Lucas has stated that Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones are pretty much the films he envisaged when he started working on the saga back in 1973: it's taken this long for cinema technology to reach the point where he can actually produce them.
This is obviously a fib.
The first trilogy seems to have been made up on the hop. Alec Guinness was originally going to survive Episode IV: check the pre-production sketch of the medal sequence if you don't believe me. Lucas's decision to kill him off seems to have been taken very much at the last minute. It didn't happen because it was part of his Total Vision that Ben should merge with the Force. It happened because he was too good a film maker to have a character wandering about with no real purpose in the storyline. If Obi-Wan had been alive in Episode V, then, presumably, there would have been no Yoda; no training on Dagobah, and the revelation of Darth Vader's identity would have had to pan out differently.
According to the Lucas-sanctioned Annotated Screenplays, Luke's paternity was by no means a fixed element in the original vision. Remarkably, a script for Return of the Jedi was written in which Vader was not Luke's father—he was revealed as having lied in Empire Strikes Back. Lucas even claims that he allowed his collaborator, Leigh Bracket, to work on Empire Strikes Back without telling her the twist ending he had in mind…which is a fascinating definition of 'collaboration'.
When Lucas created Star Wars: A New Hope, he didn't know that Darth was Luke's dad; that Ben Kenobi was a liar or that Luke and Leia were siblings. He certainly didn't know that the final end of the trilogy would involve Darth Vader turning good and killing the Emperor. He briefly entertained the possibility that Luke would die in the final battle! And, if he didn't know any of that, how could he possibly have had the plots of Episodes I - III planned out in his head? Did he really know, in 1972, that Episode II was going to involve a big fight between Yoda and a villain named Dookoo, when, by his own admission, Yoda was the result of a script writers conference in 1980? If he had known in 1977 that Luke was the son of the Chosen One (and that the Force was Out of Balance) don't you think he would have mentioned it?
That said, copies of the early draft of the Star Wars screenplay have long been available, and they do, indeed, have a certain amount in common with Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Although the storylines are broadly similar to what eventually became Episode IV, some of the background is much more reminiscent of the prequels. They both have a lot of bargain basement mysticism about the nature of the force. Both early drafts refer to the Jedi's enemy being the 'Sith', a term not mentioned on screen until Phantom Menace. The Adventures of the Starkiller contains a fair bit of galactic politics. Perhaps this is what Lucas means when he says that the Prequels are films he had in mind from the beginning; perhaps he is saying that Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones are much closer to his original conception of Star Wars than Star Wars itself was.
If this is so, George Lucas stands revealed as one of a long and illustrious line of artists who has dedicated himself to ruining one of their great works—because they have totally failed to recognize what made it so great.
The draft versions of Star Wars, particularly The Adventures of the Star Killer are fair to middling sci fi fantasy adventures. They would have made decent 70s movies, to file alongside Logan's Run and Zardoz and forget about. Star Killer contains lots of mumbo jumbo and made up politics and a huge weight of backstory. Lucas—then if not now a skilled storyteller—had the sense to surgically remove all that material, and leave nothing but the bare skeleton of the story. Ever since, he has regretted cutting up his baby, and is now engaged in re-instating as much of the lost material as he possibly can. But he has completely failed to realize that it was precisely the 'cutting back' process that made Star Wars such a classic movie.
Star Wars works because almost every extraneous detail has been removed; so that we end up with something almost abstract. We might recognize it as an abstract diagram of the structure of stories even if we had never heard of Joseph Campbell. The word 'archetype' is over-used: it might be better to say that the Star Wars characters (Hero, Villain, Hero's Helper) its settings (Desert, Jungle) its back story and its tropes (Old Republic, Evil Empire, The Force) are vast, broad generalizations. If the backstory were to be sketched in this abstract quality would evaporate. But this is precisely what Lucas's intention seems to be: to turn the Old Republic from an abstract icon of a golden age into a generic city full of squabbling politicians; to turn Obi-Wan from the Hero's Mentor into a movie character; and to turn the Force from a brilliant symbol of religion into a bit of Dungeons and Dragons cod mythology.
