Bet that got your attention, didn’t it?
You’re probably thinking it’s one of those titles that are attention-grabbing but completely misleading about what’s really being said, or maybe just a controversial statement for controversy’s sake.
Well, I hate to break it to you, but I’m deadly serious.
As a Star Wars fan since 1977, I would never say something like “Luke Skywalker must die” lightly. I certainly wouldn’t say it just to be controversial, although if a controversial idea gets people to think then it’s often worth discussing.
No, I’d only say it if I really meant it – and I do. I think killing Luke Skywalker in an Expanded Universe novel, and doing it in the near future – both in the real world and in-universe – is the perfect opportunity to revive the stagnating EU storyline, rebuild enthusiasm in the EU fanbase, and bring in a whole bunch of new fans to the EU in the process.
To save the EU novels, Luke Skywalker must die. I hope you’ll hear me out on my reasons why.
Reason #1: He’s Dead, Jim
That was the year the Legacy comic series began, featuring a Force Ghost version of Luke Skywalker as a much-resented mentor figure, and sometimes comedic foil, to his descendant Cade Skywalker. True, the official sources have studiously avoided ever technically confirming that it’s Luke’s Force spirit (as opposed to, say, a hallucination or vision), but the meaning of the text speaks for itself. Not to mention the simple math: Legacy takes place more than 130 years after Return of the Jedi, and even in Star Wars it’s implausible that Luke would live to be over 150 years old. It’s hardly shocking that George Lucas would sign off, in principle, on the concept that Luke isn’t immortal.
I’ve never heard that [Luke]’s untouchable, now that the movies are over.
~Troy Denning in a ForceCast interview, May 15, 2008
Actually writing Luke’s death in a story, though, that takes things to the next level. I would completely understand if Lucas was waiting for the “right time” to pull the trigger on allowing it – the perfect combination of the specific storyline for the death itself, the contribution it makes to the broader stories of the Star Wars saga, and considerations of present and future marketing and sales revenue.
I’ve never been surprised, for example, by the report in the Round Robin Interview with the lead story team for the New Jedi Order series that Lucas vetoed the proposal for killing Luke in the first book of that series. At the time, the modern EU novel included only about 20 books telling tales in the 15 in-universe years after Return of the Jedi, published over a span of seven real-world years. It’s easy to see why Lucas would have believed that the story of Luke’s life was far from over at that point, and so there was not enough story benefit to be gained by killing him compared to what would be given up.
The EU is in a very different position now. By the time Fate of the Jedi concludes, there will be about 65 books with stories spanning 40 in-universe years since the Battle of Endor, published over twenty real-world years. In-universe, Luke has outlived his father by over a decade, and is just about the same age as Obi-Wan Kenobi was in A New Hope.
Reason #2: This Isn’t the Luke You’re Looking For
Nobody would expect that Luke Skywalker in his mid-sixties would be the same person as the young, naïve, reckless, idealistic young man we first saw on the big screen in 1977. But I think most of us would have expected a grandfatherly aged Luke to be a calmer, wiser Jedi Master version of himself. Luke as Yoda, basically.
In the EU novels by the time of Fate of the Jedi, however, that’s not the Luke Skywalker we’ve been given. Other than the fact that his cover images seem timeless, he’s almost unrecognizable compared to the Luke of the movies. Most importantly, he’s been stripped of the very compassion that defined him as a hero in all three Original Trilogy films. Despite the claims of a few fans with their own agendas, he hasn’t gone dark – but he is more calculating and ruthless, more pragmatic and at times even political, than his younger self ever would have been. The other day, long-time Luke fan ChildOfWinds at TFN said it well this way:
I think a big part of why I’ve been so unhappy with Luke’s portrayals is that he no longer seems to have the same hopeful, optimistic spirit that he had before. He isn’t as quick to be the “Great Redeemer” and try to find the good in everyone anymore. And those are things that I don’t think should have changed. Luke is often written now with a sort of “coldness” that I don’t like, and Luke’s been written as too “darkish” or “greyish” for my liking. That vengeance killing was the worst thing of all. So I disagree with your assertion that Luke hasn’t changed. He has, but not in the way I would have liked to see him change.
I can’t imagine that taking his character to this point was a conscious decision by the Powers That Be; as I’ve explained in an earlier blog, a lack of editorial control in the story design has led to several examples of piecemeal progressions to endpoints that never would have been deliberately selected.
The harm in this, of course, is that the Luke Skywalker of the current EU novels is not a Luke that fans want to read. A Luke so divergent from the Luke of the films isn’t going to bring in movie fans to read the novels – and it’s certainly not going to get them to stick around if they do pick one up. Worse, this Luke isn’t even what EU fans wanted, either, and they’re the primary customers for the EU books. Some fans have been decrying Luke’s characterization for over a decade, and while I don’t agree with their perspective about Luke of the New Jedi Order, the way Luke’s been written over the course of Dark Nest, Legacy of the Force, and Fate of the Jedi has caused me to come around. The Luke we’re getting now is too far removed from Lucas’ vision for that character – and I don’t really know many fans who like him.
