Layers of Canon in Principle and Practice

How should one treat disagreements or contradictions within the Star Wars canon?

This is a question open to some debate, as "the powers that be" have often chosen not to give many clues.  In this work, I hope to present a logically-consistent, rationally-satisfying answer . . . a thorny proposition given the convoluted nature of the Star Wars canon, but here goes:

As stated elsewhere, the Star Wars absolute canon is the five films, in the form of Episode I, II, and the Special Editions of IV, V, and VI.  Also considered canon by tradition are the final scripts of those films, the novelisations of those films, and the NPR Radio Dramas which recreate the original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI).   Rather quickly, one observes that despite the different formats of motion picture, text, and audio, the same basic tales are being told.   The events being described are all the same events, but merely told in different ways.  But what to do in the event that these retellings disagree with one another, especially regarding technological details?

The Elements of the Canon

LucasFilm canon policy makes it clear that the absolutely, undeniably true and inviolable version is seen in the films.  As Sansweet of LucasFilms (quoting Cerasi) puts it, the films are "the real story of Star Wars".   They are the ultimate version of Lucas's vision.

In that same statement, we are told how the novelisations are to be considered:   "Even novelizations are interpretations of the film, and while they are largely true to George Lucas' vision (he works quite closely with the novel authors), the method in which they are written does allow for some minor differences. The novelizations are written concurrently with the film's production, so variations in detail do creep in from time to time. Nonetheless, they should be regarded as very accurate depictions of the fictional Star Wars movies."

The novels, then, are very accurate depictions based on data derived from (for example) the script, storyboards, test shots, early shots, design concepts, et cetera that exist at the time before the author's deadline, and those examples are invariably open to revision.   Such revisions are how we end up with oddities such as the Empire Strikes Back novelisation describing Yoda as being blue, or the difference between Luke's callsign in ANH (Red Five) versus the ANH novelisation (Blue Five).  

Now technically, it should be noted that besides the obvious placement of the films at the tip-top of the food chain, we don't know how (or if) the three lesser-canon formats are to be arranged in relation to one another, at least according to canon policy.  Sue Rostoni and Allan Kausch mention all of the canon in Star Wars Insider #23 (the source of the tradition), when they refer to the "screenplays, the films, the radio dramas and the novelisations".   But, surely, this is just a listing of parts, and not an ordered list . . . we know the films are the highest canon; they are not superceded by the screenplays, which Kausch and Rostoni mentioned first.  Thus, we have all the pieces . . . it's just a matter of knowing where they fit.

The Order of the Canon

Logically, the final screenplays (scripts) are the closest to the canon films.  This is especially true in the case of the original trilogy's Special Edition script versions.   Compare this to the novelizations' source of the original scripts, which not only may have been incomplete when the novel was coming out, but are also not based on the Special Edition scripts . . . not to mention those script elements built upon, albeit canonically, by the novel author.

Further, we have the following transcript of part of an audio recording from a Q&A session held with Lucas at a 2003 ILM tribute that featured Lucas:

"Do you think that filmmaking technology will change such in the next, y'know, 20-25 years that you'd be able to go back and do Special Editions of Episode I and II the way that you did with the first three films?

Well, I don't think I have to, because the first three films fell short of what I wanted to do . . . we ran out of money, and we had ran out of time, we didn't have the technology to do what we wanted.   Uh, and so I was frustrated, I was really angry that I couldn't actually bring the vision I had in mind, uh, even as it was scripted, uh, together to be the movie I wanted it to be.  Which is one of the reasons I wanted to do the Special Editions [...]"

This suggests that Lucas's vision was best represented by the scripts of the original trilogy before the advent of the Special Editions . . . the revisions to the original films evidently brought them back to top-tier status, and of course the older versions no longer exist as far as Lucas is concerned.   

