What were George Lucas’ original plans for Darth Vader’s backstory in Star Wars? Lucas has always liked to claim that he had the entire Star Wars saga planned from the beginning – including the twist that Darth Vader was Luke’s father. He explicitly said as much in an introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of the novelization of A New Hope. “When I wrote the original Star Wars screenplay,” he explained, “I knew that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father; the audience did not. I always felt that this revelation, when and if I got the chance to make it, would be shocking, but I never expected the level of emotional attachment that audiences had developed for Luke.“
In truth, though, there’s precious little evidence to support this claim. After all, it’s common knowledge that Lucas changed direction a number of times while working on the Original Trilogy; would he really have shot that infamous kiss between Luke and Leia if he’d planned them to be brother and sister? None of the earliest drafts of A New Hope hint at the Darth Vader twist, and in fact some featured Darth Vader and proto-Anakin characters in conflict with one another. What’s more, comments from Lucas back in 1977 suggest a very different direction.
In the summer of 1977, Lucas attempted to expand the universe by recording a number of in-character spots. These aren’t necessarily considered canon anymore (one of them provided a backstory for Han Solo that’s very different to the tale told in Solo: A Star Wars Story) but they did lay out the groundwork for the Prequel Trilogy. Although they didn’t suggest that the Emperor was a Sith Lord, they revealed the basics of how he rose to power and corrupted the Old Republic. They also confirm very different plans for the history of Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker.
- This Page: Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker’s Original Backstories
- Page 2: Why Darth Vader’s Backstory Was Changed
Darth Vader’s Original Backstory
First of all, it’s crucial to note that there was always an element of mystery in the past of both Darth Vader and the Emperor. “The Death Star had readouts about everyone on board,” Lucas explained in one character-slot as C-3PO. “Except Darth Vader. Darth Vader is really attached to the Emperor himself, and he was not really part of the Death Star personnel or any of that system.” In fact, Lucas deliberately established that there are no images of the Emperor himself. This heavily implies that Lucas already had some sort of twists in mind.
According to these early expansions of the Star Wars universe, Lucas originally intended the Emperor to have taken over control of the Senate years ago. A little over half the Senate resisted the Emperor’s corrupting influence, and they tried to oust him legally by having him impeached. The Jedi Knights were immediately alerted, and sided with the Senate against the Emperor. But many of the Senators opposed to the new regime mysteriously died; and meanwhile, the Emperor already had a plan to take down the Jedi. “There was a plot afoot,” Lucas revealed. “When the Jedi tried to restore order, Darth Vader was still one of the Jedi. What he would do is catch the Jedi off guard and, using his knowledge of the Force, he would kill the Jedi without them realizing what was happening.“
At the height of the Jedi, there were several hundred thousand, but Darth Vader – and crack troops the Emperor had secretly been preparing – slaughtered them. The Jedi scattered, and although they tried to regroup, they were hunted down by Darth Vader and his elite forces. Interestingly, Lucas specified that only a few were left alive – including Obi-Wan and Luke’s father. That last comment confirms that Lucas did not originally intend Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker to be the same person; in fact, it sounds as though he imagined Anakin to be one of the last Jedi killed by Vader.
Anakin Skywalker’s Original Backstory
Unsurprisingly, this means Anakin Skywalker’s original backstory was very different as well. Anakin Skywalker was envisioned as a Jedi Knight – a heroic starfighter pilot who fought against the Empire in the early days of the Rebellion. Although Anakin was ultimately tracked down and killed by Darth Vader, it wasn’t before he managed to send his two children into hiding.
This is confirmed by Leigh Brackett‘s first draft of the script for The Empire Strikes Back, which was drawn up from Lucas’ copious notes and doesn’t contain any hint of the famous “I am your father” reveal. There are a number of key differences between this draft and the final theatrical cut, suggesting Lucas hadn’t cemented his plans as much as he likes to claim. Han isn’t captured, Luke doesn’t lose a hand, Luke does have a twin sister (but it might not be Leia), and Luke actually gets to meet his father. On Dagobah – which Brackett referred to as Bog World – Luke is mentored by both the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Force-Ghost of his father. Here’s what Anakin had to say to his son:
Anakin: You’ve grown well, Luke, I’m proud of you. Did your uncle ever speak to you about your sister?
