Writing Tips and Film Critique

How Removing A Character Can Make A Story Stronger Part 2 – Revisiting The Phantom Menace Re-Imagining

Not too long ago, I wrote a piece on how I would re-imagine one of my favorite films, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. In it, I showed how removing a single character, Qui-Gon Jinn, early in the film can affect the story as a whole, transforming the film into a hero’s journey for Obi-Wan Kenobi. For this piece, I’ll show how removing another character completely from the movie can open the way for other, greater ideas to come through. I hope it doesn’t seem as if I’m picking on this character – that is cliché after all – since I do like the character, but sometimes we must kill our darlings for the benefit of better writing. That character is none other than…

…wait for it…

…Jar Jar Binks.

Now, I understand why George Lucas didn’t ever read through his script and wonder if he could cut Jar Jar. After all, Jar Jar was initially intended to play a much meatier role in the Star Wars prequels, a role that was significantly diminished after fans reacted with hate toward the loveable but seriously flawed Gungan following the release of The Phantom Menace. In fact, some twenty years later, it’s now speculated that Jar Jar would’ve eventually been revealed as the great evil behind the plot to elevate Senator Palpatine to Emperor status by the end of the third film. This is known as the Darth Jar Jar Theory. If you’ve never heard of it, then click on this highlighted text for a video describing the theory in detail. Personally, I love the Darth Jar Jar Theory and wonder how the story would’ve played out had Jar Jar been… well, the phantom menace.

This write-up, though, is about removing Jar Jar from the film. So, let’s see what happens when we remove Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

The first thing we have to do is ask ourselves a simple question: What did Jar Jar contribute to the story?

As far as Episode I is concerned, Jar Jar accomplished two important tasks. First, he introduced Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan to the Gungan people, helping the two Jedi receive a transport to Theed, the Naboo city the Trade Federation was about to invade with the intention of capturing Queen Amidala. Second, Jar Jar subtly provided the queen with an idea to use the Gungan army to retake Theed. His mention of the army to the queen, while on Coruscant, is what inspires the queen to return to Naboo as she now believed there was a chance to realistically confront the Trade Federation’s droid army.

Okay, now that we know how Jar Jar contributed to the story, we can remove Jar Jar and ask ourselves how to make those events happen without him.

Let’s start with the transport to Theed. Do we even need the Jedi to require a transport to Theed? I mean, the Gungan leader Boss Nass, in The Phantom Menace, told the Jedi that the fastest way to Theed, from the Gungan city, was through the planet core, which means that the Trade Federation landed their invading army on the other side of the planet. This doesn’t make sense. Why would the Trade Federation land their army halfway around the world from their target then drive, halfway around the world, to their target? (It’s like someone didn’t bother saying to the Trade Federation’s leader, “You have ships. Why don’t fly there? …be a lot faster.) If the Trade Federation lands their army within a reasonable distance from Theed, then Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan wouldn’t need a transport. They would simply have to reach the city to find the queen before the Trade Federation troops do (which, honestly, would’ve helped keep up the pacing of the film; rather than meeting Jar Jar and getting distracted by their meeting with Boss Nass, the Jedi could’ve been in an exciting race that had them trying to get to the queen before she surrendered). This means that we don’t need Jar Jar to help them acquire a transport, which means that we don’t need Jar Jar. The character can be cut from the movie, for now, which is a move that allows us to improve the pacing of the film at this point.

Jar Jar’s second contribution is whispering into the queen’s ear while on Coruscant, letting her know that the “Gungans have a grand army,” which gives her the idea to use the Gungan army to take back the planet. Removing Jar Jar from the movie here would require a bit of a rewrite of the story, but I think we could have a stronger story if we do this, and the way to do this would be to use one of the Jedi – there are two of them, after all – to do what Jar Jar does in the film: that is, introduce us to the Gungans and lead the queen to their secret meeting place.

Beginning at the part of the film when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan free the pilots in the hangar and have the queen board her ship for a daring escape from Naboo, the two Jedi can be split up. As Obi-Wan heads up the ramp to board the ship, he could turn back to Qui-Gon and notice that neither Qui-Gon nor Captain Panaka intend to evacuate…

Obi-Wan: “You’re not coming?”
Qui-Gon: “I’m going to stay behind and free anyone else that I can. I will help the Naboo fight.”
Obi-Wan: “The odds are well against you, and the council would not approve.”
Qui-Gon: “The council is not here.”
Captain Panaka: “For as long as I can remember, there’s been talk of mysterious creatures who hide themselves in the swamps. Perhaps we can find them and bring them to our side, even up the odds a bit.”
[On the ramp, behind Obi-Wan, Queen Amidala appears.]
Queen Amidala: “The Gungan army is a myth, Captain. It may have once existed, but no one’s reported seeing even a hint of the army for millenia.”
Captain Panaka: “I must try, your highness.”
Qui-Gon: “And I will assist him. If they exist, we will find this Gungan army.”
Captain Panaka: “We will fight back, my queen. I promise you that.”
Queen Amidala: “Good luck, Captain.”
Qui-Gon: “Obi-Wan, it now falls on you to escort the queen safely to Coruscant. You are fully capable, my young Padawan. Follow the will of the Force.”
Obi-Wan: “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Qui-Gon: “This invasion is wrong. The Trade Federation must be stopped.”
Obi-Wan: “May the Force be with you, master.”
Qui-Gon: “May the Force be with you.”