What this means for our purposes is that as far as Lucas is concerned, the scripts are closer to his vision than the novelizations.   Thus, we arrive at a view of the canon wherein the films are the ultimate, absolute canon, with the screenplays a close second and the novelizations beneath those two somewhere.   Or:

1.  The Films
2.  Screenplays
X.  Novelizations

I say the novels go "somewhere" because we still must fit the radio dramas into the equation.  Though they certainly don't supercede the films or screenplays, the radio dramas of the original trilogy still constitute a bit of a sticking point because they (or at least the ANH:RD) were explicitly based on the scripts and the films (and, as the radio plays came later, these would be the complete original versions of the films).   This would suggest a higher degree of canonicity compared to the novels, which are based on early versions of the original screenplay, and possibly on incomplete bits of the film.   But, between the media format, the availability of the radio plays, and so on, they're commonly placed below the novelizations.  

There are, however, several good reasons to go along with the standard placement of the radio dramas below the novelizations.   First, Brian Daley (author of the radio dramas) added in a number of details and modifications on his own . . . a necessity with the ANH radio play, to be sure, since it lasted thirteen hours compared to the two of the movie.   This gives us peculiar details such as Vader acting as if he'd never heard of Tatooine and thinking it an irrelevant dirtball . . . hardly the attitude of a man referring to his birthplace.   This got even worse later, such as when the RoTJ:RD of 1996 (fifteen years after the ANH:RD) actually included EU material and characters.  This suggests a bit of separation between the original Lucas vision and Daley's adaptation, to be sure.  This is no surprise, given that the radio plays were not worked on by Lucas . . . he merely donated the rights to the radio version of the stories to an NPR affiliate.

Second, there's the matter of whether the radio dramas were based on the novelizations or not.  In the case of the RoTJ radio play, this is not a question . . . it had material from novels that weren't even canon, after all.   If we're considering the radio play canonicity en masse, that alone is sufficient to draw the group downward.  But, what about the ANH radio play, specifically?  Well, the executive producer of the ANH radio play has stated that the radio play episodes "cover the time period of the original film's story with material drawn from the screenplay, the novelization, and original material created specifically for the radio series."  Thus, it is based on the rest of the canon, including the novels . . . another layer of separation from the films.

And, last but not least, another notch of canonicity is actually removed by the existence of the Special Editions, which replace the original versions of the original trilogy.   You see, the Special Edition films and screenplays are the current holders of the upper ranks of the canon . . . the radio plays, based on the now-defunct versions and the novels (also based on the now-defunct versions), are now lacking by comparison.

And so, we come to the following ordering of the canon:

The Films
NPR Radio Plays

Now, let's take a look at what happens and what to do when the various retellings of the tale don't agree with one another, using examples of when this has occurred.

Canon vs. Canon

1.  Direct Contradiction

As mentioned earlier, Yoda's color is reported differently in the book than it is in the film.  As with any direct contradiction with the films, this one is easy.   The films are the ultimate canon, superceding the authority of the novels . . . therefore, canonically, Yoda is green and not blue.   Similarly, Luke was Red Five, and not Blue Five. (Incidentally, that's Lucas's film versus Alan Dean Foster's novel, not Lucas vs. Lucas.)

But, alas, if it were always that easy, I wouldn't be writing a page on the topic.  There are other sorts of situations that are a bit more troublesome.

2.  In-Scene Addition

In the ANH film, the Falcon exits hyperspace near Alderaan, only to find that it isn't there anymore . . . at least, not all in one piece.   

Luke:  "What's going on?"
Han:  "Our position's correct, except:  no Alderaan."
Luke:  "What do you mean, where is it?"
Han:  "That's what I'm tryin' to tell you, kid, it ain't there.  It's been totally blown away."
Luke:  "What?!  How?!"
Ben:  "Destroyed, by the Empire."
Han:  "The entire starfleet couldn't destroy the whole planet, it'd take a thousand ships with more firepower than I've . . . "

At that point, Han's comment is cut off by an alarm warning him of the approaching TIE fighter.  There is no time cut or anything of the sort . . . we see him stop talking and look down.   The script generally agrees with the film . . . there are merely differences in punctuation, but the words play out the same.   However, other versions of the canon continue his sentence, and otherwise alter the way things play out. In the novel:

