Dear yayfulness and associates,
How should the plot of the Star Wars prequel trilogy have gone?
I discussed this question with a Star Wars superfan, but then realized that they could say it a lot better than I could, so here it is, straight from the tauntaun's mouth.
George Lucas failed the trilogy in many ways, but his concept was sound: the tragedy of Darth Vader is a compelling story, and a pretty refreshing spin on the space opera. While you could spend a semester going over the many failures in execution, the main one I’ll focus on is character development. This, really, is at the core of what made Star Wars such an enduring franchise and what made the newer trilogy so flawed. In the OT, we grew up with Luke. We watched his transformation from whiny (“Tosche Station!”) farmer boy to awesome Jedi Knight – and we SAW the hardships and trials that forced that transformation. In the new trilogy, if I were to pick main characters that would make the most sense to grow, it would be Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi. The problem is, we don’t see that. We see Anakin grow physically, sure, between I and II – but then we see him as a whiny teenager (“He never listens!”) and he never breaks from that. Obi-Wan, as his foil, feels stuffy and wooden. Both of these characters needed to be more dynamic.
Another critical element we need is to establish that this tragedy needs to be tragic. We don’t want viewers to impatiently wait for the Vader mask – we want them to weep when it’s lowered on to Anakin’s charred face. I’d perform that through a much more forceful establishment of the friendship and mutual respect that grows between Anakin and Obi-Wan. In I, Ani (ugh…) meets Obi-Wan for five minutes in the Jedi Temple. In II, they bicker for a while in front of Padme, protect her, and go their separate ways until they’re captured on Geonosis. In III, they save the chancellor and again are split up. I understand that splitting up a dream team creates drama, but they were never established to the audience as a dream team! How am I supposed to care?
What the prequels should have done is establish the Obi-Wan/Anakin friendship early on, perhaps at the beginning. In my head, they’re introduced at the start of Episode I as master and padawan, with neither really knowing each other. We can see a rougher Obi-Wan and watch as he makes mistakes trying to teach Anakin. We can, within those mistakes, see Anakin sway from the Light Side of the Force. But most importantly, we can show Obi-Wan grow, both as a mentor, and as a person. Most importantly, however, we DO NOT SEPARATE THE TEAM FOR THE FIRST TWO MOVIES. We push them through conflict, we maybe spark tension between them, but we use that to build a powerful and close friendship. When, in Episode III, they’re inevitably driven apart, we want that moment to have weight.
Oh, also, change Naboo to Alderaan.
Hahahaha, get it? Han Duet? That nym was all me, guys. You should let me name your children.
I have very many thoughts on this. In order to make them into a coherent answer, I'm going to start with the thesis that I would like to change the movies as little as possible while still making enough changes to transform them from a rather forgettable sci-fi collection to a series worthy of the legend the original trilogy created. I will divide my answer movie-by-movie, more or less following chronological order and going from general to specific.
As it currently stands, The Phantom Menace has the greatest unrealized potential of all the movies in the prequel trilogy. While it contains most of the necessary raw ingredients for an impactful introduction, they are so poorly assembled that the film becomes essentially unnecessary to the trilogy as a whole. Most importantly, Episode I features the Jedi equivalent of a love triangle, with the competing loyalties of Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Anakin; opposite them, it introduces the strong central character of Padme. On the side of evil, it introduces the scheming of Palpatine and the Sith killing machine that is Darth Maul.
Each of these characters individually is, or could be, strong. It is primarily in their relationships that they fall flat.
First of all, the Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan/Anakin trifecta. It is these three characters, and particularly the relationship between the three of them, that ought to be the central feature of the movie. At the outset, Qui-Gon is somewhere between Obi-Wan's father and his older brother. There is the love and the tension inherent in the relationship with someone who is both a mentor and an authority figure. If love is the dominant theme as the film begins, then tension is the more prominent as it approaches its climax, thanks to the introduction of Anakin. Rather than being a child, Anakin must be a young teenager, stealing Qui-Gon's attention and prompting jealousy from Obi-Wan, who feels abandoned by his master and supplanted by this new-found wonder child.
Padme's role, meanwhile, needs to be somewhat divested from Anakin and the rather heavy-handed foreshadowing of their future relationship. (Does it even count as foreshadowing? The term implies that the outcome is hinted at, not handed to the viewer on a silver platter surrounded by flashing neon signs.) She should relate to the Jedi, of course, but not in such a way as to complicate the tension between the three of them. The time for that will come later.
The question of Palpatine is tricky, mostly because any viewer familiar with the original trilogy already knows exactly who he will be; in fact, who he must already be (at least in secret). I think the simplest and best solution is to simply keep him off-camera for the entire film, giving us only a teasing glimpse of his character near the end. Of course, he will also appear as Darth Sidious, but I have a different twist to that side that will show up later.
One of the greatest weaknesses of the prequel trilogy is that there is no continuous antagonist. Yes, Darth Sidious is always present in the shadows, but to the protagonists he is invisible. While it is true that the Trade Federation never goes away, they serve more as a pathetic excuse for evil than evil's actual embodiment. While Darth Maul, Count Dooku, and General Grievous all serve as faces of the Dark Side, each has prominence for only a single film. There is no great figure to equal Darth Vader.
