'Star Wars' Author Alan Dean Foster on 'Splinter of the Mind’s Eye,' the Sequel That Might Have Been

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Imagine a version of The Empire Strikes Back without Han Solo, Cloud City or wampas. Instead, picture a lovestruck Luke as he and his non-sibling crush object Princess Leia, try to find a way off a foggy swamp planet called Mimban before being captured by Imperial troops. That’s the plot of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, a 1978 spin-off novel by Alan Dean Foster that was commissioned as a possible springboard for a new Star Wars film, should the first one survive its legendary behind-the-scenes problems and become a hit.  

Of course, by the time Splinter hit shelves in March 1978, the first Star Wars movie was a confirmed pop culture phenomenon, and when it came to a new Star Wars film, George Lucas and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan decided to take the story in a different direction for 1980′s The Empire Strikes Back. But Foster’s book remains an intriguing hint of where the Star Wars franchise could have gone, had Lucas adapted the book. 

Splinter begins with Luke and Leia crash-landing on Mimban en route to a gathering of key members of the Rebel Alliance. While looking for a way off-planet, the duo cross paths with an elderly woman named Halla, who is in possession of a shard from the Kaiburr crystal—a legendary gem of great power that allows those already in touch with the Force to enhance and amplify their psychic powers (hence the title). 

In exchange for aid in escaping Mimban and its vicious ranking Imperial officer, Captain-Supervisor Grammel, Luke and Leia agree to help Halla recover the gem, a mission that takes them deep into the jungle in search of an ancient temple. Meanwhile, one of the few survivors of the Battle of Yavin, Darth Vader, turns up planetside looking for a little payback against a certain Jedi-in-training…

Even though Splinter was airbrushed out of official Star Wars continuity, unlike other franchise outliers—like the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special— Foster’s book has never been erased from existence. It remains in print to this day, readily available in paperback or for e-readers. The book even got the graphic novel treatment in 1996, with a four-issue comic book adaptation published by Dark Horse Comics. (The planet Mimban has also been referenced in a number of other non-cinematic Star Wars properties although, again, few of them are recognized as being part of official canon.)

Yahoo Movies spoke with the 68-year-old Foster, who continues to write original sci-fi novels and film novelizations (since Star Wars, he’s also adapted The Last Starfighter, The Chronicles of Riddick and Transformers from the screen to the page), about his memories of writing Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and the book’s unique place in Star Wars history.    

What were the origins of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye?

My contract was originally for two books: the novelization of the first film and then a sequel book, because George — being a student of Disney, I’m sure — wanted more material in case the movie was a success. He wanted something out there that the hoped-for fans would be able to enjoy while he was busy making the second film. The only restriction placed on me was that the follow-up novel had to be filmable on a low budget. That’s why I set it on a fog-shrouded planet. A lot of the action takes place in the fog or underground, which facilitates shooting with cheap backgrounds. The book originally opened with a fairly complex space battle that forces Luke and Leia down on this planet, and George had me cut that out because it would have been expensive to film.

What sort of access did you have to footage and behind the scenes material from the first Star Wars?

I saw very little. I had a couple versions of the screenplay and they also gave me a 16mm reel of rough footage to take around to a couple of sci-fi conventions to publicize the film, which I was happy to do. I had also visited ILM [Industrial Light & Magic, Lucas’s effects company], which at that time was a rented warehouse in Van Nuys, so I had seen the trenches for Luke’s flyby at the end, as well as the Millennium Falcon and the Death Star. And I had access to some of Ralph McQuarrie’s production paintings. But that was it.  

Did the fact that you were mostly left to you own devices make it easier or harder to concoct an original adventure?

One reason that I was able to create essentially what I wanted with Splinter is because there was nothing to contradict it. Nowadays, of course, everything is vetted by committee, and if you get someone’s armor wrong, someone will be right there to correct it. Since I was given complete freedom within certain limits, [and] the story of the first film gives you a pretty good background of the whole Star Wars universe, there was enough there that, being a sci-fi writer, you can fill in the blanks in certain places. 

Apparently, nothing directly contradicted anything that showed up in the film, or else they would have had me cut it. It wasn’t like we were setting down the Bible and I was working on Exodus. Nobody was really worried at that point about what’s going to happen in Book 6, Chapter 5, Line 23. The hope is just to get Exodus out there so people can see it and then you worry about follow-ups. Nobody at the time, except perhaps George, could see Star Wars becoming what it eventually became.