   Luke fought to keep his balance as he made his way into the cockpit. "What's 
going on?"
   "We're back in normal space," Solo informed him, "but we've come out in the
middle of the worst asteroid storm I've ever seen. It's not on any of our charts."
He peered hard at several indicators. "According to the galactic atlas, our position is
correct. Only one thing is missing: Alderaan."
   "Missing? But that's crazy!"
   "I won't argue with you," the Corellian replied grimly, "but look for yourself."
He gestured out the port. "I've triple-checked the coordinates, and there's nothing
wrong with the nav'puter. We ought to be standing out one planetary diameter from
the surface. The planet's glow should be filling the cockpit, but there's nothing out
there. Nothing but debris." He paused. "Judging from the level of wild energy
outside and the amount of solid waste, I'd guess that Alderaan's been blown away.
   "Destroyed," Luke whispered, overwhelmed at the specter raised by such an
unimaginable disaster. "But how?"
   "The Empire," a voice declared firmly. Ben Kenobi had come in behind Luke,
and his attention was held by the emptiness ahead as well as the import behind it.
   "No." Solo was shaking his head slowly. In his own way even he was stunned
by the enormity of what the old man was suggesting. That a human agency had been
responsible for the annihilation of an entire population, of a planet itself
   "No, the entire Imperial fleet couldn't have done this. It would take a
thousand ships massing a lot more firepower than has ever existed."

The changes this time around are numerous, but the one we're primarily interested in comes at the end.  Note the alteration and continuation of the sentence from the film and script.   No longer is it "than I've . . . ", but now it's "than has ever existed."

So, what to do?  Previously, I've used the "has ever existed" bit in arguments on this site . . . should this be revised?   After all, that is not what was said by Han, nor is it even a reasonable facsimile, what with the change of the words already spoken.   And yet, this continuation is also canon.   This, by default, implies a measure of truthfulness.   

Could we perhaps allow both to be true by suggesting that this is what he was thinking?   While such an idea is not wholly without merit as a general rule, it is severely lacking (though, in this particular context, it makes some sense).  The fact is, the novel is canon, but it is nothing more than a "very accurate depiction" of the absolute canon we see on the screen.   This continuation of the sentence, though a logical one, does not accurately depict what occurred.  It is, at best, in line with what he might have said, had he not been interrupted.

But of course, we begin to tread on dangerous ground, here.   It is easy to see how quickly we might end up with the absolute canon standing alone in the ranks of the canon . . . all else, whether officially canon or not, would have to be wrong if the details did not agree precisely.  In the case of the screenplays, this presents no problem . . . the descriptive details (i.e. what buttons are pressed, the precise look of an object, etc.) are naturally a bit vague anyway.  But a novel must include such details, and must do so without benefit of the movie to draw from. 

Fortunately, we have a simple in-universe solution, provided by the original framing of the story told in the ANH novelization.  We learn that the history of the era is recounted in a tale called "The Journal of the Whills".   Though the novels themselves may or may not actually be that very history, it is made clear that the narrator of the tales has come on the scene a bit late.   For analogy with our modern times, imagine that the films are simply a documentary-style recording of the important events of, say, the Battle of Gettysburg from the U.S. Civil War.   The novels would be a modern-day retelling of the tale, in the style of Ken Burns' Gettysburg or Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels.   Both of those are based as closely as possible on everything from first-hand accounts to modern knowledge of the old technology, but there are details added in.  When Lee dismounted circa 4:00pm on July 3, 1863, did he look toward the south, or the west?  Or did he look down at something squishy he'd stepped in?  We'll never know, but such historical fiction purports to tell us.  These fictions are still not the reality of events . . . they are simply based on it, with the unknowable details manufactured openly and worked in to make it a story.  

Thus, the novel's description of what Han said is, indeed, very accurate, but not perfect . . . but this does not render the rest of the canon (i.e. that which is not the absolute canon of the films) in error.   And, it means that we can still accept the officially-recognized canon of the novels as such.  For instance, take a look at the novel's additions to Han's comments to Luke.  It is filled with minor technical details . . . the ship is "back in normal space", there's mention of the "nav'puter" and "galactic atlas" in matters of navigation, "one planetary diameter" as a safe hyperspace exit point, and there's the interesting reference to "wild energy" (radiation?) and a sufficient amount of remaining solid matter to suggest a planetary amount of material after the Death Star's destruction of Alderaan.   These are facts that we are not told in the film, and though we know Han did not make these comments to Luke, it is probably safe to accept these as historically accurate facts, worked in as part of the "very accurate depiction" of events, unless there's reason from the films to dismiss the probability.   Similar occurrences from the radio plays would involve a lesser safety factor . . . those are not referred to as "very accurate depictions", and often aren't.

