Plotting Along – The Phantom Menace (Part 2)

So tweaking Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon was really mostly an exercise in fine tuning. While there may have been a few areas where the script stumbled, their characters were actually handled pretty well. Unfortunately the same could not be said for Anakin Skywalker, aka the reason everyone was watching this mess of a film.

For the three people in the world who don’t know how this turned out, Anakin Skywalker in the Phantom Menace is the most adorable cherub of a future despot ever born into slavery. The only reason he’s not constantly highlighted as the film’s greatest mistake is the fact that he so often shares screen time with Jar Jar Binks.

Now I get what George Lucas wanted to do here. He wanted us to see that Anakin was a good kid, that evil can come from anywhere, etc. And you know what, he’s right, it was important to establish that. With subtlety. This Anakin is about as subtle as driving a screw with a sledgehammer. So how do we address this issue?

First off, and this should have been a no-brainer, Anakin needs to be older. Making him so young was a huge misstep that ended up making every single character who meets him into a horrible person. The responsible Qui-Gon becomes a self-centered mess of an adult willing to endanger a kid at the drop of a hat so long as he can get something out of it, Padme becomes uncomfortably pedophilic in every romantic scene that she has with him, and Obi-Wan ends up looking like the single worst Jedi Master to ever pick up a lightsaber for somehow managing to turn the living personification of cuteness and light into Darth Vader. Even R2-D2 takes a hit for letting the kid fly straight into what is essentially a suicide mission.

Adding another ten years or so would have immediately fixed so many of the problems with Anakin’s characterization that I’m almost tempted to stop there. But that would be ignoring the other problem with him – namely the fact that he’s got to be the most cheerful slave child ever shown on screen.

Slavery in the Star Wars universe has always been a bit of a sticking point with me. Not only because it’s just casually there, but because even the people we are supposed to view as the enlightened good guys are perfectly happy keeping slaves in the form of droids. And yet this is never confronted in the movies. And given that, I feel that making Anakin a slave was actually a rather brilliant move, both because it explains where Anakin’s fall began and provides the perfect excuse to finally confront this massive elephant in the room.

Anakin as he is does neither. He and his mother, slaves of a master who’s shown to be rather poor, live in a home that seems rather nice by Tatooine standards and apparently have enough disposable income to share food with whoever happens by and build droids and pod racers in their spare time. Lucas’s version of slavery doesn’t seem that bad. I trust I don’t need to explain how monumentally screwed up that is.

Anakin needs to be damaged. He needs to have been shaped by his experiences. In short, he needs to be angry, resentful, and what’s more the audience has to see that he has good reason to feel that way. And you can’t do that if you’re not willing to show the ugly side of slavery. If you’re not willing to show that, you really are better off just dropping the entire slave premise.

My Anakin would be much closer to Vader from the start. Show him as brash, overconfident, and fully willing to abuse the tremendous power he’s discovered he has to try to right the wrongs he’s seen in his life. Let him have grown up hearing stories about the Jedi from his mother, about their supposedly magical abilities and dedication to justice. This way it’s not a innocent boy that Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon discover, but a young man who is already trying the hardest he can to be a Jedi even if he is getting so much of it wrong.

As for his mother… honestly I wouldn’t change much. In fact I’d even let her keep her house. I’d just explain that the only reason she has it is that Anakin basically mind-tricked her master into setting her up with a more comfortable life. Let her be the idealistic good hearted woman we saw on the screen, seemingly the one person on that miserable dustball who still believes in the Force and the Jedi. Because this, ultimately, would be the redemptive element for this darker, more dangerous Anakin. The woman who serves as his moral compass and initially inspired him. Only take it further.

The Shimi I envision is part prophet, part social worker. Show her taking care of the rest of the slaves, tending to their wounds, teaching them about the light side and goodness. Bringing hope that they desperately need. Basically just commit to the virgin Mary allegory they fumbled with in the original script. A woman who’s already experienced a miracle and knows that her son will go on to do even more. Which gives her the perfect reason to stay behind when Anakin goes off to become a Jedi.

These changes would not only help this movie, but the following ones as well. Having Anakin already powerful and knowledgeable in the force even before his formal training began gives a reason for his arrogance in Episode II, and having been raised on idealized stories of Jedi nobility would explain his disillusionment with the order by the time Episode III rolls around. And it gives a legitimate reason for the Jedi Council to show hesitation at training him.

From their perspective he’s already started down the path to the dark side, too set in his ways to ever fully embrace the Jedi code. Perhaps even have them conclude that while it may be his destiny to bring balance to the force, he will do so as something other than a Jedi. At which point the story could go one of two ways. The first would be if Obi-Wan, young, supremely confident, and willing to believe that anyone can be redeemed steps forward and announces that he will train him. Not Qui-Gon, which robs Obi-Wan of the responsibility for Vader’s fall. This moment would not only restore agency to Obi-Wan, but also give added weight to his warnings to Luke in the original trilogy that Vader may be beyond redemption. The second option is that he stands back, holds his silence, and then after Qui-Gon’s death comes to Anakin and offers to train him in secret. Ideally after a scene where Qui-Gon suggests to him that there is more to being a Jedi than being a member of the order.

I can see advantages to both sides, and honestly am torn on which would make for a better story, but I find myself more drawn to the latter approach. Having Anakin trained in secret would have the advantage of explaining why his name wasn’t common knowledge in the time of the original trilogy. It would also further establish him as an outsider with perhaps an overly idealized vision of what the Jedi were, one they ultimately failed to live up to. Finally it would give him an out for his relationship with Padme. As he was not a member of the order, the requirement of celibacy was not imposed on him, thus he could pursue the relationship without compromising his vows, only to have it become a point of conflict for him later when, as an adult, he is recognized as a Jedi and properly inducted into the order.

And that’s pretty much it for Anakin. Only one more part now, focusing on the Villains, the side characters, and the most challenging thing of all… Jar-Jar.

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