Editor's note: This interview was originally published in 2015. It has been updated to reflect recent events.
Before there was The Empire Strikes Back, there was Splinter of the Mind's Eye, a spin-off Star Wars novel by Alan Dean Foster that — in another far, far away galaxy — would have been the basis for the second movie in George Lucas's beloved franchise. Published in March 1978, less than a year after the inaugural film set box-office records and changed Hollywood blockbusters forever, Foster's book imagines a very different second adventure for Jedi-in-training Luke Skywalker and the regal Leia Organa ... one that doesn't make room for Han Solo, Cloud City or Darth Vader's famous paternity confession.
"George wanted more material in case the first film was a success," the author told Yahoo Entertainment in a 2015 interview about the origins of Splinter of the Mind's Eye, which was part of a two-book deal he signed that included penning the novelization of the original Star Wars. (Lucas is credited as the writer on that book, although he's regularly acknowledged Foster as the ghostwriter.) "The only restriction put on me was that the the follow-up had to filmable on a low budget, the idea being that if the first film wasn’t wildly successful, he could still make a second film cheaply using as many of the same props and costumes as possible."
With that restriction in mind, Foster conceived of a story that takes place almost entirely on the fog-shrouded planet of Mimban, where Luke and Leia crash-land en route to a gathering of key members of the Rebel Alliance. "The book originally opened with a fairly complex space battle that forces Luke and Leia down on this planet," the author reveals. Unfortunately, all that aerial combat fell victim to Lucas's budget-conscious ways. "George had me cut that out because it would have been expensive to film. There was nothing wrong it with form a story or standpoint, but he was thinking ahead."
While looking for a way off-planet, the duo cross paths with an elderly woman named Halla, who is in possession of a shard from the Kaiburr crystal — a legendary gem of great power that allows those already in touch with the Force to enhance and amplify their psychic powers. In exchange for aid in escaping Mimban and its vicious ranking Imperial officer, Captain-Supervisor Grammel, Luke and Leia agree to help Halla recover the gem, a mission that takes them deep into the jungle in search of an ancient temple. Meanwhile, one of the few survivors of the Battle of Yavin, Darth Vader, turns up looking for a little payback against the pesky Rebels that invaded the Death Star.
As Foster recalls, he and Lucas had very little contact during the writing process of both novels, which left him free to chart his own course for the sequel. "The first book came out six months before the film did, and I was busy working on Splinter when Star Wars came out. So George had zero free time for the ancillary material. Directors don't exactly have time to call the authors up for a chat!"
Once it became clear that Star Wars wasn't a flash-in-the-pan success, Lucas allowed himself to dream bigger for the film that eventually became The Empire Strikes Back. At that point, Splinter was airbrushed out of official Star Wars continuity, although the book has never been erased from existence. It remains in print to this day, and even got the graphic novel treatment in 1996, with a four-issue comic book adaptation published by Dark Horse Comics. Mimban has also been referenced in a number of other non-cinematic Star Wars properties although, again, few of them are recognized as being part of official canon.
Foster's own career flourished after his early role in the Star Wars universe, as he balanced original sci-fi novels with the novelizations of seminal movies like The Last Starfighter and the first three Alien films. And in 2015, he penned the novelization for J.J. Abrams's franchise-relaunching The Force Awakens, an experience he described in a separate interview as being much less "laid back" than his earlier galactic forays.
"When I wrote the first book, I got a copy of the script along with some of Ralph McQuarrie’s pre-production paintings and went to write the book," Foster told Yahoo Entertainment then. "I turned it in, George read it and said, “That’s fine.” And that was that!" (In 2020, Foster wrote an open letter claiming that Lucasfilm's current owner, Walt Disney, wasn't paying him royalties for his Star Wars work. He later announced on his personal blog that a settlement had been reached.)
In our 2015 conversation, Foster revealed more details about his never-filmed Star Wars sequel, including why he had to leave Han Solo out of the story and the shocking moments of violence that might have been too intense for Lucas to film.
While you were writing the first Star Wars novel, what sort of access did you have to behind-the-scenes material from the film?
I saw very little. I had a couple versions of the screenplay and they also gave me a 16mm reel of rough footage to take around to a couple of sci-fi conventions to publicize the film, which I was happy to do. I had also visited ILM [Industrial Light & Magic, Lucas’s effects company], which at that time was a rented warehouse in Van Nuys, so I had seen the trenches for Luke’s flyby at the end, as well as the Millennium Falcon and the Death Star.
Did the fact that you were mostly left to you own devices make it easier or harder to concoct an original adventure?