Luke: My sister? I have a sister? But why didn’t Uncle Owen..?
Anakin: It was my request. When I saw the Empire closing in, I sent you both away for your own safety, far apart from each other.
Luke: Where is she? What’s her name?
Anakin: If I were to tell you, Darth Vader could get that information from your mind and use her as a hostage. Not yet, Luke. When it’s time… Luke. Will you take, from me, the oath of a Jedi knight?”
Towards the end of the script, Darth Vader taunted Luke: “You don’t stand a chance against me… No more than your father did anyway.” It really does seem that, in Lucas’ original plans, Obi-Wan Kenobi was being entirely honest when he told Luke about his father and Darth Vader’s betrayal.
Page 2 of 2: Why Darth Vader’s Backstory Changed
Why Darth Vader’s Backstory Changed
Leigh Brackett sadly passed away shortly after completing the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back. In the absence of a writer, George Lucas took over the second draft himself. According to the annotated screenplay, “The notion of Vader being Luke’s father first appeared in the second draft. Vader became attracted to the dark side while he was training to become a Jedi. He became a Jedi and killed most of the Jedi Knights. Ben fought Vader and pushed him down a nuclear reactor shaft. One of his arms was severed, and Ben believed he had killed Vader; in fact Vader survived and became a mutant.” (Presumably the word “mutant” should read “cyborg.”)
In hindsight, there’s a sense in which it was inevitable the theme of fathers and sons would somehow be incorporated into Star Wars. Every artist puts a little bit of their own soul in their creation, and that’s the case with scriptwriters and directors just as much as it is with poets and painters. George Lucas was no stranger to family conflict; his father, George Sr., was a domineering right-wing businessman who had his son’s life planned out for him. It wasn’t that George Sr. wanted his son to embrace the Dark Side, of course – rather, he intended George to join the family business and run an office equipment store. That prospect horrified Lucas, who remembered harsh arguments over the matter. In an interview with USA Today, he recalled telling his father, “‘I will never go to work every day doing the same thing day in and day out.” By the 1970s, the two were estranged, and had nothing to do with one another.
Lucas’ closest friends have always maintained that the relationship between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader was modeled on his own conflict with his father – albeit exaggerated to a fantastical degree. In A New Hope, Darth Vader was nothing more than a monster. When Lucas settled on the idea of having him be Anakin Skywalker, he became a true three-dimensional character in his own right, an embodiment of Lucas’ own father-son relationship. Just as George Sr. wanted his son to stay in the family business, so Darth Vader invited Luke to join him and rule the Empire at his side. Just as George Lucas refused, so did Luke. Viewed through this lens, Return of the Jedi‘s themes of forgiveness and redemption, of a father sacrificing himself for his son and so bestowing value upon him, are almost cathartic. Happily, as The Atlantic notes, Lucas was ultimately reconciled with his father. “He lived to see me finally go from a worthless, as he would call ‘late bloomer’ to actually being successful,” Lucas observed. “I gave him the one thing every parent wants: to have your kid be safe and able to take care of himself. That was all he really wanted, and that’s what he got.“
Of course, it does help that the “I am your father” twist works so effectively. Where A New Hope is a Campbellian Hero’s Journey writ large, The Empire Strikes Back makes the story infinitely more personal. It turns Star Wars into a tale of intergenerational conflict, creating opportunities for transcendent themes of redemption and reconciliation. There is a mild contradiction with Obi-Wan’s discussion about Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker in A New Hope, but that’s easily enough resolved; as Return of the Jedi explained, Obi-Wan was simply speaking the truth “from a certain point of view.“
The relationship between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker sits at the heart of the Star Wars Saga. Lucas has happily attempted to persuade people he had this twist planned out all the way along, even making up the idea that “Darth Vader” is German for “Dark Father” (it isn’t). But does it matter whether or not he planned it out? The simple truth is that the artist spotted an opportunity to create something powerful, and in so doing fashioned one of the most iconic plots of all time.