There’s a perennial argument playing out over and over on the internet: did George Lucas ruin Star Wars? The franchise’s creator did himself few favors with the Special Editions and prequel trilogy, but he never seemed to care about the reaction from series fans. A new biography by Jim Henson biographer Brian Jay Jones came out this week, and it puts together an interesting picture of the man who created one of the world’s biggest franchises. George Lucas: A Life is an engaging, interesting read, going far beyond Lucas’ work on the movies for which he’s best known and takes a big-picture view to examine his impact on cinema as a whole.
Jones paints a picture of a complicated, intelligent, quiet man who not only knows exactly what he wants, but is determined to get his way. His character sketch helps provide context for Lucas’ career, especially the things he’s been most reviled for.
The main takeaway from this biography is Lucas’ unease about the traditional film industry, and his stubbornness when he’s bringing his stories to the screen. His reluctance to play by the rules has been a defining feature throughout his career. This trend began while Lucas was a budding filmmaker. Jones recounts several anecdotes from Lucas’ time at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, where he ignored rules set down by his instructors. At one point, his teachers told students to stay under a certain time limit for a short film. Another asked for a film to be shot on campus, while another asked for films to be filmed in black and white. Lucas ignored all these instructions, making the films he wanted to make.
Lucas was a self-assured filmmaker, confident in his vision for his projects, which gave him an outsized reputation when he was breaking into the industry with THX-1138 and American Graffiti. Jones frequently says Lucas desired a high level of control over his productions, from the early scripts to the cameras to the editing.
These two elements — his confidence and control — defined Lucas’ work style throughout his career, and frequently set him up against the studios he was forced to rely on to get his movies made. While filming American Graffiti, Lucas repeatedly clashed with Ned Tanen of Universal Pictures, who didn’t see eye to eye on the direction of the film. The interference that Tanen imposed on the film left Lucas with a deep mistrust of film executives and the bureaucratic apparatus that makes up major studios.
Jones points to Lucas’ distrust of the entrenched studio system and trade unions as stemming from his upbringing: “Lucas had already decided he didn’t like the system — or the machine, for that matter,“ Jones writes. “‘I was disposed against it, mainly because of my first experiences trying to get a job with Haskell [Wexler] and not being able to,’ Lucas said in 1971, still smarting from the rejection. ‘Being shut out… I thought it was extremely unfair.’” This moment seems to set Lucas on his path: if he wasn’t going to be let into the system, he would make films his own way. Star Wars emerged from this mix of stubborn impulses and defiant independence. Its extraordinary success redefined cinema for decades to come, which gave Lucas an edge when he was negotiating and financing other projects.
Fast-forward two decades, and Lucas set out to return to the Star Wars universe, writing and directing The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith, each of which stirred up passionate feelings from fans who were still smarting from his decisions to tinker with the re-release of the original films.
Jones lays out a compelling backstory for Lucas that helps explain the later part of his career. A lifetime of frustrations with entrenched studio bosses and trade unions, and that ongoing desire for complete creative control, both led him to producing the films he wanted to make. The passionate fanbase that grew up with Star Wars was simply along for the ride, and simply didn’t figure into his vision for the project.
This is what makes Lucas’ sale of Lucasfilm interesting to watch, especially as Disney has released The Force Awakens and Rogue One as new chapters in the Star Wars franchise. Following the release of The Force Awakens, Lucas spoke with Charlie Rose, smarting that Disney and J.J. Abrams didn’t do anything with the treatments he’d already developed. Jones paints a picture of a creator who has given up his creation and retired, but still struggles with the direction the sequels have taken.
George Lucas: A Life shows a man who essentially reshaped the film industry, going up against the biggest organizations and overcoming them. It’s well-researched, and full of keen insights into George Lucas as a businessman and artist. As the Star Wars franchise takes its next steps under a new guiding hand, the book helps provide some essential background that suggests where it all came from, if not where it’s going next.