Unfortunately, at this point I think his character is already broken beyond repair. His personality, and his perception in the minds of the readers, are too deeply damaged by his fault for how events have transpired. Luke sent many of the Young Jedi Knights on the mission that killed Anakin Solo and inflicted devastating psychological injury to the survivors, including the Solo twins. Luke failed to recognize the signs of Jacen’s fall to the dark side until it was too late, leading to a great deal of pain for his family and the galaxy. Luke sent Jaina on a kill-mission to take out her own twin brother because Luke was too afraid of future visions that showed what a fight with Darth Caedus might do to his soul, and then he kneecapped her chance at personal happiness afterward by immediately appointing her lover, Jagged Fel, to the position of Head of State of the Empire. Even just looking at this, think of how much suffering Han and Leia have endured because of Luke’s decisions. It’s hard to believe they can look her brother in the eye, much less interact with them like old pals with no hard feelings the way they do in the books.
Reason #3: Archetype of an Obstacle
From the beginning, Star Wars has told stories shaped by the framework of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” As has been well documented, the first movie on one level, and the entire Original Trilogy on another, took Luke through a classic Hero’s Journey from farmboy to galactic champion.
Now, though, Luke’s presence in the stories is hampering the creation of new Hero’s Journey storylines for other characters. Anakin Solo died young. Jacen, like his grandfather, fell to the dark side. Jaina’s characterization has, to put it charitably, been in the doldrums for the last twenty books. And Luke’s son Ben is just as stuck as they are – how can he ever have a Hero’s Journey of his own in his father’s shadow? He can’t, of course, but Luke Skywalker is still always coming to the rescue. That’s why J.K. Rowling knew that Harry Potter needed to be an orphan, and why Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru (and then Obi-Wan, too) had to die in Episode IV. If the novels had let Luke retire as Yoda did, taking a back seat to heroic adventures and dispensing wise advice from time to time, the situation would be different. But that’s not the Luke we have, so there’s no reason to think we’ll get him now.
The disappointing thing is, the Powers That Be knew about this problem and let it happen anyway. In the NJO Round Robin Interview, James Luceno said:
Luke, Han, Lando, Leia—had, in a very real way, already completed their journeys.
Yet the next books in the flagship storyline were the Dark Nest trilogy, which once again put Luke, Leia, and Han in the starring roles and the next generation in the secondary cast. The same pattern held in Legacy of the Force and Fate of the Jedi. After the bold storytelling proposals considered for the NJO, the editors and authors seemingly became remarkably risk-averse, to the point that they ended up abandoning one of the biggest advantages the post-NJO landscape had to offer: the development of a strong next-generation cast of characters.
The Powers That Be are holding back the stories by focusing on Luke when the future of the Jedi is the next generation characters. They need to get back to the boldness in story design that they had during the NJO. But they’re not doing that, I suspect, because they’re caught in their own blindered mindset that it’s the Big Three that sells Star Wars. As I explained in Reenergizing the EU Novels, that’s simply not true – especially for the Expanded Universe. I happened to rewatch some of my favorite moments from the movie Armageddon on television recently, and it reinforced for me why killing Luke would help so much to advance the stories and characters of the EU. When Stamper dies, we witness the suffering of one family against the backdrop of billions of lives saved, with his daughter and friends left heartbroken while the world rejoices. The same would happen if Luke made an epic heroic sacrifice for the galaxy – and then Ben and the others would be free to grow into heroes worthy of his legacy.
If Luke were out of the picture, though, then new characters could have their own mythic adventures and become featured heroes in their own rights. And besides, who wants to watch their favorite hero die an old man who can’t change his own diaper?
Finally, Luke’s death actually could bring his characterization full circle and allow him to commit the ultimate act of heroism that his tale so far has denied him. The one thing Luke’s character arc has been missing is the ultimate selfless sacrifice. His mother went to Mustafar, knowing full well she might die, but believing her love was the only chance anyone had for bringing Anakin Skywalker back from the dark side. Obi-Wan Kenobi gave up his life on the Death Star so that Luke could escape and grow to become the hero the galaxy needed him to be. After forty years of heroism, Luke still lacks that same deep selflessness. For much of A New Hope he was a brat and he fought the Empire only after a profound personal loss; in The Empire Strikes Back he turned his back on his Jedi training because he could not bear to fail to save his friends; and in Return of the Jedi he risked the complete failure of the Rebellion because he could not bear to fail to try to redeem his father. This motivation by his own pain and his own ego has carried through to many of Luke’s choices in the EU, from sending children on the Myrkr mission rather than risk going himself, to declaring himself Grand Master of the Jedi Order in Dark Nest, to refusing to face Darth Caedus in Legacy of the Force out of fear for his own desire for revenge. He needs to let go of the arrogance of the gods and his own view of his self-importance and realize that no one, not even the great Luke Skywalker, is indispensable. To truly finish his own hero’s arc, he needs to make the ultimate selfless sacrifice.
Reason #4: Extra! Extra! Read All About It!
This reason is basically self-explanatory: the death of Luke Skywalker would be a huge news event, crossing the boundary from geek and pop culture news into mainstream media coverage. And what better publicity for your book is there than that?