There is obviously no single solution; nobody can replace Darth Vader, and nobody should. But the trilogy needs continuity in its antagonists. To that end, and because who doesn't want to see more of him, I would not kill off Darth Maul; instead, he would escape in much the same way that Darth Vader did at the end of A New Hope.
Now that that's all established, let's take a look at how the film would progress.
The Trade Federation's unhappy with Naboo. Their dispute turns into a blockade, and so Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are sent in to mediate it. There's no immediate overt attempt to kill them, because, let's be honest, who expects to be able to blatantly kill off agents of the governing force of the entire galaxy and still get away with it? So there's this meeting on the Trade Federation ship between them and the Naboo leaders, with the Jedi acting as intermediaries, and the whole thing ends in an impasse. And then when they're all about to leave, a bomb blows up in the docking bay and destroys the Naboo ship and damages a bunch of Trade Federation stuff. The Trade Federation insists that this is a Naboo plot to sabotage the whole thing and use it as justification for an invasion of the planet. Meanwhile the Jedi fight their way out with the Naboo leaders, make it back planetside, and stage an escape with Queen Amidala and company.
The escape, the damaged hyperdrive, and the need to stop on Tatooine can all remain the same. Once they get there, though, they find an early teenage Anakin instead of a little kid. He's still Watto's slave, and he's still a mechanical genius. Watto can't get the hyperdrive fixed, but Anakin can. Finagling and gambling happen and the Jedi get Anakin if he wins the podrace, which he does. So he fixes the hyperdrive and they go on their merry way. Except not really, because there's another attack (beginning with a bomb, for consistency's sake) and Darth Maul shows up and tries to kill everyone. He doesn't succeed, of course, but he makes quite the impression.
On Coruscant, the Jedi Council is concerned about the attacker on Tatooine and the two bomb attacks. They also don't want Anakin to get trained, which means they disagree with Qui-Gon but agree with Obi-Wan, who feels threatened by this new wonder kid who he feels has stolen his father/older brother-figure. The Senate, meanwhile, is being useless, so the Naboo emissaries decide to go back and the Jedi are authorized to return with them. The Jedi Council doesn't want Anakin and he has nowhere else to go, so he goes with them. Battling happens and Anakin finds his way to a starfighter and Darth Maul shows up and nearly ruins everything but the Jedi chase him off. Eventually, he manages to kill Qui-Gon due to a lapse in Obi-Wan's judgment or something. Battling happens elsewhere and Anakin somehow manages to save the day; meanwhile, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul are fighting and Darth Maul sees that the battle's over and his side has lost, so he makes his escape. Obi-Wan talks to the dying Qui-Gon and promises to take Anakin as his padawan. The Jedi Council, seeing the results of the space battle over Naboo, agree. (Maybe one of the factors is that they realize that Anakin has a ridiculously good command of the Force, and they're worried that if they don't get to him first, someone else will.) Naboo celebrates. All is well. But there's still the realization that Darth Maul and his master are still out there.
It's been several years since the Trade Federation/Naboo debacle. The Trade Federation is mad at the Senate for failing to mount a conclusive investigation into the bomb that damaged their flagship. Naboo is mad at the Senate for not doing anything to stop the Trade Federation's invasion. There are accusations of a pro-human bias in the Senate, an anti-Trade Federation bias among the Jedi, and complete inaction on the part of the Republic; basically everybody's annoyed at everybody. This is the backdrop as the second movie begins.
Episode II serves several purposes. The first and most important is to really set up Anakin as a hero. The audience needs to love him. His comrades need to love him. He needs to be, basically, the exact opposite of a whiny teenager. Hints of his tragic flaw should also be introduced. Meanwhile, the loyalty triangle has shifted. Now, instead of Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan/Anakin, it is Obi-Wan/Anakin/Padme. This film needs to establish the relationships between all three of those key characters. Obi-Wan and Anakin are the Jedi dream team, the two young rising stars who are considered the best and brightest of their generation. Obi-Wan and Padme have a professional connection, seeing as they were two of the most prominent first-hand witnesses to the battles of the previous movie. And Anakin and Padme, of course, have their romantic tension that eventually turns into what the Jedi would consider an affair.
Palpatine, meanwhile, is just showing up on the scene. He's a powerful politician, loved by his allies and respected by his enemies. He is firmly on the side of Naboo in the conflict, and a harsh critic of the Senate leadership's attempts at compromise. Maybe there's a bit of tension between him and the Jedi, but it's the sort of tension that you get from good vs. different good, not good vs. evil. Either way, though, he's still not chancellor. In addition to being about the aforementioned relationships, Episode II should be about how he first steps into power.
Now, let's look at the plot.
The opening scene could actually run with no changes whatsoever. The bombing of the starship would fit in perfectly with the theme of mysterious bombings introduced in my take on Episode I. With that danger, of course the Jedi Council would want to give Padme protection and of course they would pick the two Jedi most familiar with the case. We can let the next assassination attempt stand, too. It does a good job of showing the differences between Anakin's style and Obi-Wan's style. It's after that that the changes need to start.