One reason that I was able to create essentially what I wanted with Splinter is because there was nothing to contradict it. Nowadays, of course, everything is vetted by committee, and if you get someone’s armor wrong, someone will be right there to correct it. Since I was given complete freedom within certain limits, [and] the story of the first film gives you a pretty good background of the whole Star Wars universe, there was enough there that, being a sci-fi writer, you can fill in the blanks in certain places. That’s why prequels are hard to do. Sequels are easy, but with prequels, you can’t contradict something that’s already in print or onscreen that’s come afterwards.
Apparently, nothing in Splinter directly contradicted anything that showed up in the film, or else they would have had me cut it. It wasn’t like we were setting down the Bible and I was working on Exodus. Nobody was really worried at that point about what’s going to happen in Book 6, Chapter 5, Line 23. The hope is just to get Exodus out there so people can see it and then you worry about follow-ups. Nobody at the time — except perhaps George — could see Star Wars becoming what it eventually became.
Obviously, the romantic yearning that Luke expresses for Leia is the element of Splinter that’s totally at odds with where the Star Wars series wound up going.
At the time, the indications and the vibe I got from the first film was that they were not siblings and that Luke was interested in her, and she was, casually perhaps, interested in him. And you actually get that [feeling] partway through The Empire Strikes Back, too. [A deleted scene from The Empire Strikes Back depicts an almost-kiss between Luke and Leia that’s more in line with the relationship described in Splinter.]
Why was Han omitted from the book?
That's an easy answer. At the time I was writing Splinter, Harrison Ford had not committed to any further participation in Star Wars. Hence, I was specifically told not to use the Han Solo character. And without Han, it didn’t seem logical to have Chewie in the book, either.
Another sequence that feels different from any of the movies is a battle in an underground cavern where Imperial troopers are massacred by a tribe of aliens. Even though you hide a lot of the details between the lines, it’s a more gruesome scene than you expect from Star Wars.
George is a very sensitive guy; I picked up on that from the moment I met him. That’s why, I think, the Imperial troopers never take their helmets off [in the original movies]. Because if you’re seeing people get shot all the time and their faces are contorted in agony, it gives you a very different cinematic vibe than if its just a figures in plastic helmets that all look the same. I don’t know this, but I think that was a deliberate choice on George’s part to mitigate the violence. Even though there’s nothing graphic in Splinter, I wasn’t as constrained by that consideration. Like Vader having his arm cut off [in a climactic fight with Luke] — his arm’s cut off! It bleeds, it’s painful.
Did Lucas perhaps borrow that idea from you for the famous Luke-Vader confrontation at the end of Empire? Severed arms play a big role in the Star Wars movies in general.
I have no idea. It’s all of a piece, and it doesn’t bother me one way or the other. When you work for somebody else and you do work for hire, what you do is theirs and they own it. And that’s fine, I have no problem with that.
There’s another memorable Darth Vader moment where he casually kills off Grammel, who has been the main villain up to that point.
That’s real world versus the fictional world; in the real world, you kill your opponent. There’s a film I saw as a student at UCLA called Waterhole No. 3, where James Coburn plays an amoral gambler in the Old West and he’s challenged to a gunfight. He doesn’t want to do it, but he has to do it and the guy is out there in the middle of the street waiting for him. Coburn walks out of the bar, gets behind his horse, takes his rifle out and, from behind the horse, shoots the guy. Then he goes back into the bar and says, ‘What can I do? The guy was just standing there in the middle of the street!’ That’s the way the Old West worked. You didn’t have guys in the middle of the street facing each other; if you could hide behind something and take the guy out with a shot to the back, that’s what you did.
Despite having long since being written out of current Star Wars continuity, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye is still in print. What kind of feedback do you hear from fans?
It depends how old they are. If they’re my age or a bit younger and were around when the first three films came out, they’re generally really happy with it. But every once in awhile you get an email or you’ll see a comment from someone online who was born in, say, 1995, and they don’t understand the contradictions with the films. The nicest thing I get as far as comments go is that people really appreciate Leia being a strong character in the book. She even picks up Luke’s lightsaber at the end, which actually fits, even though nobody knew she was Luke’s sister at the time. That was just something I put it in there. When it comes to predicting the future, it’s really the shotgun effect: you fire a hundred pellets and hope that one of them hits. That one just happened to hit.
What are you happiest with about the book now?
Other than the fact that its still in print and people still regard it as a good read — in spite of the contradictions with subsequent films — I’m pleased that I was able to create an entire world on my own with its own society and set of Imperial villains, and they all still hold up. I like to think that’s a credit to the writing and the fact that I was true to the universe and the character and the situation. [The book] exists on its own terms, because there’s nothing that follows it directly. There’s no reason to mess with it and make it into something it’s not. I thought for many years that it would have made a marvelous made-for-TV movie. It could have been filmed cheaply and then you stick it between Episode IV and V. And in an alternate universe maybe it was!
Splinter of the Mind's Eye is available at most major booksellers, including Amazon.