Now, with this change, with this act of splitting the Jedi onto different paths, two important things happen. First, Obi-Wan will become the lone Jedi escorting the queen to Coruscant. With the ship damaged in the escape from Naboo, needing repairs that require the ship be set down on Tatooine, it will be Obi-Wan who discovers and befriends young Anakin Skywalker, setting the stage for their friendship to come. Second, Qui-Gon and Captain Panaka will be the characters who lead a small band of Naboo rebels into the swamps, where they will eventually discover the Gungan civilization.

This change allows us to add an air of mystery to the Gungans that carries for a good part of Qui-Gon’s side of the story. It also makes it so that we can switch between Obi-Wan’s story and Qui-Gon’s story, giving us an A and B plot to follow (with contrasting environments). As Obi-Wan seeks a way to repair the queen’s ship and get her off Tatooine and back on the way to Coruscant (leading to Anakin helping them through a podrace) while just narrowly escaping Darth Maul’s attempt to capture the queen (made all the more tense by Maul engaging with an inexperienced Obi-Wan in a lightsaber battle on Tatooine, which means that Obi-Wan running away from the fight would be necessary and add more to the drama of their inevitable second clash at the end of the film), Qui-Gon and the Naboo rebels search the swamps for the mythical Gungan army while evading the Trade Federation forces hunting them.

Following these two stories gives us opportunity to avoid any lulls in the storytelling that can come from inserting filler into a single plot just to make sure we achieve a two-hour runtime (which is actually a problem with The Phantom Menace), and we can sync the stories so that the Gungan army is finally discovered after Queen Amidala has made her plea to the Senate and moved for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum.

As an aside, we now have a good opening for why the Jedi High Council won’t send more Jedi to aid the Naboo against the Trade Federation. First, since Qui-Gon remained on Naboo, Obi-Wan must talk with the high council, himself, and inform them of the situation. The high council disagrees with Qui-Gon’s action, so they refuse to send any Jedi as Jedi are keepers of the peace, not soldiers in a war. The high council want to allow the conflict between the Naboo and Trade Federation to settle as it will. They do, however, support Obi-Wan’s decision to return to Naboo to find Qui-Gon and, together, begin searching for the Sith Lord who attacked Obi-Wan on Tatooine while attempting to capture the queen. In other words, Obi-Wan proposes the idea of him returning to Naboo, and the high council agrees. He’s not ordered to do it; he wants to do it. This new take on the scene with the Jedi High Council brings Obi-Wan out of the shadow of Qui-Gon Jinn and shows us a spark of his leadership ability. The movie would now reinforce the idea that Obi-Wan is coming into his own, pushing himself in his transition from Padawan to Jedi Knight.

Now, while awaiting the results of the vote of no confidence, the queen could receive a message from Panaka informing her that not only are the Gungans real but they’re not terribly happy about having been found. The queen can then order Panaka to hold his position while she returns to Naboo to negotiate with the Gungans personally. Carpooling (shippooling? transportpooling?) from Coruscant, the queen, Obi-Wan, and new friend Anakin Skywalker are reunited with Qui-Gon, Panaka, and what remains of the Naboo rebels. Of course, R2-D2 is in there somewhere as well.

With that, the Gungans are introduced to us, the queen has a reason to leave Coruscant as she wishes to persuade the Gungans to help her win back Theed and ultimately Naboo, and best of all, we get to see that Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan versus Darth Maul fight that is the stuff of legend.

Overall, we now have a story that chronicles the adventures of two Jedi who each do their part to save Naboo from the invading droid army of the evil Trade Federation. I feel this idea is far better than the movie we have now simply because I don’t care for seeing Obi-Wan sitting on the Tatooine sidelines, doing nothing, for way too long. Okay, so he checks Anakin’s blood for a medi-chlorian count, but other than that, he really does nothing. It’s kind of sad.

So, there it is, we have a stronger film, and all we did was cut one character: Jar Jar Binks.

Again, I like Jar Jar, and I enjoy Episode I as it is (even though I do poke fun at it sometimes). However, I like to consider possibilities created when a character is removed from a story, and I think it’s good for a writer to consider those possibilities, as well, when reading through and revising their own stories. Can this character be removed from the story? What does that character contribute? How can those contributions be handled without the character? What changes would be necessary? Asking these questions can aid you in knowing your story and characters a bit better, and sometimes, asking these questions can lead you to crafting a stronger story.

So, what do you think? Would you remove Jar Jar from The Phantom Menace? If so, how would you alter the story to make up for that removal? Can you or would you remove someone who may not really be a vital character in a story that you’re writing? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. 🙂

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