When I was a child – a first generation fan of the 1977 film – the idea would have seemed impossible, like trying to conceive of too many Christmas presents.
I had Star Wars books, Star Wars comics, Star Wars records, Star Wars stationery, and I still thought the world’s chief problem was that there was not enough Star Wars in it.
Today, I blog about the original film, so it occupies more of my time than might be considered healthy. And yet I’m starting to think there may be too much Star Wars around.
I don’t mean that there’s not a demand for it, of course. The continued success of the merchandising, the books, the TV series and so on suggests that there’s a market for more Star Wars than you could wave a lightsaber at. But it seems to me that there is a danger of devaluing the currency and eclipsing the freshness and fun of that original 1977 film.
The Star Wars spin-off industry – or “expanded universe”, as we’re supposed to call it – began soon after George Lucas’s original film, with the publication of Alan Dean Foster’s novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. Shortly after that, the authors of the original Marvel Comics adaptation of the film continued the story while under instructions not to develop any romantic plots or let Luke Skywalker meet Darth Vader.
But Star Wars spin-offs got a new lease of life in 1991, with the publication of Heir to the Empire, the first in a trilogy of novels by Timothy Zahn, set after Return of the Jedi. I read that one and thought it was good, but as Zahn’s novel was followed by a bewildering array of books by other authors, I felt no inclination to keep up. There is only time to read a finite number of books in this life, and if you try and keep pace with the Star Wars novels, you’re going to be doing nothing else.
As the spin-offs mushroomed, Lucasfilm started to develop a policy about what counted as part of the saga’s official continuity. It was reminiscent of that period around the fourth century A.D. when church elders started settling which scriptures were going to make it into the New Testament. Lucasfilm even used religious-sounding terminology as it handed down rulings on which works of fiction constituted part of the “canon”.
The spin-off industry paved the way for George Lucas’s own return to the Star Wars saga, of course, which in turn led to countless more books, comics, TV series, video games and so on.
I’m the last person to judge people by what stories they enjoy. But when such a large chunk of the SF section in any given bookstore is given over to Star Wars, you have to wonder what chance there is of its fans discovering the literature that Lucas drew upon in the 1970s.
What’s more, I think people are in danger of losing sight of why the 1977 movie was so great. That film tapped into the potency of a host of other narratives. It was inspired by Flash Gordon and it unashamedly borrowed imagery and incidents from all kinds of literature and movies – SF, westerns, war films and much more. It was the greatest family movie since The Adventures of Robin Hood. But I don’t think the general public think of that sublimely exciting first film when they think of Star Wars; I think the title now makes them think instead of an almost infinitely bloated spin-off industry and the more obsessive members of its fandom.
And what happened to George Lucas, that earnest 33-year-old writer-director who persuaded 20th Century-Fox to finance his space adventure? Star Wars was his third film – and his third good film. A great creative future should have lain ahead of him. Yet for the rest of his career he became Mr Star Wars, frequently protesting that he was really interested in small, experimental movies, but never making them.
Of course, some good things have emerged from the Star Wars industry. For example, I’ve seen and enjoyed some of the Clone Wars TV series, which seems much more in keeping with the Flash Gordon spirit of the original film than Lucas’s own prequels did. But it’s hard to stay interested in the franchise when there is so much of it.
I now feel oddly ambivalent about the prospect of a Star Wars Episode VII. I suspect it’ll be a good film, because I’ve liked all JJ Abrams’ films so far. But even if he delivers a great movie, Abrams won’t be involved in the franchise forever.
Meanwhile, Disney has talked about alternating further episodes of the saga with spin-off films devoted to individual characters. The studio already owns the Marvel movies, which it seems to produce faster than the TV industry grinds out sitcoms, so it looks as though we can expect Star Wars to be milked just as relentlessly.
If there really is such a thing as too much Star Wars, Disney is surely determined to find out.