Ten years ago to this day, author R. A. Salvatore killed Chewbacca. More specifically, his book Vector Prime was published, a Star Wars novel in which Chewbacca is consigned to an ignominious death on a planet succumbing to a killer poison bug swarm. (Lest you think this absurd, be warned that this is amongst the more plausible phenomena in Star Wars fiction.)
For most people, Chewbacca’s death is news even now, and that’s to be expected. There have been hundreds of Star Wars books published, and many people, even those who liked the original Star Wars trilogy, are eager to dismiss the books as the purview of the especially deranged and obsessive. I would place myself in this camp, except that when I learned that Chewie had been killed, it bothered me.
It was in fact 2003 when I found out, four years after the fact, and by then there wasn’t really anything to be said. I was late to the party. A ten year anniversary, though, seems like as good an excuse as any to devote about two thousand words too many to the subject of Chewbacca’s demise.
I originally heard about Chewbacca’s death from my friend Nick. Nick was (and is) an obsessive kind of geek, but he’s a kind of geek to know: when he decides to bring up some of his more obscure pursuits, it’s usually because there’s something accessible and intriguing about it. It’s worth reproducing (more or less faithfully) what he told me that day:
They killed Chewbacca! He was crushed by a moon, or a building, or something. It was in a book published recently. Apparently the group of writers that works on Star Wars books decided that nobody was taking it seriously anymore so they had to kill a major character off. R. A. Salvatore has been receiving death threats for writing it.
I was surprised to hear of the death threats, but I shouldn’t have been. Star Wars is one of those monoliths that you tend to either ignore or worship, and where worship is involved there is always healthy subset of the faithful that have suffered a complete loss of perspective.
I quickly digested this information and then pretty much forgot about it, except that whenever the subject of Star Wars came up in conversation I would remember that Chewbacca was dead and immediately supply this piece of information, always feeling a little strange when I did. At some point, I began to think about it. Having done so for a while now, I can safely say that the weirdest part of what Nick told me was this: “Apparently the group of writers that works on Star Wars books decided that nobody was taking it seriously anymore.”
I did a little bit of research to ensure this was at least truthy. Bizarrely, Chewbacca’s death was the result of political maneuvering. The editors in charge of this business sent George Lucas a list of characters they wanted to be able to kill off. Supposedly Luke Skywalker was at the top of this list.
Lucas responded by sending back a list of characters they were not allowed to kill, and Chewbacca wasn’t on it. That’s how Chewie’s fate was sealed—not so much that he was wanted dead, as that there wasn’t a compelling reason to keep him alive, and someone had to go. It’s like being Ned Flanders in the bomb shelter as the comet approaches Springfield: no one needs a left-handed corkscrew, and no one needs a Wookiee in a universe where Jedi seem to grow on trees.
More importantly, and what I can’t quite get over, is this: there is a group of people whose job descriptions include sitting around signing Wookiee death warrants. Well okay, their job is to make decisions about the direction of the Star Wars universe.
This is slightly weird when considered as a vague group of non-descript people, but becomes increasingly so when you try to picture just who might these people be. I don’t know what to make of them. Was there any protest toward killing Chewbacca? Were they all on the same page? Did they decide before or after lunch, or is this the sort of thing one hashes out in email? Did they go out for beers after? Could you just hang out with these people? What if they start talking about Star Wars? Bringing the office home with them, so to speak. You’re not just dealing with someone who cares a lot more about Star Wars than you do, but someone who also thinks about it from perspective that the Vatican thinks about Catholicism; issues of dogma carefully balanced with appeal to the masses.
How do new prospective writers for the franchise enter the fold? Perhaps a long table behind which everyone is seated, hooded, low lights and guards in red, the writer left to stand in front of them in the pale electric light. “Leave us,” one editor croaks to the guards, while outside the writer’s friends are being rounded up and slaughtered by building security. Contemplating the existence of these people in many ways dwarfs the knowledge that they killed Chewbacca; there is no strangeness I cannot ascribe to them.