All the major news outlets carried stories about the deaths of Superman and Captain America in the comics, even though everybody knows that deaths in comics don’t stick. But Luke’s death would be “real,” and that could make it even bigger news. It’s hard to think of an equivalent instance of a cultural icon on that scale actually being killed off. Even an entire summer of national speculation over “who shot J.R.?” ended Ewing having survived the bullet after all.
Can’t you just imagine the publicity? The author would be interviewed about the challenge – and burden – of writing such a significant event. George Lucas might speak out about why he approved the storyline. And I bet many people would love to hear from Mark Hamill about his perspective, as well. That would be quite a trio some morning on The TODAY Show.
The media blitz might be even bigger, and even more effective, if Lucasfilm took a page from its own playbook and revealed the purpose of the book in advance. Everyone knew the Prequel Trilogy would tell the story of the fall of Darth Vader and the rise of the Empire, but the movies still made billions of dollars. The Clone Wars have effectively used spoilers and teasers too, such as the early theatrical screenings of the Savage Opress episodes a month before they aired on television and the hints and glimpses revealed in Star Wars Insider. Spoilers don’t ruin excitement – they often generate it. So instead of springing the death of Luke upon the world without warning, announcing it in advance could bring a huge boon. Instead of reacting to the What, everyone will be speculating about the How – and wanting to read the book for themselves to find out.
Spoiled or shocker, the death of Luke Skywalker would be a huge media event. And that publicity could generate book sales at a level that leaves typical EU sales targets in the dust.
Reason #5: A New Hope for the Expanded Universe
But the death of Luke shouldn’t be just a one-off gigantic selling of a single Star Wars book. Instead – if it’s done right – it provides all the potential to reinvigorate the flagship EU storyline in a way nothing else could.
True, many of the sales of Luke’s death book might be to people who only ever buy that one Star Wars novel. There’s nothing wrong with that; the novelization of The Force Unleashed was a #1 New York Times bestseller by drawing in many gamer who don’t ordinarily buy EU books. Likewise, some of the sales of the book would go to people who hadn’t read the EU before but, after reading Luke’s final adventure, decide they want to read more books starring the movie characters. That’s okay, too, because there will be a huge backlist of the existing post-ROTJ novels waiting for them to read.
Where the death of Luke could really make a difference to the EU itself, though, is its impact on the stories going forward. Because if the book portrays the other characters well, then it opens up the opportunity that many of the people who pick up the book just to read about Luke Skywalker’s death will actually find themselves interested enough in the rest of the cast to want to keep reading their future adventures. There’s no reason that someone who was captivated by the stories of Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen couldn’t also, if given the right story and the right portrayals, become invested in Ben Skywalker or Jaina Solo. All three types of fans that the EU needs to be trying much harder to reach – disappointed fans, lapsed fans, and potential fans – could find their interest in the EU sparked by this single book.
What creates the most opportunity for this, of course, is the very fact that the book marks Luke’s passing from the stage. Now, after over a decade of false starts, the next generation characters can finally begin to shine in stories of their own instead of being held back by Luke’s ever-present looming shadow. Loyal customers of the EU books have tired of waiting for the torch to be passed, and some stopped buying when they gave up on waiting. Delivering on the potential for next generation stories has far more promise for generating sales than keeping Luke in the spotlight when he’s old enough to be drawing Social Security. Yes, some fans will be angry that Luke is dead, and some current EU customers may stop buying. But the reality of the market is that most of the people who might be alienated by the decision to kill Luke weren’t, and were never going to be, loyal EU books customers anyway.
But of course, all of this comes back around to my caveat – if it’s done right. To reinvigorate the EU, the books have to be telling the kinds of stories, and writing the kinds of characters, that fans will want to read more about. Without firm and clear editorial control of the direction of the storylines and characterizations, the potential will be completely squandered. Most importantly, Lucas Books would need editors and authors committed to the endeavor: not just to killing Luke, but to showcasing and developing the next generation of heroes into the starring cast of the EU novels. The current team, unfortunately, has proven to be trapped in the mindset of writing what’s interesting to them instead of remembering that their job is to write what’s going to motivate fans to remain or become their customers. Passing the torch in-universe may require a change of leadership in the real world, too, but often that is the price of progress. The opportunity for true success is waiting to be seized, though, and I am confident Lucasfilm has the ability to take advantage of it.
Luke Skywalker Must Die
In the end, there is much to be gained by killing Luke Skywalker and very little to be gained by sparing him. I realize, of course, that the entrenched perspectives at Lucasfilm may not see things my way. If they’re not willing to actually write the death of Luke, though, I hope that they will at least seriously consider achieving the same goal – reinvigorating the EU books – by similar means: writing Luke as a compassionate, wise Yoda figure instead of the colder, grimmer man he has become, and finally shifting him into retirement from active heroic adventures so that the next generation at last can take their turns through the Hero’s Journey and become the galactic champions the movie characters once were. It’s a second-best solution, but even that would be far better than the stagnating EU novels we have today.
Special thanks to Lex for his help with the planning and writing of this blog post.