The upcoming movie The Force Awakens is about to bring back Star Wars in a huge way. The first new installment of the franchise in a decade, it’s been generating excitement since its first teaser trailer landed on the Internet a year ago. With all of this anticipation brewing, it’s time to look back at where the franchise started—with a novelization written by Alan Dean Foster.
Star Wars has always been connected to science-fiction books. George Lucas has long been a fan of science-fiction serials; he read series like Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter stories and comics like Flash Gordon. These influences culminated during Lucas’s film career, and he began production of his own science fantasy epic in 1975.
As production started, the film’s publicity department began work on a plan to get the word out about the film. One common method was to put together a novelization of the movie. The production’s publicist, Charles Lippincott, reached out to Ballantine Books, who in turn began looking for the right author. Donald Glut, who had been a classmate of Lucas’ at the University of Southern California, was one prospect. After he declined, Ballantine reached out to another author, Alan Dean Foster, who had already done work with novelizations. In a recent interview I conducted with Foster, he recounted that “Knowing George’s work primarily from American Graffiti…I said yes.”
Foster was 29 at the time, and had grown up around Hollywood and understood how films were produced and what his role would be in turning Lucas’ script into a novel. He had attended UCLA and began writing short fiction while in college, selling his first professional story to John W. Campbell Jr. at Analog Science Fiction and Fact in 1971. A year later, he sold his first novel to Ballantine Books, The Tar-Aiym Krang. After accepting the novelization job, Foster met with the production staff in December 1975 and received a script for the film, along with some concept art by Ralph McQuarrie.
“Between the 16mm reel and McQuarrie’s art I felt I had a good idea [of what the film would look like]. But I was doubtful everything that was on the page would actually end up on screen. I was pretty stunned when it did, and then some.”
With the script and artwork in hand, Foster set to work, and completed the novel in a mere six weeks, turning it in to his editors in May 1976. Foster met with Lucas and Lippincott during the summer of 1976 to discuss story changes and minor details, which Foster incorporated into his version. After Foster turned in the manuscript to his editors, Lucas reviewed it, finding that very little needed to be changed. Though, between the novelization and the final film, there are some minor differences.
In December 1976, the book arrived in stores, titled Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, by George Lucas. Foster’s name was nowhere on the cover: contractually, he was a ghostwriter and it would be almost two decades before he was able to say anything about his involvement. Immediately, the book began to sell, and to sell well. “I’m sure it helped prepare the ground for the release of the film,” Foster noted, “but I doubt it was in any way critical to the film’s success, which would have taken place regardless of whether or not there had been a book.”
Foster’s involvement wasn’t finished with that first book, however. Before the film’s release, Fox and even Lucas looked to hedge their bets on the space film. The film was risky, and its success in theaters wasn’t guaranteed. Lucas had constructed a massive world that he wanted to continue to play with, and on the off chance that the movie was only moderately successful, he wanted a story in place that would allow him to film a sequel on a low budget, using the same sets and props.
Foster got his marching orders: “Go write a sequel novel. Make it something that can be filmed on a low budget.” He set to work: the story he came up with utilized similar locations and props, incorporated some elements that had been cut from the original scripts, and featured only Leia Organa and Luke Skywalker, as nobody was really sure if Harrison Ford would return for a low-budget sequel. Lucas made some requests of the final manuscript: tone down a major space battle, which would likely translate into an expensive sequence if adapted for film.
As it turned out, however, Foster’s sequel wasn’t needed for the basis of another film: When Star Wars opened in theaters in May 1977, it became a major box office success over the course of that summer. A year later, Del Rey released Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. The sequel novel was a further adventure in the Star Wars universe, one that would now take place between Star Wars: A New Hope and the upcoming sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. It became popular with a fan base that clamored for more Star Wars stories.
From that point on, Foster was asked to write further adventures—a job he refused, although he continued to write novelizations for other science-fiction properties such as Aliens, The Black Hole, Outland, Krull, The Thing, The Last Starfighter and many others. It wasn’t until 2001 that he returned to the Star Wars universe with a prequel novel, The Approaching Storm, which helped to set up the events of Attack of the Clones. In April 2015, Del Rey books announced that Foster would be writing the novelization for the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, bringing his journey around full-circle.
Foster noted that the process for writing this novelization was different, 40 years after his first: “The main difference is that in the beginning, there was George and Gary.” Now, Disney and Lucasfilm are keeping a close handle on the story and associated merchandise that accompanies the film. Unlike the first film, there’s little doubt that the next film will be a major hit: “Lucasfilm/Disney is attempting to keep everything consistent. That makes perfect sense, but there’s a lot more checking of material that has to go back and forth.”
As far as how the film compares to the originals? Foster had a coy answer: “Not having seen it yet, I can only surmise based on what’s been made available to me. That’s a judgment that ultimately belongs with the fans.”