Beginning, middle, and end. This is the structure that has dictated storytelling since the dawn of time. We learn about it as toddlers. We spend our days reading, watching, and loving media that abides by it. It feels natural to us. So why, then, did one of the greatest franchises in cinematic history start with Episode IV? Well. In short: it didn’t.
When the first Star Wars film came to theaters, it was simply named Star Wars. There was no episode number and there was no subtitle—just that iconic outlined logo, thrown onto the screen alongside that beautiful John Williams score and followed by the words “It is a period of civil war.”
Based on George Lucas’ prior history in Hollywood, he didn’t anticipate the massive success that he was about to be apart of. No one truly could have. The intensity and speed with which Star Wars trampled the pop culture of its time surprised everyone. Instead of the commissioned novel that he originally planned to adapt into a low-budget sequel, Lucas decided that he wanted to take a more active role in the creation of the followup screenplay. Alongside writer Leigh Brackett, the two completed a rough draft for a sequel to follow the box office hit.
Tragically, Brackett passed before the story could make any further progress. It was in the wake of this death that Lucas wrote two more drafts of the story, these versions much closer to the movie that audiences know today. As is usually the case with first drafts, much of the original screenplay was scrapped or altered. A character named Minch was changed to Yoda. Han’s B plot was eliminated almost entirely.
And, most notably, Darth Vader became Luke’s father.
It seems strange to imagine the original trilogy without its famous twist, but initially Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker had very little to do with one another. In fact, Luke’s father appears within the original screenplay as a force ghost, completely separate from Vader. It wasn’t until those later drafts that Lucas started to build out Anakin Skywalker’s legend and connect the two characters. Lawrence Kasdan, the next writer hired onto the project, then helped bring these ideas to fruition.
By the time the second movie hit theaters, Lucas knew that there was a much larger story to be told. With a greater understanding of Anakin Skywalker, he began to make plans for the creation of a prequel series—three prequels to be exact, because Lucas favored the three-act structure of storytelling.
In May of 1980, Empire was released in theaters as Episode V. Roughly a year later, the movie originally titled Star Wars was rereleased in theaters as Episode IV: A New Hope with an updated opening crawl to match. Intrigue spiked. Fans wanted to know why anyone would start in the middle of a story, and they were ravenous for the mysterious Episodes I through III.
It’s messy. There’s no denying that. But there’s also a little bit of charm to it. Sometimes writers have pages of plot notes, but sometimes they stumble into their stories. In this case, it seems like Geroge Lucas encountered the latter. Somehow, he found himself in the middle of a story far grander than he had originally planned and he wanted to tell it to the millions of people with whom he shared that galaxy far far away. When Star Wars suddenly became Episode IV, he made a promise to do exactly that.
Middle, Beginning, End: Understanding the Order of Star Wars
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