In the history of popular film, there has never been a beloved character’s backstory worse told than the story of Darth Vader. Darth Vader was wholly, completely evil until the end of his story. That made the character badass, which could have been enough; but in order to give him is redemption, he had to be given complexity.
So far so good. If I had to guess what happened from the origin of that understanding onwards, I would say that George Lucas wanted to avoid what we might call the usual tropes of evil. He wanted Anakin Skywalker to have been a normal boy once, who was changed by circumstance.
Here, I think he made his first mistake. The tropes of evil are as they are because they work. It is easy to accept that people born with deep issues eventually fall off the tipping point; it is altogether harder to accept that you or I could become Darth Vader.
Indeed, the audience of Star Wars would never want this. Darth Vader is supposed to be different, special in his cold ruthlessness which we cannot conceive in ourselves. Even if there was a deeper point about the nature of humanity, we should remember that the original Star Wars was an escapist fantasy, full of things that wouldn’t quite work in the real world. So, we should allow ourselves a flight of fantasy, and imagine that Darth Vader is unique in the universe.
When I finished reading the Harry Potter books, it struck me that Darth Vader’s story should have been basically identical to that of Lord Voldemort. An isolated, independent boy, unreachable by those who cared for him; brilliant and observant, creative, and not always putting that creativity to the most moral use. Curiosity and self-interest governed his early experiments in unpleasantness. This way, you set up the underlying moral ambiguity that allows a shunned, slightly creepy child to withdraw further into his own interests, and become indifferent to the plights of others.
I imagine Darth Vader similarly to this, but more sympathetic. He is born a slave, and sees his mother mistreated. He is looked down on for his status, and is not permitted to have any social contact with children his own age. In the Phantom Menace, we do not see any hardship, and his “owner” is oddly loveable. This obscures the fact that Anakin would have had a miserable life, not a happy one; he would have resented authority, and certainly would have resented any groups or species directly involved in his oppression.
He is never rescued. He isn’t allowed the freedom to follow his hobbies, like podcar// racing. His tinkering with technology is limited to what he can fish out of the dump, and he has to hide it because if he is found with anything that could be fashioned into a weapon, he will be badly punished. He grows up to be a lose cannon, pushing up against authority at every turn and defiantly taking punishment without showing weakness. He becomes hard, because he must.
When he comes of age, he finally does fashion a weapon. Compelled by his mother’s ill health, he uses force to break free of his shackles, and so commits his first murder – as necessity, as a form of self-defence for his mother who will die without aid. He searches for it, but finds no help; the world is cold to a slave boy with no money and nothing to offer.
While he is away, rebel forces arrive, and in an act of defiance attack the imperial-owned land, sacrificing the civilians there. His mother is killed and his home destroyed; the alliance has shown that it too is morally ambiguous and ruthless in its cause. Now, there’s a personal gripe. Whatever fanciful notions about the rebellion and its cases Anakin may have had have been shattered.
He never learns the Buddhist-like control of the Jedi. He is never trained by Obi-wan, never meets Yoda. He learns the force from defectors, outcasts with powers that could not control their feelings and were ejected for it. The elitist club that is Jedi has no place for someone like Anakin Skywalker. He learns all his skills by self-teaching, with a natural aptitude.
He hangs around with scoundrels and criminals, from whom he can pick up lessons of survival. He learns to fly, joy-rides ships, steals them, takes them apart and makes his own. He gets in fights just because he can, and makes bets on the outcome. He wounds people badly, unapologetically, in matches of strength and skill in weaponry. He cheats by using the force, making enemies, always on the run. He roams the galaxy.
At some point, the Jedi catch up to him. They do not want to harm him, but they have deliberated that he is too dangerous to leave unchecked. Though he is too old to train and too dangerous to bring into the fold, Obi-Wan is dispatched to guide him as best he can. Obi-Wan pulls Anakin from his messy life, and channels his powers into more disciplined forms. His aim is to remind Anakin of his responsibilities, and in so doing curtail the worst aspects of Anakin’s nature.
But Anakin is wilful and holds heavy grudges. He resents being told what to do, or how to use his power. He challenges Obi-Wan to battle constantly, always wanting to prove that the Force is stronger than him. Obi-Wan repeatedly refuses, only infuriating Anakin. The effect of Obi-Wan’s training is actually to strengthen Anakin’s powers, so he can do even more damage.
After an angry outburst, Anakin destroys their makeshift training arena and Obi-Wan decides to abandon the mission before it is too late. Realising he is about to be left alone again, that he was a mere inconvenience being turned into a tool, Anakin leaves and vows to have no dealings with Obi-Wan from that point forth.
he meets a woman, and has a brief affair. But by this point he is disconnected, reckless and selfish, filled with grand ideas for his own brilliance but crippled by an anti-authoritarian streak and with a tendency to alienate others with his vitriolic attitude to the alliance. He’s a bird with a mangled wing, and that is the extent of her interest; it isn’t quite love. When she discovers that his wing can’t be mended, her interest wanes.
His interest in her has always been insubstantial, disparate. With no side, no roots, no real friends, no family, no job and no education, it is clear he is going nowhere and she cannot stick around waiting for him any longer. One day, when Anakin leaves on one of his unexplained misadventures, she leaves. She later discovers she is pregnant by Anakin, but she doesn’t seek him out. She doesn’t want him to be her child’s father.
While up to his usual tricks, Anakin is chased down and captured by a bounty hunter. There are several prices on his head by now. Looking for the best one, the bounty hunter presents him to imperials, in the hopes that he is wanted for crimes against the empire. As the imperials are inspecting him and a group of others, Anakin uses the Force to break free of his holdings and begins attacking. He injures and renders unconscious everyone – prisoners, bounty hunter, imperials – but one; an imperial called Palpatine. Palpatine is radiating an aura that seems to protect him.
