The Thrawn Trilogy Never Would Have Worked on the Big Screen

Kelly Lynn Thomas

 

First edition hardcovers of the original Thrawn trilogy: Heir to the EmpireDark Force Rising, and The Last Command
Photo: Author

The Star Wars sequel trilogy has been controversial since Disney announced it was “erasing” the Expanded Universe (EU) of books, comics, and games in favor of its own continuity. Many fan-favorite characters like Grand Admiral Thrawn, Mara Jade, Jaina and Jacen Solo, and Luke Skywalker’s new Jedi Order were gone in a flash as big and bright, and to some, as painful, as the Death Star blowing up Alderaan. 

Disney rebranded the EU as “Legends,” and most of the books, comics, and games remain in print and accessible, and still have a sizable fan following. Some Legends characters, most notably Grand Admiral Thrawn, have been reintroduced. Others, like Mara Jade, remain absent. 

Today, if you scroll through any Expanded Universe forum or group, you’ll inevitably come across a post that contains a picture of Timothy Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy from the early 1990s, with a caption that’s some variation on “Here’s the REAL sequel trilogy,” implying (or outright stating) that the Thrawn trilogy would have made a superior set of sequel films than what Disney came up with.

Here’s just one example of the Thrawn trilogy being referenced as the “real” sequel trilogy on a Star Wars-themed subreddit. Sub and username hidden to protect the innocent. I’m glad people are still discovering and enjoying these books!

While I adore the Thrawn trilogy and grew up with the EU, I disagree that these books would have made an appropriate end to the cinematic Star Wars saga. Before I delve into why, let’s back up a little.

It’s hard to imagine now, but after 1985, after the cancellation of Marvel’s ongoing Star Wars comic, there wasn’t much Star Wars content to speak of aside from the West End Games Star Wars Roleplaying Game. That is, until Timothy Zahn wrote Heir to the Empire (1991), which picked up five years after Return of the Jedi and continued the adventures of Luke, Han, Leia, and Lando. 

Heir, the first book in a trilogy centered around new villain Grand Admiral Thrawn, a genius tactician determined to reclaim the Empire, sparked a new era of Star Wars storytelling that would become known as the Expanded Universe.

Over the next 20-plus years, the EU explored the post-ROTJ timeline, and after the prequel trilogy was released, the gaps between films. Twenty years is a long time for a friendship, even for one with fictional characters, and it proved difficult for many fans (myself included) to let go of the stories we knew and loved and embrace a new set of stories with characters we were meeting for the first time.

I’d be lying if I told you I’ve grown to love Rey more than Jaina Solo or Mara Jade, but I’d also be lying if I said the EU didn’t have its flaws—sometimes serious ones. I, perhaps naively, hope that we can get to a place where Disney allows publishers to release books in both the old and new canons. There are a few storylines that were never finished, and a few books that were abruptly cancelled. I still want to see the end of Jaina Solo’s and Ben Skywalker’s stories.

I love the EU with all my heart, and all my soul, and all my money (seriously, it’s an ongoing problem). But the Thrawn trilogy simply wasn’t expansive enough to conclude the Skywalker saga. It takes place over several months as opposed to the several years of the original trilogy. It features a villain who isn’t evil so much as calculating and cold. 

In case you were wondering how much I love these books, here’s my take on much of the cast as chibi perler bead characters. From upper left: Captain Gilad Pellaeon, the mad dark Jedi clone Joruus C’baoth, Han Solo, a very pregnant Princess Leia, the noghri bodyguard Rukh, Grand Admiral Thrawn, Luke Skywalker, and the Emperor’s Hand herself, Mara Jade! I used the Dark Horse comic adaptations of the novels for visual reference when making these. Art and photo by Author.

Thrawn isn’t motivated by hate or power like the Emperor was, but rather the satisfaction of knowing his enemy and how to defeat them. In another timeline, he could have easily fought with the Rebellion, if it had better fit his motivations. 

The original trilogy centers Luke Skywalker’s hero’s journey from farmboy on podunk Tatooine to powerful, wise Jedi Knight who redeems one of the most villainous men in the galaxy. It’s an epic about the fight between good and evil, and hope, and friendship, and chosen family.

The prequel trilogy centers Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker, and his hero’s journey. Only this time, the hero’s journey isn’t a tale of redemption, but of corruption and good intentions twisted to an evil purpose. Anakin’s journey is Luke’s in reverse, but it touches on many of the same themes: hope, friendship, the desire to control events vs. accepting our inability to control the actions of others. 

And then, finally, we have the sequel trilogy, which combines Vader’s fall and Luke’s rise into the story of Ben Solo/Kylo Ren (the fall and eventual redemption) and Rey (the traditional hero’s journey). Ben is Vader’s grandson, and Rey, we learn later, is Palpatine’s granddaughter. Three movie trilogies, three generations of Palpatines and Skywalkers, one legendary battle between good and evil. 

The main reason the Thrawn trilogy would have made a lousy sequel trilogy is the exact same reason it was so important in the first place: it picks up five years after ROTJ and continues Luke Skywalker’s story. We get to see him grow as a Jedi and friend. We get to see Leia grow as a leader of the New Republic. We get more exciting space battles and the introduction of dark Jedi. We see Leia give birth to her twins, the next generation of Jedi. But they’re still babies in these books, and don’t come into their own until decades later. 

Although Timothy Zahn has been critical of the sequel trilogy’s killing off of major characters,  he also stated in an interview with SyFy Wire: “My vision always for the sequels would be, you would pick up with the children of our main characters.”

The Thrawn trilogy, of course, doesn’t do this. Instead, it begins the second act of Luke, Leia, and Han’s journey. Within the EU, a true-to-the-franchise conclusion to the films would have starred Luke’s son, Ben Skywalker, and Leia and Han’s three kids, Jaina, Jacen, and Anakin Solo. 

But even in later series where we start to see the next generation shine, Luke, Han, and Leia are often still front and center. Perhaps we would have seen this generational handoff in the cancelled Sword of the Jedi trilogy; perhaps not. 

In the early ‘90s, when Star Wars had almost been forgotten, we needed books that picked up Luke’s story to remind people why they loved these films in the first place. And the Thrawn trilogy did that beautifully. The truth is, it’s possible we wouldn’t have even gotten a prequel trilogy, let alone a sequel trilogy, without the groundwork laid by Zahn and other early EU writers. Without them, Star Wars could have remained a three-hit wonder, loved and appreciated but not a living, growing universe.

The Thrawn trilogy was a necessary step in the evolution of Star Wars and will always hold a special place in my heart, but Heir to the Empire was never meant to be Episode VII.

 

 

Sources:

Baker, Chrishaun. “Star Wars’ Darkest Age: 1985-1991.” Screen Rant. Valnet, Inc., June 14, 2020. https://screenrant.com/star-wars-dark-age-1985-1991-bad-reason/

Jackson, Matthew. “Thrawn Author Timothy Zahn Explains Why He’s Against Killing Off Classic Star Wars Characters.” SYFY WIRE. SYFY, July 31, 2018. https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/timothy-zahn-against-killing-off-classic-star-wars-characters

Zahn, Timothy. Star Wars: Heir to the Empire. New York: Bantam Spectra, 1991.

Zahn, Timothy. Star Wars: Dark Force Rising. New York: Bantam Spectra, 1992.

Zahn, Timothy. Star Wars: The Last Command. New York: Bantam Spectra, 1993.