Here is the description of the Force from 'Starkiller':
'In another time, long before the Empire, and before the Republic had been formed, a holy man called the Skywalker became aware of a powerful energy field which he believed influenced the destiny of all living creatures...after much study, he was able to know the force, and it communicated with him. He came to see things in a new way. His 'aura' and powers grew very strong. The Skywalker brought a new life to the people of his system, and became one of the founders of the Republic Galactic…As you know, the 'FORCE OF OTHERS' has two halves: Ashla, the good, and Bogan, the paraforce or evil part. Fortunately, Skywalker came to know the good half and was able to resist the paraforce; but he realized that if he taught others the way of the Ashla, some, with less strength, might come to know Bogan, the dark side, and bring un- thinkable suffering to the Universe. For this reason, the Skywalker entrusted the secret of THE FORCE only to his twelve children, and they in turn passed on the knowledge only to their children, who became known as the Jedi Bendu of the Ashla: 'the servants of the force'. For thousands of years, they brought peace and justice to the galaxy. At one time there were several hundred Jedi families, but now there are only two or three.'
Here is the equivalent passage from Star Wars:
'The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living beings. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together. For over a thousand generations, the Jedi were the Guardians of peace and justice in the old republic. Before the dark times, before the empire.'
The improvement is obvious. By saying almost nothing, the second version suggests everything. The first version is a cloth-eared lump movie bollocks, the sort of Mcguffin you could find in any computer game. The re-write is an inspired bit of sci-fi. The Force is all religions and none, a place-holder for Spirituality which can mean anything we want it to. The Ashla is just a Green Lantern power ring. And, brilliantly, 'The Force' defines Religion in Scientific terms. The Ashla is based around hippy sounding 'auras'; the Force on scientific sounding 'energy fields'.
It may be that while Lucas was writing Ben's lines he was thinking 'Well, I'm still talking about the Ashla, here: I'm just providing a summary. We'll cover the details if we do a sequel.' It may be that he was already thinking about Midichlorians, Sith, Jedi Temples, and Chosen Ones Who Will Bring Balance. It is very likely that he thinks that the exposition of the Force in Episodes I and II is simply elaborating the original vision, or articulating ideas which were already implicitly in Episode IV. His intention, with his sequels, and his special editions, and his threatened even more special editions, seems to be to re-write history; to convince us that when Alec Guinness told us about 'The Force', he was really talking about Ewan McGreggor's midichlorians.
The original movie was abstract and non-specific, and therefore it colonized the day dreams of a whole generation of children. It would not be too much to say that it put us in contact with the Deep Structure of Story, a framework on which we could and did hang almost anything we wanted. It is instructive to compare, say, the 1977 Marvel comics 'sequel' to Star Wars with Splinter of the Minds Eye or even the notorious Christmas Special. They are referring to different universes.
The prequel trilogy, on the other hand, is specific and crowded; and therefore, it will colonize the day dreams of no-one at all. We can internalize the simple structure of Star Wars and therefore feel that we are inside it: Attack of the Clones overwhelms us with specific detail. However exhilarated we may be, we are only ever on the outside looking in.
The prequel trilogy is supposed to provide a backstory for the originals. But the original films had their own back story, and it was a good one:
'A young Jedi named Darth Vader who was a pupil of mine before he turned to evil helped the Jedi hunt down and destroy the Jedi knights. He betrayed and murdered your father. Your uncle didn't hold with your fathers ideals; thought he should have stayed at home and not gotten involved. Your father's lightsaber. Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough, but your uncle wouldn't allow it. He feared you might follow old Obi-Wan on some damn fool idealistic crusade, the same as you father'
Clear, coherent meaningful, and infinitely suggestive. Once upon, on a farm, there were two brothers, Owen and Anakin. One day, Ben the wizard came along, and asked them to become Jedi Knights and fight against the evil empire. Anakin went, but Owen stayed at home. Anakin had a baby son, and he left it with his brother to look after. Anakin was the best star pilot in the galaxy, and a good friend to Ben. He was not, in any sense, the messiah or the saviour of the universe. Ben also had another young apprentice, Darth. Darth was jealous of the master's hotshot new apprentice. He was consumed by the Dark Side of the Force, and murdered Anakin. He betrayed the Jedi to the evil Emperor. The dying Anakin gave his lightsabre to Ben, to pass onto his son. But when Ben goes home, Owen won't accept the lightsabre, and won't even tell the boy how his father died. The boy grows up in ignorance of his father, even though the scar on his forehead is purely metaphorical. And then, one day…
This is rather a good story, and its existence is an important part of the original power of Star Wars. The main purpose of Phantom Menace is to annihilate it: to make us forget we ever even imagined it.
I mourn its passing