I cannot speak for their motives, but amongst the Star Wars crowd there was a lot of debate about whether killing off Chewie was a meaningful narrative decision or a crass play to earn some cash and attention for yet another book series. Within the sphere of Star Wars fanatics, I suppose this is the debate to be had.
When you think about it, it’s hard not to realize that the intended effect of killing Chewbacca was impossible by the time the decision was made. If Chewbacca was the most meaningful character George Lucas is willing to let you kill off, who’s left to kill after Chewbacca? The simple answer is no one, and it is also the right answer. In the ten years since the Wookiee bit it, have there been any other meaningful movie character deaths?
All of this is fine fodder for the Star Wars fanatics, but for everyone else out there, the people who aren’t overly bothered by the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi and aren’t worried about Yoda’s philosophical inconsistencies, they are briefly forced to confront the question of whether any of this matters at all. Do characters have lives beyond the stories we consume?
Most people make this decision quickly, and not even consciously. Rarely does anyone get upset, but I think to varying degrees everyone I talked to was bothered by the killing of Chewbacca. They don’t really care, but in some capacity they accept that the character is dead. This is likely, whether admitted or not, to inform later viewings of the movies. I don’t think I can watch Chewie in quite the same way, even though I’ve never read the book in which he dies and consider the Star Wars expanded universe to be so much tripe.
If there had never been another word or scene about Chewbacca after Return of the Jedi the films should contextually be exactly the same to me, but the fact that Chewie’s death does bother me is proof that, on some level, all of this nonsense has at least a little value to me, and the more I think about this the more I become convinced that it’s true.
What’s more, I can’t escape it. Once you hit even a moderate level of immersion in a fantasy, or a fiction, or whatever, part of you tacitly accepts some other continuous reality. It’s no longer static and is always open for more content. Even if that content is one out of hundreds of novels that amount to copy-edited fan fiction in foil-stamped paperback.
Star Wars is, in a way, uniquely situated to express this phenomena because, unlike so many of the geek universes out there, it doesn’t really traffic in alternate realities or narrative reconstructions. Its great sci-fi arch rival, Star Trek, has recently embarked upon what appears to be a largely successful reboot, and is (arguably) fresh and (I think) exciting again to anyone who likes things at warp 5 or faster. Sure, some people are heavily invested in the historical minutia of Captain Kirk’s philandering, but that is not holding the series back from a reimagining. Star Wars will never be this way. It is some Babelian construct that us non-converts can only shake our heads at. It’s too big, the followers too dedicated. There will be no credible alternatives to the enormous unwieldy universe they have constructed.
For everyone left with a sense of nostalgia for any of the movie characters, that makes for a strange relationship. They are like elementary school friends: you lose touch, but twenty years later when you hear they died in a car crash, it still bums you out and changes how you feel about your memories.
If anything, the killing of Chewbacca is a question of legacy. The original Star Wars trilogy, progenitor to action figures, books, role-playing games, and whatever else have you, is a thing more belonging to the general culture. The ever-burgeoning expansion of Star Wars is an increasing cost on fans of the movies who never went any further with it. This is something people recognized overtly when George Lucas released The Phantom Menace and the two movies that came after it, but also holds true for each and every nonsensical, circumlocutory, hackneyed piece of writing that dribbles out of the great Lucas Arts machine.
Ignorance is the best defence, but sometimes things leak out, news spreads, Wookiees die. Every time this happens you are left confronting the source material, those movies that captured the imagination so long ago, and asking, “Do I even care about those now?”
On a more personal note, I think the killing of Chewbacca was upsetting for another, much simpler reason: it was a dick move. Chewbacca is, in the end, an unessential character. He doesn’t communicate well, can’t use the Force, parades around naked, maintains questionable hygiene, and gets along poorly with droids (though given the sampling of droids from the movie, it’s hard not to sympathize with this.) But he’s likable. He’s okay. You’d probably trust him to recommend you a mechanic, or at least help you beat up the one that cheated you.
It’s bad enough when characters like this die to prove the relatively trite point that “bad things happen to good people.” But Chewie didn’t even get that much. When I told Lucas (not George, but the one of the editors here at Dork Shelf) about Chewbacca’s death he laughed and said “What’s the point?” I think that sums things up pretty nicely.