When I first heard about Chris Taylor’s book, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, I was hesitant to pick it up. After all, I’d read just about all the biographies on George Lucas I could find and considered myself an amateur expert on the history of the film franchise. Ever since my brother and I sat on the floor of the Portland Public library and watched a behind the scenes documentary on the making of the original movie, I was fascinated by the world building behind the movie that’s my earliest memory. What could this book possibly tell me I didn’t already know? It turns out, quite a lot.
Taylor’s book opens up with a trip he took to a reservation where Star Wars is about to be screened for the very first time dubbed in the Navajo language. This is one small glimpse of the effort he’s gone to get the true story of the film franchise. Taylor doesn’t just reprint old answers to questions. He digs deeper, sometime uncomfortably pestering people – such as the case of Darth Vader actor David Prowse (now suffering from dementia) – in order to reconcile lingering questions about what really happened.
Taylor painstakingly traces the evolution of Star Wars script in its many, many iterations; the earliest of which are barely recognizable. For aspiring writers or creators it’s worth reading the book for this alone. Seeing how truly bad the greatest narrative franchise could have been (and never reaching the screen), reinforces the fact that great works don’t come from sudden flashes of brilliance, but is an agonizing process of reiteration after iteration.
Unlike Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs that felt like it was written by a very reluctant writer who never really understood his subject and glossed over pivotal points in his life because they didn’t fit the narrative he’d predetermined, Taylor’s story is genuine. While at the onset we know it’s about Star Wars, and really Lucas, our understanding of the man grows deeper as we follow the creation of his empire. Lucas’s strengths and flaws are on full display, but we come away loving him all the more for what he achieved. He’s not a mythic god that conjured up Star Wars at the snap of his fingers. As Taylor shows, when Lucas tried to capture that magic again, with his heart a less into it and without the enthusiastic help of his peers, we got the prequels.
The story that unfolds isn’t just a play-by-play of how the films were made. Besides Lucas’s journey, Taylor reveals the cultural impact and tells the stories of fans who walked out of the theaters changed by what they’d seen. For example, we get an inside look of the 501st, one of the largest costumed organization in the world, that’s gone from being a lone man in a Stormtrooper suit to a global organization that’s been ambassadors for Lucasfilm and appeared in everything from car commercials to escorting their spiritual creator, George Lucas in parades. We meet R2D2 builder clubs and find out how a couple of fans found their way to working on the set of Episode 7.
Taylor analyzes why Star Wars fandom is special. While Harry Potter devotees (such as myself) may feel the same way towards Hogwarts as our own alma maters, there’s something about that galaxy far, far away that draws us back again and again.
He covers an impressive amount of ground in the Star Wars universe: Everything from the Alan Dean Foster Splinter in the Mind’s Eye novel in the 1970’s that could have been the movie we got in an alternate universe where Star Wars was a mediocre success, to the launch of the new Star Wars cartoon series, Rebels. Taylor digs up the fullest accounting of the Star Wars Holiday Special I’ve heard to date (It was originally conceived as a backdoor pilot for a television series!).
I recommend this book with the utmost amount of enthusiasm. Even if you have no interest in the Star Wars, but consider yourself a creator, it’s a wonderful biography of one of the most successful filmmakers of all time with a detailed behind the scenes analysis. As a historical biography, it’s probably the most well-written, originally researched one I can recall. It’s one thing to dig up interviews from old copies of Starlog magazine, it’s another level of dedication entirely for an author to put on a Boba Fett suit and stroll through a convention and see the fan reaction firsthand.
I’m excited to see what Chris Taylor writes next, even if it has nothing to do with wookies or galaxies far, far away.
Nick Podehl's reading is fantastic.
The small, small print…My one tiny note, and it’s a very minor one at that, is a chapter towards the end. Taylor mentions George Lucas’s wish that Star Wars would inspire a generation to want to explore space and claims that it fell short of that. While he explains NASA’s malaise of purpose, he overlooks the exciting things happening in the private space industry in conjunction with NASA. When Lucas expressed his hope that a young Star Wars fan would grow up to colonize Mars and “try to find a wookie,” I was expecting Taylor to mention SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk. Musk, is a huge Star Wars fan, not only has he expressed a desire to colonize Mars and dedicated his fortune to that purpose, the rocket he currently sends to resupply the International Space Station is called the Falcon, as in the Millenium Falcon. Think on this for a moment: Elon Musk is a privateer doing cargo runs with a ship called the Falcon. Two weeks from this writing, Musk plans to try to land the first stage of the Falcon on a barge, making it reusable. What does he call the four stabilizers that pop out for landing? X-Wings. You can’t find a greater example of fandom than a man naming his billion-dollar rocket fleet after the Millenium Falcon and developing X-Wings to make the dream of reusable spacecraft a reality. This is just a footnote I’d add to an amazing book.