3.  Extra Scene Addition

By far, the worst culprit of this would be the radio plays.  For example, the ANH film (SE) shows us Han accepting Obi-Wan's offer for transport in the cantina, the scene with Greedo, and then Han's meeting with Jabba.  The novel agrees.   However, the radio play recounts an extra tale wherein Han ends up meeting up with some other guy and almost deciding to back out of the deal with Kenobi.  

Did this happen?  Well, technically, it's canon, but one really has to hesitate for a moment . . . accepting all the extra scenes from the radio plays would basically mean that Brian Daley, not George Lucas, is the author of the vast majority of canonical Star Wars events.   After all, by the time Lucas is done, we'll have about 12 hours worth of movies . . . Daley's ANH alone lasted 13 hours, and the extra scene above is but the tip of the iceberg.  Thus, again pointing to the arguments used above to determine the basic placement of the radio plays in the canon order, as well as to the spirit of the Lucas and LucasFilm canon policy, I would submit that the primary utility of the radio plays would be for clarification of what is known to exist, not addition to or rewriting of it.  So, while it's entirely possible that the various extra scenes of the radio plays happened, the primary use of the radio plays should be for clarification of previously-known canon events, not the creation of them. 

The same concept does not apply so well to the novelizations, as these are known to be "very accurate depictions" of the absolute canon, and contain only minor expansions to the story as told within that absolute canon.   Operating under the "historical fiction" view of the novels, one may infer that such events did indeed take place . . . but, as always, the absolute canon is the final arbiter.

Putting it All Together

And so, we come to the following way of understanding the layers of the canon, as a sort of "rule of thumb":


History Status
The Films Created by George Lucas from his screenplays, but based directly on his vision.  Special Editions created to conform more closely to that vision. The Supreme Canon, absolute and inviolable.
Screenplays Created by George Lucas;  his roadmap to the films.  SE versions conform more closely to his vision. Excellent guides to the absolute canon, with high canonicity in their own right.
Novelizations Written by other authors with Lucas's guidance, based on scripts and pre-production materials "Very accurate depictions" of the absolute canon; generally play the role of "historical fiction" regarding the events.
NPR Radio Plays Written by Brian Daley, based on the films, scripts, and novelizations, with liberal sprinklings of original and EU creations Expanded version of the absolute canon, but with far less canonicity.  Mildly useful as a clarification tool, but not for the original (i.e. non-film) material.  May not override or add significantly to higher canon.

Example Applications

The following are culled from various debates and discussions, and thus constitute some of the major cases where the topic of how to deal with intra-canon discrepancies is important.   As one can see, we still must go on a case-by-case basis, but the general concept above applies well, and serves as a good guide:

1. The novelization of TESB reports 20 ships at Hoth (including starships smaller than a Star Destroyer), and 20 "battleship commanders" during Vader's holo-conference.  The movie shows fewer ships, fewer commanders, and no other ship type besides the Executor and regular Star Destroyers.   This case jumps the "Canon vs. Canon" lines I made above, since it includes both a direct contradiction regarding the number of commanders present, as well as what might be construed as an "in-scene addition" where more ships than we see on the screen are claimed to exist.  But, with the direct contradiction and the lack of additional ship types, there is no support for the notion that more ships were there.  Thus, the fact is that there were indeed fewer than 20 ships present.

2.  The novelization of TESB suggests that the Imperial probe droid sent back images of Rebel snowspeeders which Vader saw, whereas the film makes it clear that the returned images were of the power generators on the surface of Hoth. While it's possible that the probe droid also returned images of Rebel speeders, the ones which Vader looked at and decided to act upon must have been of the power generators per the absolute canon, , not Rebel speeders. As such, the speeder pictures may not have existed at all.

(More to come . . . )