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Complementary to this question, why did George Lucas start the numbering at 4? I know (now) he had a vague idea of what would be in 1, 2, and 3. But why not start with calling the first movie 1, and come the time to do the prequels, call them whatever?

And how was it even accepted by the distributor as a concept that a movie serial (at the time!) could start some point down the line then be expected to maybe trace back in the future?

  • In High School I learned that it was an example of the classical device of starting a story In media res: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_medias_res . I guess my teacher was making that up! – zipquincy Apr 6 '15 at 15:55
  • I have no corroborative evidence, but I recall an interview (I think with GL) where it was stated that there were always going to be 3 trilogies. However, A New Hope stood the best chance of being made & being successful as a stand-alone movie out of all 9 so it was made first. – DaveP Apr 6 '15 at 18:11
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    Q: Why did the movies come out in 4 5 6 1 2 3 order? A: In charge of scheduling Yoda was. – Dúthomhas May 16 '18 at 20:56
  • I feel like I am endlessly commenting on "history of star wars" questions just to say that thanks to Team Negative One you can now watch a print of the original 1977 theatrical release of Star Wars, and see the lack of episode number and the lack of Greedo shooting, etc for yourself. – dmckee May 16 '18 at 20:57
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He didn't. The numbering was added later.

Star Wars on Wikipedia

That link explains that the numbering didn't show up until The Empire Strikes Back and then was added retroactively to A New Hope (along with the subtitle).

Here on the The Empire Strikes Back page you can find a succinct description of the writing process for Empire. Lucas originally labelled Empire "Star Wars II". He did a hand treatment, from which experienced writer Leigh Bracket did a first draft. That first draft does not have Vader as Luke's father - it has Obi Wan killing Luke's father. It was only in rewriting that draft after Bracket died that Lucas came up with the idea that Anakin was Luke's father. It was then that much of Vader's backstory was invented and the IV -> V numbering shows up.

Lucas likes to claim precognizance of the whole thing. But if you look at the documents that were produced around the time of A New Hope's and Empire's productions, they suggest he was making it up as he went along. The truth is he had a lot of help writing two of the first three movies. He basically plotted them and left much of the writing to other people. And some of the major plot elements in Empire and RotJ didn't actually come from him, but from cowriters who never really got credit for it.

This is one possible reason why the original series was so good, and the prequels were so bad. Lucas didn't have the same sort of help on the prequels and his legend was such at that point that no one would stand up to him and say "George, this sucks."

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    Added a new link. The numbering didn't show up until Empire. – Daniel Bingham Jan 18 '11 at 23:37
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    @Daniel Bingham Good Answer, wish to give you another +1 for having an awesome mom :) – Samuel Herzog Jan 19 '11 at 4:37
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    Actually, didn't Harrison Ford say pretty much that: "George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can't say it." – Daniel Roseman Oct 28 '11 at 18:09
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    I'd like to point out that both Brackett and Kasdan are credited for Empire (and Lucas isn't), and Kasdan also for Return. Saying his co-writers didn't get credit isn't fair or true. – Plutor Aug 29 '14 at 13:43
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    This response makes no attempt to explain why Lucas began with 4 when numbering ANH, which is the main concern of the OP. I'm surprised this even got so many votes. – Charles May 14 '18 at 14:10
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I've read the Star Wars drafts that Lucas wrote, many years ago now so my memory on the subject is vague. I believe there are 3 versions prior to what he finally filmed with version 4. I recall that the first draft did have a plot that involved the trade federation.

It seems to me that some of the ideas in those drafts ended up as the back story for Star Wars IV.

4

Here is what really happened: Initially, it was not called Episode IV or A New Hope. Initially, there was only going to be one movie, but shortly after it was released, it was really successful, and Lucas was going to make more.
The movie was re-released in 1978 (roughly 1 year after the original premiere). The initial crawl was redone including Episode IV: A New Hope. The music was also changed a bit (to what you now know and love) and the background with the stars was also changed (again, to what you now know and love).

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    The movie was revised after about a month, not a year. otherwise, yeah. – aramis Feb 20 '12 at 11:22
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Tl; dr.

  1. Anakin is the real protagonist of Star Wars.

  2. Lucas chose three-act narration when creating Star Wars for both the backstory and the main screenplay.

  3. Lucas wanted to start the storytelling in the middle of Anakin's story.

All of this combined -- Lucas chose to use IV to represent the beginning of the middle of the story (i.e., A New Hope), and ANH is middle of the story because the story is really about Anakin/Vader.


why did George Lucas start the numbering at 4? I know (now) he had a vague idea of what would be in 1, 2, and 3. But why not start with calling the first movie 1, and come the time to do the prequels, call them whatever?