Obviously, the romantic yearning that Luke expresses for Leia is the element of Splinter that’s totally at odds with where the Star Wars series wound up going.    

At the time, the indications and the vibe I got from the first film was that they were not siblings and that Luke was interested in her, and she was, casually perhaps, interested in him. And you actually get that [feeling] partway through The Empire Strikes Back, too. [Editor’s Note: This deleted scene from The Empire Strikes Back depicts an almost-kiss between Luke and Leia that’s more in line with their relationship as it exists in Foster’s book.]

Why was Han omitted from the book? Since you were writing it before the film came out, did you not expect that character to become as popular as he did?

At the time I was writing Splinter, Harrison Ford had not committed to any further participation in Star Wars. Hence I was specifically told not to use the Han Solo character. And without Han, it didn’t seem logical to have Chewie in the book, either.

Another sequence that feels different from any of the movies is a battle in an underground cavern where Imperial troopers are massacred by a tribe of aliens. Even though you hide a lot of the details between the lines, it’s a more violent, almost gruesome scene than you expect from Star Wars.

George is a very sensitive guy; I picked up on that from the moment I met him. That’s why, I think, the Imperial troopers never take their helmets off [in the original movies]. Because if you’re seeing people get shot all the time and their faces are contorted in agony, it gives you a very different cinematic vibe than if its just a figures in plastic helmets that all look the same. I don’t know this, but I think that was a deliberate choice on George’s part to mitigate the violence. Even though there’s nothing graphic in Splinter, I wasn’t as constrained by that consideration. Like Vader having his arm cut off [in a climactic fight with Luke] —his arm’s cut off! It bleeds, it’s painful.  

Did Lucas perhaps borrow that idea from you for the famous Luke/Vader confrontation at the end of Empire? Severed arms play a big role in the Star Wars movies in general.  

I have no idea. It’s all of a piece, and it doesn’t bother me one way or the other. When you work for somebody else and you do work for hire, what you do is theirs and they own it. And that’s fine, I have no problem with that.

Splinter of the Mind’s Eye author Alan Dean Foster.

There’s another memorable Darth Vader moment where he casually kills off Grammel, who has been the main villain up to that point.

That’s real world versus the fictional world; in the real world, you kill your opponent. There’s a film I saw as a student at UCLA called Waterhole #3 where James Coburn plays an amoral gambler in the Old West and he’s challenged to a gunfight. He doesn’t want to do it, but he has to do it and the guy is out there in the middle of the street waiting for him. Coburn walks out of the bar, gets behind his horse, takes his rifle out and, from behind the horse, shoots the guy. Then he goes back into the bar and says, ‘What can I do? The guy was just standing there in the middle of the street!’ That’s the way the Old West worked. You didn’t have guys in the middle of the street facing each other; if you could hide behind something and take the guy out with a shot to the back, that’s what you did.

Despite having long since being written out of current Star Wars continuity, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye is still in print. What kind of feedback do you hear about the book from fans?

It depends how old they are. If they’re my age or a bit younger and were around when the first three films came out, they’re generally really happy with it. But every once in awhile you get an email or you’ll see a comment from someone online who was born in, say, 1995, and they don’t understand the contradictions with the films. The nicest thing I get as far as comments go is that people really appreciate Leia being a strong character in the book. She even picks up Luke’s lightsaber at the end, which actually fits, even though nobody knew she was Luke’s sister at the time. That was just something I put it in there.

Has J.J. Abrams been in touch regarding any potential involvement in Episode VII?

No, I’ve had no direct contact with J.J. at all, which is kind of funny because I did the novelizations of his two Star Trek films. But again, I understand completely. Directors have no time or life outside of making a film — it’s a 24/7 job. One of these days we’ll run into at each other at a convention or a Wendy’s or a Starbucks and we’ll have a nice chat, but the man is too busy for casual conversation with someone not working directly with him on a project.

Reflecting on Splinter of the Mind’s Eye decades later, what are you happiest with about the book?

Other than the fact that its still in print and people still regard it as a good read, in spite of the contradictions with subsequent films, I’m pleased that I was able to create an entire world on my own with its own society and set of Imperial villains, and they all still hold up. I like to think that’s a credit to the writing and the fact that I was true to the universe and the character and the situation. [The book] exists on its own terms, because there’s nothing that follows it directly. There’s no reason to mess with it and make it into something it’s not. I thought for many years that it would have made a marvelous made-for-TV movie. It could have been filmed cheaply and then you stick it between Episode IV and V. And in an alternate universe maybe it was! [Laughs]