And they have to be big changes, too. The answer before mine says this, and I'm going to say it too--it is NOT okay to split up Anakin and Obi-Wan for nearly the entire movie. Their relationship is one of the most important elements of the film. Since this is a loyalty triangle in the making, compare it to a love triangle in some other film. If you want to build tension, you have to have the central character in the triangle spend time both on- and off-screen with BOTH of the love interests. Separate them for most of the film, and the tension goes away. Make it too obvious which one the central character favors, and the tension goes away. Get rid of the tension, and you get rid of the reason to care about the movie.
With all of this said, I have spent far more time than I would like to admit sitting on this question in the hopes that I would come up with a good way to design the plot of Attack of the Clones without dramatically changing it. I'm still coming up empty. So with that, I am going to end my analysis of that element of Episode II here. Just imagine something ridiculously awesome.
Now, although I've given up on the overarching plot of Episode II, I do have a few plot elements I'd like to bring up.
First, Darth Maul. As previously mentioned, I wanted him to escape Episode I alive. In Episode II, he would essentially fill Count Dooku's role. Maybe his character would be fleshed out a tiny bit beyond pure killing machine. Or maybe he'd just be shown to be an even more fearsome killing machine than before. (I think it's unfortunate that this Sith, arguably one of the best fighters in either trilogy, fights exactly two people and kills exactly one. As far as a pure win-loss ratio goes, he barely beats most stormtroopers. And that's a bit of an insult to the Sith.) And I think he's going to survive this movie.
Anakin needs to show genuine moments of heroism and self-sacrifice, and they need to be consistent with the rest of his character. That's one of my biggest complaints about Attack of the Clones--Anakin seems to have an extremely split personality. He's a hero every once in a while, but most of the time he's just a whiny self-serving brat. Most of his heroics happen when they're in his best interest. I definitely think that there should be hints of his eventual downfall, maybe even including something on the level of killing off an entire village of Sand People, but the majority of his character needs to be genuinely heroic.
Dooku will also show up, being revealed as Darth Maul's shadowy master and leader of the Separatists. There's more in store there, which you'll see in the next film.
Finally, Palpatine's character needs to get fleshed out. It should be at the end of this film, not at the end of the previous one, that he becomes Chancellor. After all, the previous Chancellor's failure to prevent a civil war is grounds for a vote of no confidence, and Palpatine's hard-line stance combined with his seemingly prescient warnings about the upcoming war combine to make him ridiculously popular.
Honestly, I have very few complaints about this movie. If the first two films had lived up to their potential, Revenge of the Sith would have been an excellent climax to an excellent trilogy. As it is, it is set up for failure. Revenge of the Sith is the story of the fall of Anakin Skywalker. It tells that story well. The problem is that, as it is, he has nowhere to fall from.
So, that said, let's track the changes. With only a few exceptions, they mostly exist to tie up new loose ends from the previous movie.
In the duel on the Separatist flagship, it is Darth Maul who is finally killed off. This is the supreme moment of triumph for Anakin and Obi-Wan, the culmination of all of their work together as a team.
General Grievous, bless his heart, is a bit of a ridiculous sideshow. That said, I can think of a use for him--he is reported in one place, while Dooku is reported in another, and Anakin and Obi-Wan are finally split up to track them down. Obi-Wan goes after General Grievous, more or less as he does in the actual movie, while Anakin tracks Dooku on a path that eventually takes him... back to Coruscant. To Palpatine's office. Where it is revealed that Dooku and Palpatine and Darth Sidious are all actually the same person. While Anakin is there, the Jedi arrive to arrest Palpatine, because they've finally realized the same things Anakin did. He hides in a closet or something and watches as Palpatine kills several of the Jedi, before dueling to a standstill with Mace Windu. And, in Palpatine's moment of near collapse, Anakin rushes out and the duel becomes a duel between Anakin and Windu. It is long, it is intense, it is terrible because Anakin and Mace were extremely good friends right up until this moment, and it ends with Anakin slicing off Mace's hands. Palpatine then tells him that in order to become his disciple, he must kill Windu. And so he does.
Around this same time, Obi-Wan realizes there is something terribly wrong. He's on his way to leave and get back to Coruscant when Order 66 happens and the clone soldiers turn on the Jedi. He has to fight his way through to escape. Maybe a couple other Jedi are with him and don't make it. At the same time, Jedi everywhere are being killed off.
Eventually Obi-Wan meets up with Yoda at the ruins of the Jedi Temple and from there on, things play out more or less as they do in the actual film. I really don't have much more to change.
The changes I've made are mostly to large plot points. If I were remaking the trilogy, I do expect I'd do a lot more. Dialogue, specifically, would be reworked in many instances. That said, I don't think that, or other minor details, are what this answer is supposed to be about. All things considered, if I had to sum up the changes I'd like in just one sentence, I'd say that I would change the prequel trilogy from being the story of a self-centered person who becomes a bad person to being the story of a genuinely good person who becomes a bad person. In short, I would turn it into a true tragedy. That is what I hoped for, and that is what I really feel like we are missing.
Yours in entirely too much length,