Sure that no one else can see, Palpatine demonstrates to Anakin the extent of his power by frying the bounty hunter. He tells Anakin that he, too, can be great, and wreck vengeance on all those who have wronged him. His training, though, comes at a price; he must join the Empire, and the two of them will have an alliance that leaves them both independent, but predisposed to serve each other’s interests. Anakin hesitates, deeply mistrustful of everyone as he is, but feels something from Palpatine he has never experienced before; some recognition of his true self, his ambition and potential, and his desire to be left alone, to his own devices.
Palpatine duly trains Anakin in the dark side of the Force. Under his disciple, Anakin forgets old petty grievances, and no longer seeks to track down his enemies. Instead, he becomes fully absorbed in the work of the Empire, attracted by their bid for galaxy-wide domination. It seems to him that he deserves to be a leader of a new world; that the planets under his guidance would be better off under him, he who is so clever and creative, skilled and powerful. The weak and the stupid could be wiped out, or else changed to their betterment. To that aim, anyone is disposable.
Anakin Skywalker rises through Imperial ranks quickly. He terrifies the others, who know he is favoured by the Senator Palpatine – whom, it is predicted, will one day be the Emperor. He is even allowed to dress differently, in the kind of uniform that strikes dread into others. Skywalker adopts his own handle; Vader. Not wishing to be known (for being known too well is a sure way to open yourself up to weakness) he dons a mask and helmet that obscures most of his face in darkness.
The alliance is growing stronger, but so is the Empire. The number of peaceful places has dropped, and there are barely any neutral territories. There are battlegrounds everywhere, and the Jedi are preparing the Rebels as best they can against any strike. Palpatine speaks to Vader. The Jedi, the pair agree, are a thorn in the side of the Siths and the Empire, and must be destroyed. The oldest is meditative and harmless, but is protected by stronger enemies. Vader must challenge and destroy Obi-Wan.
Vader and Obi-Wan fight for the first time. Vader is carries away by his arrogance, believing that he has always been a better fighter than the Obi-Wan, the typical foolish pacifist Jedi. With a heavy heart, Obi-Wan gravely injures him, thinking the Empire will dispose of him, showing their true attitude to the weak, and forcing Anakin to face his own prejudices. But Palpatine rescues Vader and patches him up with new breathing and metabolic equipment to replace his ruined vital organs.
Over a period of years, Vader adds more and more to his suit voluntarily, choosing to turn his weakness into a strength. He adds crushing and lifting power to his hands and arms and has his suit heavily armoured. In the course of his complete enclosure, shielding him from his vulnerability, he forgets his human side and withdraws further into the Dark Side. Soon, he is little but a willing pawn for Palpatine’s will, interpreting Palpatine’s vision as his own. He is consumed by the wish to dominate, to crush opposing forces.
There are other changes I would make to Vader. As far as I’m concerned, James Earl Jones is Darth Vader. His deep, resonant, commanding voice is exactly fitting for the character, and the only unique thing; you can get any old big man to fill a suit and create an physically imposing presence. Earl’s voice is vital to the depth of that character’s menacing aura.
Earl sounds as he does in large part because he is a black man. It is uncommon for white people to have voices as deep and resonant as his; indeed, it’s hard to imagine that they could have picked two whiter voices than those of Mark Hamill and Hayden Christensen if they had tried. It’s exceptionally jarring to hear young Anakin speak, trying to figure out in what way anyone could possibly picture this man as the Darth Vader we all fell in love with.
If you had to imagine that Anakin became Vader, he’d have to sound about the same. That was important. A black man would have sounded right, so for consistency, the character of Anakin would have to be black, the actor that played him should have been black. I would have thought that it was only logical and fitting that Darth Vader the character is a black man.
Unfortunately, Star Wars was made in the 70s. You couldn’t have a black Vader. More specifically, you couldn’t have a black Vader with white children, upsetting accuracy of the gene pattern, and you certainly couldn’t fix this by having two of the main heroes being black or partly black themselves. The audience would have been too focussed on why – there always had to be a reason why characters were black, you see. No reason would never have been a good enough reason. “Because James Earl Jones is the voice of Vader,” would be taken as a ridiculous reason to have black main characters, in those days. Heroes were white by default, and everything followed that.
So, Vader and the younger Anakin Skywalker are white men, despite the important Vader voice. But I think it would have fit well in other ways to have Anakin as a black boy (or mixed race, if you want to explain the pasty whiteness of the pre-existing Luke and Leia) – there would have been some dramatic weight to his enslavement, as we all know the history of black people and slavery. If it made it better, the white person involved in that coupling could have been an alien humanoid species, similar enough to humans that Vader would look basically human.
We’re talking about someone who feels isolated and different for his entire life. There can be no greater reminder of one’s difference to others as a child than looking different. The darker-skinned, half-alien humanoid would stick out like a sore thumb in his rustic planet, rife with slavery. I think it fits to have him look different, so we buy that he would be treated differently; so badly, that his respect for others would be minimal. And his affiliation with them would be limited, too, because he never really fit anywhere. Not knowing his father, half his heritage is gone.
Getting Vader right was imperative to the prequels, but they didn’t manage. I’m sure there’s been tons of fanfic about how Vader would be this or that, and some which had him playing ball with Luke in the backyard on a planet with two suns. One thing I think we can agree he shouldn’t have been though, is a whiny, teenagery twit.