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The Real Reason George Lucas Started Star Wars With Episode 4

It turns out, all our teachers were wrong. The correct way to count is 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 9 — well, at least from a certain point of view. 

Star Wars is known today as a cultural phenomenon, but it wasn't always seen that way. The original film, A New Hope, was released back in 1977 with little hope (pun not intended) of success by even its creator, George Lucas. According to Screen Prism, Lucas was so sure of its failure that when it was released in cinemas, he was hiding out in Hawaii on vacation. But Lucas must have had some belief that the movie could be a hit, because buried deep in his mind was a plan to turn what looked like a standalone film into a series of movies. When A New Hope (then simply titled Star Wars) defied the odds, Lucas had been able to do just that with his cinematic baby. 

A New Hope was followed by The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, and Return of the Jedi came after in 1983 to complete the original Star Wars trilogy. Then, in 1999, a fourth Star Wars film was released. Only, it wasn't a fourth film – it was to be the first one on the Star Wars timeline. The Phantom Menace is in fact episode 1, and was succeeded by episodes 2 (Attack of the Clones in 2002) and 3 (Revenge of the Sith in 2005) to comprise a Star Wars prequel trilogy. More films were released from 2015 to 2019 – The Force AwakensThe Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker – which were sequels to the original three Star Wars films. 

But why create them in this order? Why not make the first Star Wars trilogy prequels, then create two separate sequel collections? Really, why did George Lucas start Star Wars with Episode 4?

The creation of a galaxy far, far away

The answer is a lot simpler than its accompanying questions suggest. Author Michael Kaminski writes in The Secret History of Star Wars that Lucas decided to start with the fourth episode "due to technical and storytelling reasons." He further explained, "Lucas had a massive, expensive epic on his hands, and divided the story into three separate films. He had also developed a backstory for his elaborate tale, which together totaled six chapters, and sought to make Episode IV first, due to technical and storytelling reasons. When the film by some miracle went into production, it was beset by problems of all kinds, and Lucas was sure it would be a failure—and was shocked when it became the biggest sensation of the year."

Lucas himself has corroborated this claim, stating, "The Star Wars series started out as a movie that ended up being so big that I took each act and cut it into its own movie [...] When I first did Star Wars, I did it as a big piece. It was like a big script. It was way too big to make into a movie. So I took the first third of it, which is basically the first act, and I turned that into what was the original Star Wars."

The story of A New Hope gave no context of the futuristic world in the film, throwing viewers straight into the action without any background knowledge. Doing so would later give Lucas the opportunity to go back and provide some context in the prequels. 

From the release of the first Star Wars film, there was talk that Lucas had three trilogies in mind – one of which would be a prequel trilogy that would deal with the political background needed for the Empire to become what it was in the original movie. Lucas always knew he wanted to create an entire galaxy far, far away – not just a standalone film. There's plenty of evidence of that in A New Hope, with references to the Clone Wars, the Jedi Order, and the Kessel Run hinting at an untold history. It took a number of different drafts of the first Star Wars film before the story of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), a poor farm boy from Tattoine who discovers he has Jedi powers and joins a band of rebels against an evil dictatorship in the form of the Empire, took shape — leaving other characters by the wayside to have their stories told later. Lucas kept them in the bank, and put some of his ideas into the film in passing mention to give that backstory. 

"I had the Star Wars project in mind even before I started my last picture, American Graffiti, and as soon as I finished I began writing Star Wars in January 1973," Lucas is quoted as saying in The Star Wars Souvenir Program (via The Secret History of Star Wars). "In fact, I wrote four entirely different screenplays for Star Wars, searching for just the right ingredients, characters, and story line."

Mace Windy (who became Mace Windu in the final story) and Annikin Starkiller (later Anakin Skywalker) are among the characters who were initially meant to be in the first film in Lucas' early drafts. Both appearance in the Star Wars prequels, although Anakin was technically part of the original trilogy given that he eventually transforms into Darth Vader. 

George Lucas had a ton of ideas, but not a ton of concrete plans

Lucas had a pretty specific vision in mind for A New Hope: he wanted the film to fade in with audiences, making it feel like they were coming in halfway through a larger story. It would pave the way for Lucas to be able to turn the film into a full movie series, and he already had groundwork laid for the backstory he would need to tell. 

That said, though, another reason why the Star Wars franchise began with Episode 4 was the fact that Lucas' first drafts were trying to cram too much into just one film. Though this foundation was in place and plenty of history had been hinted at in the original Star Wars film, Kaminski points out that Lucas didn't yet have the whole story of the original trilogy fleshed out. It was only mid-way through writing Empire Strikes Back that Lucas had the revelation to make Darth Vader be Luke's father, and then he had to explain why Obi-Wan Kenobi had told Luke that Vader had killed his father. More explanation was needed in Return of the Jedi, and then more in the three Star Wars prequels.

As much as Lucas had intentions to make an entire series of Star Wars movies to follow A New Hope, even he was fuzzy on the details at the time of the original film's writing. 

George Lucas always meant for the first Star Wars film to not be the true first

With the background in place — at least vaguely in his head — prior to the opening scene of A New Hope, Lucas ensured he would already have a semi-formed story for a prequel trilogy, should the films turn into a success. Handwritten notes on early drafts of the film indicate that A New Hope was supposed to be the sixth movie, not the fourth. Episode 1 would be a "prelude," with episodes 2 through 4 intended to document the Clone Wars — something that never ended up materializing on film. The fifth episode would conclude the Clone Wars and serve as a prologue to the original movie. The numbers changed over the years as Lucas wrote through his numerous drafts, and the first film was released without an episode number, after Lucas removed the "Episode IV" from the opening crawl at the last minute. 

Lucas warned audiences that the prequel trilogy would vastly alter their view of the original trilogy, and that it did. While Darth Vader entered the scene as an evil, robotic henchman of an evil Emperor, the prequels showed how that had happened. The OG Star Wars trilogy may have been about Luke Skywalker, but the prequels gave us Vader's backstory, and also clarified that the Emperor was no more than a crooked politician gone mad on power. 

According to Denise Worrell's 1983 book Icons: Intimate Portraits, Lucas intended for the third Star Wars trilogy to "delve into moral and philosophical problems" — with the first (the prequels) "dealing with the social and political" aspects of life, and the second (the original movies) covering "personal growth and self-realization" (via The Portland Press Herald).Though Lucas already had it set in his mind to make episodes 7 through 9, he hadn't yet mapped the actual story that would unfold in those three films. What he did know was that he wanted the original three heroes to make a return, according to ComicBook.com. Lucas got his wish on that final point – giving them a chance to say their final goodbyes as the Skywalker saga comes to an end with the release of The Rise of Skywalker on December 20.