In 1973, a young filmmaker named George Lucas scribbled some notes for a far-fetched space-fantasy epic. More than 40 years and $37 billion later, Star Wars-related products outnumber human beings, a stormtrooper army spans the globe, and “Jediism” has become a religion in its own right. Lucas’s creation has grown into far more than a cinematic classic; it is, quite simply, one of the most lucrative, influential, and interactive franchises of all time. Yet until now the complete history of Star Wars - its influences and impact, the controversies it has spawned, its financial growth and long-term prospects - has never been told. In How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, veteran journalist Chris Taylor traces the series from the difficult birth of the original film through its sequels, the franchise’s death and rebirth, the prequels, and the preparations for a new trilogy. Taylor provides portraits of the friends, writers, artists, producers, and marketers who labored behind the scenes to turn Lucas’s idea into a legend. He also jousts with modern-day Jedi, tinkers with droid builders, and gets inside Boba Fett’s helmet, all to find out how Star Wars has attracted and inspired so many fans for so long. Since the first film’s release in 1977, Taylor shows, Star Wars has conquered our culture with a sense of lightness and exuberance, while remaining serious enough to influence politics around the world and spread a spirituality that appeals to religious groups and atheists alike. Controversial digital upgrades and critically savaged prequels have actually made the franchise stronger than ever. Now, with a new set of savvy bosses holding the reins and Episode VII on the horizon, it looks like Star Wars is just getting started. An energetic, fast-moving account of this creative and commercial phenomenon, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe explains how a filmmaker’s fragile dream beat out a surprising number of rivals and gained a die-hard, multigenerational fan base - and why it will be galvanizing our imaginations and minting money for generations to come.
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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.
I have mixed feelings about the Star Wars Universe and my status as a fan after listening to this book. I became a fan as a result of trying to bond with my son after returning from my deployment to Iraq. I understand Star Wars is ultimately a fantasy. However, I find it hard not to question Star Wars and George Lucas after learning Lucas was "inspired" to compare the service of my family members during the Vietnam War, and my own service in Iraq, as "imperial". All I can say is I hope Lucas is grateful my family's remittance for his products has built his wealth, while our service has protected his freedom to become a millionaire/billionaire in the country he shaded as the "Empire".