out her plan with Obi-Wan, and he chooses to go into retirement on Tattooine specifically to watch over the boy and protect him from the Empire. Then she hides Leia by having her adopted into the powerful Organa family on Alderaan. At this point, both her children are in safe places, and all the witnesses are in hiding as well. (Except the droids in the delivery room; but she could have had their memories wiped, and we would be much more willing to accept it than we were with a known and beloved character like Threepio.) The only really dangerous witness — the first one Vader would seek out and interrogate — is now Padme herself. So she gets on her fancy ship with a skeleton crew, devoted family retainers who will join her on a suicide mission — and goes to seek out the command ship on which, even then, Vader and the Emperor are searching for her. She goes to meet her fate, and challenge it. Either the Emperor will die, and the threat will be ended, or she will die, and her children’s secret will be safe. The final scene would be very short: it would fall like a hammer blow to the vitals. There might be a short radio conversation between Vader and Padme while her ship locks in a collision course with his. ‘I can’t let the Republic die,’ she might say. ‘You can’t let the Jedi die, Ani. Search your feelings!’ (When you are conducting a life-or-death negotiation and every second counts, the dialogue can afford to be on the nose.) The Emperor looks on, unconcerned and sneering: he knows how strong the Dark Side is, and what chains of shared guilt bind his new apprentice to him. We see Vader on the bridge as the ship approaches in the viewport. He looks back and forth between the Emperor and his wife, indecisive — as he will one day look between the Emperor and Luke. But this time, he is not strong enough; he capitulates. At the last possible moment, he gives the weapons officer the order to open fire, and Padme’s ship is obliterated. Cut to an exterior shot of the command ship, bits of burning metal glancing off the hull. On the soundtrack, we hear Vader’s cry of loss and grief, and the Emperor’s triumphant laughter. This scenario, or something like it, would give Padme something to do, instead of being a stereotypical damsel in distress, and dying pointlessly of a broken heart. We could believe that a firebrand like Leia could be the daughter of such a mother. (Natalie Portman could have prepared for the role by carefully watching Leia’s scenes in A New Hope, and adopting similar mannerisms.) It would set up a resonance with the ending of Episode VI. Lucas is very fond of such resonances: he exploited them incessantly, even shamelessly, in the prequels. ‘Each stanza sort of rhymes with the last,’ as he puts it. The ending of Jedi would appear in a whole new light: Vader’s second chance, which he thought would never come: an opportunity to redeem his failure when Padme needed him most. Lucas had the right idea, or part of it, when he thought of making things rhyme. But rhyme in poetry is most effective at the end of a line. The word that rhymes is also the last word. Those, at any rate, are the ideas: they took me all of fifteen minutes’ creative discomfort — much less time to invent them than it took to write them down. I have no doubt that Lucas could have come up with better ones than these if he had seriously tried. But he was too used to making snap decisions and having them obeyed. Lucasfilm had become his perfect machine, a machine that incorporated hundreds of talented men and women in its works; a machine that would instantly do, not what he wanted done, but what he told it to do — as literal-minded as a computer. The days when he worked with equals, like Coppola, Spielberg, Kurtz, or Kasdan, were long gone; now he had only subordinates, too timid to question him, too small in stature to challenge him to do better. With such servants, his own capacity for creative discomfort atrophied and, I fear, eventually died. And to a great extent, the Star Wars prequels died along with it, leaving behind only a gigantic mausoleum of bloodless fight scenes and visual effects. They could have done so much more. They could have lived.