As somebody who still regularly buys Blu-rays predominantly for the collectability factor, I’m a little picky about which editions I splash out for. Take Star Wars – I’d been meaning to get a box set of the saga for years, but there was a particular version I was after, a version I was only able to find second hand. You’ve probably seen it; a light orange box depicting a painting of the Lars farm with the figure of little boy Anakin walking away beside the ghostly shape of adult Luke returning, all illuminated by the twin suns. It speaks of a story coming full circle, the son completing the work his father failed, a reckoning with the past. The fact that it’s a painting adds a somewhat mythic feeling to it. For better or worse you look at that box set and you see the representation of the complete vision George Lucas sought to bring to the screen.
You can technically still get the six film ‘Complete Saga’ set, but the painting has been replaced with an ugly, generic picture of Darth Vader against a grey background that feels strikingly less significant. Given that this repackaging emerged shortly after Disney purchased Lucasfilm, it’s hard not to read into it a deliberate de-legitimising of the concept that Star Wars was done at six episodes in order to pre-empt a later release of a nine film set that will suggest you don’t get the full story until you’ve seen Disney’s sequel trilogy as well.
Lending credence to this half-baked conspiracy theory is the marketing surrounding The Rise of Skywalker. With a faint whiff of desperation it has tried to convince us that what will hit screens in December is the long awaited conclusion to a beloved story, the keystone that will tie everything together, the ending we’ve been waiting for. JJ Abrams has talked extensively in interviews about how this film will bring all the threads of the preceding eight instalments together in a way that feels satisfying and inevitable, how this is what the entire franchise has been building towards since 1977. Which would all seem very exciting if the story hadn’t ended in 1983.
Naturally I’m aware that Lucas occasionally alluded to a possible sequel trilogy over the years, but you can’t look at Return of the Jedi and not see it as a conclusion, just like you can’t look at The Force Awakens and not see a somewhat depressing undoing of everything the original trilogy resolved. By merit of its very existence the sequel trilogy shatters the assumed significance of the events of the original three films, forcing a scenario in which we need The Rise of Skywalker to succeed in order to give the whole story meaning.
If, that is, we take the Disney films as canon.
To clarify; I don’t think Disney Star Wars has been inherently bad. I’m an ardent defender of The Last Jedi and I think the Star Wars universe can sustain new stories from new creators – decades of the much beloved Expanded Universe proved as much. But I also believe that the original creator told the story he wanted to tell and anything additional will only ever be an addendum.
But the legitimacy of Disney’s instalments has already been challenged by the existence of the Expanded Universe, which in its time had just as strong of a claim to significance and just as little support from George Lucas. So which of the two variations of ongoing Star Wars adventures is the real one? And does the lack of involvement from the man who created this story mean that neither can be seen as valid?
Lucas, of course, sold Star Wars so there’s a decent argument that his approval or lack thereof isn’t important. But of course Star Wars is far from the only property with this question of canon hanging over it. The recent Watchmen TV series, serving as a present-day sequel to the seminal graphic novel, is probably the best new show I’ve seen in years. It’s also something Alan Moore, the original writer, remains vehemently opposed to. It’s also not the only ongoing sequel to Watchmen, with the comic book limited series Doomsday Clock offering an entirely different version of what happened next.
So which is the real sequel to Watchmen? Both are high profile projects in their respective mediums, both have been well received, and both are detested by Moore.
It’s easy enough to write them off on Moore’s say-so. But as a longstanding Watchmen fan I absolutely adore the TV show, which pays tribute to the original while charting a path entirely its own – the first adaptation I’ve seen since Hannibal that pulls this off with such evident ease and confidence. And maybe this is partly do with the attitude of the creators; Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Damon Lindelof (Watchmen) as showrunners have both proudly and openly designated their respective series as ‘fan fiction’, casting themselves as the pupil paying tribute to the master who inspired them rather than a new genius picking up the mantle. Lindelof in particular has been very thoughtful and even handed in interviews regarding how to approach his show when Moore, a man he reveres, spits on its very existence.
Although it’s worth noting that Alan Moore, writer of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, is in no position to complain about people adapting other writers’ properties without their permission. The guy turned Harry Potter into the antichrist.
It’s no secret that we’re living in an age where every popular property is being rebooted with or without the original creator on board, some with more success than others. Just ask the Terminator franchise. Since the high point of T2 in the nineties we have been given no less than four different continuities that continue from it. The most recent, Dark Fate, tried to stake its claim by bringing back Linda Blair and re-involving James Cameron to provide some story ideas along with an endorsement. Except he also endorsed the much loathed Genisys, stating – as he since has with Dark Fate – that it should be seen as the real third instalment. When even the creator seems to change his mind regarding what is canon, it’s hard to know why we should take any of this especially seriously.
Do I see Dark Fate, Disney’s Star Wars or Lindelof’s Watchmen as canon to the originals? Honestly, no. I don’t think that thirty years after Adrian Veidt dropped his squid Alan Moore foresaw his plot having far reaching consequences in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But that doesn’t mean I enjoy the show any less or that I don’t think it has inherent worth. Since the dawn of time writers have been stealing from and adding to the stories that inspired them. If Homer and Shakespeare had been worried about canon or ownership then a lot of western literature simply wouldn’t have existed. That’s not to say that we should endeavour to steal or that we should value fan fiction over original stories, but a new creator playing in a sandpit built by somebody else doesn’t need to be a bad thing.
One of the reasons I so strongly defend The Last Jedi even though I recognise its flaws is that, unlike so many other recent blockbusters, it feels like somebody’s vision. In its big swings for the fences, its attempts to tackle difficult themes and its willingness to look a bit silly in the process it feels like the work of a creator passionate about the world he’s been invited to explore but trying to tell his own story.
It’s suggestive of the possibilities that franchises could offer; a world in which exciting new storytellers can put their own stamp on the worlds and characters that inspired them. And maybe it’s for the best to take a leaf out of Lindelof’s book and state outright that a property should be seen as fan fiction rather than rigidly canon. Some of the most beloved comics, after all, have featured characters like Batman or Superman in parallel universes that don’t impact the main storyline. Films like Logan or Joker, which adopt a similar ethos, demonstrate how this is possible within the film industry as well. It just remains to be seen whether this willingness to embrace a story’s outlier status can apply to franchises not based on comics to begin with.
Of course these questions will be debated forever. Is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, not written by JK Rowling, canon? What about the Fantastic Beasts films, which are? Is Halloween 2, H20 or last year’s Halloween the true sequel to John Carpenter’s original classic when they all claim that status?
Or, as George RR Martin loves to say, how many children did Scarlett O’Hara have? The book says one thing, the film says another and neither really matters because it’s all made up anyway. Questions of ownership are important but let’s be real; if George Lucas ever was planning his own Star Wars sequel trilogy then the reason it never happened is because most ‘fans’ loudly and persistently told him he’d ruined his own stories. And he’s far from the only once-beloved creator to later be accused of screwing it all up. Most consumers, in the end, don’t really care who’s telling a story or whether it’s been given some ersatz stamp of approval as long as they’re being told a good one.
The notion of canon is an arbitrary construct that only matters if, like me, you spend way too much time worrying about the mechanics of stuff that never happened rather than how much enjoyment said stuff is bringing you.
Writing words about writing words.