Book Review

Fascinating book reveals the origins of a cultural phenomenon


The Secret History of Star Wars

In 1977, a movie debuted that broke the Hollywood mold, revolutionized the use of special effects, changed the way movies were made forever and basically rewrote the landscape of entertainment for a generation to come.

"Star Wars" took the world of movies by surprise, achieving success far beyond any expectations. And because of that impact, the history of how the movie came about has been altered over the years, creating a mythos that isn't quite true.

"The Secret History of Star Wars: The Art of Storytelling and the Making of a Modern Epic" by Michael Kaminski is a book that lives up to its long title. The tome weighs in at 446 pages (not counting the 87 pages of appendices, the 50 pages of endnotes, the 18-page bibliography and 10-page index) and is a detailed and meticulously researched retelling of the creation of the Star Wars movies.

The length of the book may be daunting, but it covers the creation of six movies over the course of 30 years. Broken down by movie, the book doesn't seem nearly as long. The length of the book is not a flaw. However, the repetition of material is a problem.

Kaminski writes in a friendly if earnest style, making his book easy to read. At least, for awhile until the reader notices that he's quoted the same material in support of the same point twice and that he's tackling that point from every conceivable angle. Then it starts to bog down.

Even an interested reader will get frustrated by the repetition. In some cases Kaminski makes his point, then makes the exact same point in a slightly different way in the very next section. The book would be easier on the reader if the extra information from that second section had been incorporated into the first section, instead of in what amounts to a brand new essay on the same subject.

If the purpose of the book is to convince hard-core fans, the repetition serves to drive home his premise. If the purpose of the book is to entertain and inform non-fans, it's simply too much to take.

Kaminski's premise is certainly sound. Today, the generally accepted story is that Lucas set out to tell the tragedy of Darth Vader in six episodic movies, starting at episode four with Vader's son. Kaminski does a solid job of proving that this concept of the "Star Wars" saga is a later construct, supported by Lucas because it makes him look more like the master of storytelling that people thought he was after the success of the original trilogy.

Kaminski also sets out to prove that the mythos behind "Star Wars" changed continually as time passed. For instance, he finds quotes from Lucas through time where he goes from saying he planned on 12 movies to nine movies and eventually to the six that finally were produced. In each case Lucas would say he had always planned that many movies.

To prove his case, Kaminski uses notes and artwork from early books on the movies, original draft scripts, quotes from news interviews and other secondary sources to show the development of the movies from concept to final script.

His description of the creation of the original movie is fascinating, showing all the influences on the script and how it changed from draft to draft. The original "Star Wars" movie had extremely complicated origins, owing its plot to a number of different movies and growing organically out of roots in pulp movies and popular fiction.

Any writer with an interest in movie-making will find this interesting, with the caveat that the chapters covering the origins of the first movie have the most repetition in the book.

Kaminski goes on to explore the origins of the other five movies in similar detail, concentrating on the reasons behind plot choices, and how those decisions mean that Lucas really was making it all up as he went along. Kaminski proves that Lucas had no master plan for the series as a whole, and the original movie was about Luke, not Vader on his path to redemption.

Kaminski also ties the personal life of Lucas into the events, helping the reader to understand why certain events happened, such as the long delay between the original trilogy and the prequels.

There is a solid volume within this book that would be a major asset for understanding the history of film-making in the late 20th century, if only it were edited to remove repetition. The impact of "Star Wars" on American culture is hard to overstate and this book goes a long way to dispelling the myths, intentional and not, around its creation.

However, as it is written, this book will appeal mostly to people who are already fanatical about "Star Wars," people with an interest in the process of scriptwriting and people who want to learn more about the history of film.

Casual fans will be put off by the length of the book, but it is the repetition within the book and not length that will make it a hard read.


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