There are three things that need to be mentioned to answer this --

1. According to George Lucas, Star Wars is specifically about the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker.

From a 2008 MTV News interview where Lucas talks about Star wars: Clone Wars and how it's separate from the epic tragedy that's portrayed in the films:

"The epic itself is basically about one man. You pass through a lot of things, but you never get to look at it. [With 'Clone Wars'], we're not burdened by the mythological underpinnings. We get to go more places," Lucas said. "The story about Anakin Skywalker and his fall into the dark side and redemption by his son, that's finished. It was started when he was 10, it ends when he died. There's no more story to tell. All that stuff is really not part of what this is."

And then, from the May 2008 edition of Total Film Magazine:

Q: Are you happy for new Star Wars tales to be told after you're gone?

LUCAS: "I’ve left pretty explicit instructions for there not to be any more features. There will definitely be no Episodes VII-IX. That’s because there isn’t any story. I mean, I never thought of anything! And now there have been novels about the events after Episode IV, which isn’t at all what I would have done with it. The Star Wars story is really the tragedy of Darth Vader. That is the story. Once Vader dies, he doesn’t come back to life, the Emperor doesn’t get cloned and Luke doesn’t get married …"

So, clearly George Lucas created Star Wars for the purpose of telling Anakin/Vader's story, and not necessarily Luke's (though, Luke obviously plays an extremely important and intimate role in Vader's story).


2. Lucas's original intent was to produce just the first three films, and he wanted to start the storytelling in the middle of the story.

When Lucas first wrote the Star Wars screenplay, his intent was to start in the middle of Anakin's story. This in mind, he first created a "whole backstory" (the events in episodes I-III), and then, he wrote the screenplay for what took place in episodes IV-VI.

From a 1993 interview with Lucas (starting at 1:41 in the video):

"It started out that I was going to write a screenplay, and in order to write the screenplay, I knew I was going to kind of start in the middle of something -- I didn't wanted to just [unclear what Lucas says] -- so I had to create a world, and in order to create that world with characters and all that stuff, I had to do this whole backstory. About where they came from, who they were, and what happened, and how they got to where they are. And so then I started this movie, and I wrote the movie, only it was way too big, and it was three acts, so I mean..

So I took the first act and I said well, I can make the movie about this, because I can think I can get this done; it was sort of within the range of what I could do. So I made a movie out of the first act, and that was such a hit I was able to do the second two acts."

And it's at this point, when transitioning into The Empire Strikes Back, that Lucas retroactively [and moving forward] applies a numbering and subtitle system to these films.

Here's another interview where Lucas talks about the prequels, and how only the first three films were apart of the original plan --

So, why did Lucas use IV instead of I for A New Hope?


3. Because Star Wars adheres to a three-act structure, and again, because the story's real protagonist is Anakin/Vader.

Since Lucas specifically wanted to start in the middle of the story (a narration technique known as In Medias Res), and, with the story's true protagonist being Anakin, Lucas needed to choose a number for A New Hope that conveyed "the middle".

enter image description here
Star Wars matches the second style of In Medias Res.

This being said, the storyline of the backstory and of the main screenplay both perfectly fit a three-act structure. In the previous section, Lucas is directly quoted using this format when creating the main screenplay, and, in all probability, he also used this format when creating the backstory (three-act narration is extremely common).

So, since the screenplay is three acts long, and, since the backstory is three acts long, then, the beginning of the middle would be the fourth act.

When you combine all of this together, it perfectly explains why Lucas assigned the title Episode IV to A New Hope.

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    The in media res theory is internally consistent, but I have trouble believing this was Lucas' intent during original filming. Rather it seems retconned (by Lucas Arts) to expand the Star Wars franchise. To disprove the retcon, can you source evidence from within a few years of the original 1977 release? – bishop May 14 '18 at 18:49
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The first episode and number was Empire they didn't change Star Wars until the 1981 rerelease. There does seem to be some debate about this but even though Lucas got the idea of each film being an episode early on during the writing of Empire he called them 1,2,3 instead of 4,5,6. I have no idea what Daniel Bingham is talking about when he says no cowriter got credit for the first 3 Lucas only has sole screenplay credit on Hope, on Empire he doesn't even have screenplay credit only story by and on Return he was credited as a cowriter. Then on the prequels it is no secret that Tom Stoppard did script doctoring on at least episode 3 if not all of them and others like William Goldman are rumored to have done their own passes.

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    I believe this would have been better as a comment, as Putor has done. It challenges an unsubstantial part of his answer which doesn't actually stop his answer from answering the question. – Mac Cooper Aug 29 '14 at 13:52

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