The books that inspired 'Star Wars'

Original sketches of Imperial Storm Troopers
Original sketches of Imperial Storm Troopers by artist Ralph McQuarrie were exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in Brooklyn, New York.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images 2002

Every week, The Thread tackles your book questions, big and small. Ask a question now.

This week's question: What books inspired George Lucas when he was writing "Star Wars"?

"Star Wars" has always been seen as a mash-up of different influences and styles. Critics, fans and Lucas himself have called out similarities to everything from "Casablanca" to John Wayne westerns to the films of Akira Kurosawa.

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But what about books?

Lucas was an avid fan of sci-fi pulp novels and comic strips when he was growing up. And he didn't just draw from space travel and super powers — he also looked back at the classic structure of myths. Here are just a few of the likely influences behind his iconic films.

A fascination with "Flash Gordon"

Lucas was so enamored with Alex Raymond's "Flash Gordon" comics that he wanted to adapt the intergalactic adventures into a film. He was unable to get the rights, however, because another iconic filmmaker already had them: Federico Fellini.

Unable to fulfill his childhood dream, Lucas had to make a space opera of his own: "Star Wars." His finished trilogy of films have more than a few nods to "Flash Gordon" comics.

Dale Pollock, author of "Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas," pointed out one character in particular may have been pulled from Raymond's "Flash" tales:

"Alex Raymond's 'Iron Men of Mongo describes a five-foot-tall metal man of dusky copper color who is a trained servant and speaks in polite phrases."

Sound familiar? We're looking at you, C-3PO.

'Galactic Patrol' by Edward E. Smith
'Galactic Patrol' by Edward E. Smith
James Vaughan via Flickr

E. E. "Doc" Smith's "Galactic Patrol"

The plot of this 1937 pulp novel will sound familiar to any "Star Wars" fans, The Guardian points out.

In "Galactic Patrol," a warrior with telepathic powers must protect the universe against an evil group that's building a "Grand Base." ("Death Star," anybody?)

Instead of Jedi, the special warriors are known as Lensmen.

The "Dune" connections

Desert planets, telekinetic mind control powers, a princess smuggling secrets... Everybody saw the connections between "Star Wars" and Frank Herbert's "Dune" when the film first came out — even Herbert himself.

Some of the most overt references were scrubbed from the first drafts, but many made it through. From The Guardian:

"All manner of borrowings from "Dune" litter the "Star Wars" universe, from the Bene Gesserit-like mental powers of the Jedi to the mining and "moisture farming" on Tattooine. Herbert knew he'd been ripped off, and thought he saw the ideas of other SF writers in Lucas's money-spinning franchise. He and a number of colleagues formed a joke organization called the 'We're Too Big to Sue George Lucas Society.'"

'The Complete Adventures of Lucky Starr'
'The Complete Adventures of Lucky Starr' by Isaac Asimov
Courtesy of Science Fiction Book Club

Isaac Asimov and the lightsaber

The lightsaber was not the first laser sword on the sci-fi scene.

There are many swords of incredible, inexplicable power in literature prior to 1977, but some fans think Isaac Asimov is most likely the inspiration behind the neon weaponry.

In his "Lucky Starr" series, which he published under the pen name Paul French in the 1950s, Asimov described a "force-blade." The name isn't as catchy, but the word "force" certainly rings a bell. From Wikipedia:

The force-blade is "a short shaft of stainless steel" which can project a force field that can cut through anything, making it "the most vicious weapon in the galaxy."

Joseph Campbell and the hero's journey

Lucas leaned heavily on mythology when sketching out the plot for his "Star Wars" series. One of his most formative influences was Joseph Campbell, an academic who identified the classic "hero's journey" that appears in many stories, both ancient and modern.

Campbell outlined this journey in his 1949 book, "The Hero with a Thousand Faces":

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

Inspiration from the man behind "Tarzan"

Edgar Rice Burroughs is most famous for his "Tarzan" tales, but he also found success in science-fiction.

He created John Carter, a Civil War Veteran who is transported to Mars, in his Barsoom series. Lucas referenced Barsoom and Carter's space adventures when he pitched "Star Wars" to executives.

SciFiNow cataloged the many terms and visual references that link Burroughs's books and Lucas's films, including The Sith, banthas and a certain gold bikini.

The French comic, "Valerian and Laureline"

Speaking of Princess Leia's bikini, it may have French influences as well. Jean-Claude Mézières began writing a planet-hopping, time-travelling comic "Valerian and Laureline" in the 1960s.

According to PRI's The World, there are undeniable visual connections between the comic and Lucas's films.

"Laureline in one of the volumes of this series is actually dressed in a gold metal bikini by a rotund slave lord," writer John Wenz told The World. There's also a scene where Valerian is encased in hard resin, striking a very similar pose to Han Solo when he was sealed in carbonite.

The connection remains just a theory, however, as Lucas has never mentioned the comic, which wasn't translated into English until 1981. The comic will get a film of its own when "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" is released in 2017.