Many Star Wars fans are not particularly happy about the new movies, and some feel that Disney threw out the baby with the bathwater when it came to the expanded universe. See, before Disney took over, Star Wars had a huge amount of extra material (novels, comics, etc.), referred to as the expanded universe, or EU.
It used to be that all of the EU was considered canon unless directly contradicted by a movie. However, when Disney came along, they declared that the EU was all just “legends” told within the Star Wars universe. While they can still use elements of it of they so desire, they have chopped the whole thing to pieces, and there were a lot of good reasons why.
One of the biggest reasons that Disney had to go ahead and just throw out the baby with the bathwater is that a huge wealth of the EU stories involved the “big three” (Han, Luke, and Leia), and the actors were advancing in years. Most of these books were written back when the three were still in their prime and were quite popular as depictions of the characters go, but it’s hard to imagine how you could change a lot of the stories enough to make up for such an age gap.
The truth is that what the fans wanted was something fairly shortly after Return of the Jedi—as close as could be plausibly done—and a story that had a young Han, Luke, and Leia simply could not work. For this reason, an incredible amount of EU story lines already had to be scrapped. People simply wouldn’t have been able to suspend their disbelief. Unfortunately, no one would have believed that Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, or Carrie Fisher were in their thirties.
In the Star Wars expanded universe, Han and Leia get married and have three kids. Two of them are twins named Jacen and Jaina, which some fans wished had been replicated at least in some form in the new movies. In fact, it is for this reason that many fans really like the idea of Rey and Ben secretly being brother and sister—it would fulfill the fan wish for Han and Leia to have had twins. However, the Solos also had another child, and George Lucas kind of wished they hadn’t.
In one of the crazier comics, Leia has her womb touched by the cloned Emperor Palpatine while she’s pregnant—another reason to ax the EU—and is worried about how it may affect her son and make him dark in the future. In order to honor her father, and somehow try to show that the name can be overcome, she names her third child Anakin, after her murderous cyborg father. George Lucas was never happy about this character, if nothing else, because he felt fans would confuse him with Anakin Skywalker. Lucas was reportedly pleased when the kid was finally killed off later on in the New Jedi Order series.
As we mentioned above, in the EU, Anakin Solo was killed off in The New Jedi Order, but they killed a wealth of other characters in that series and since as well. The New Jedi Order killed off mostly side characters apart from Chewbacca and Anakin Solo, but after that, the purge really got going. Jacen Solo went to the dark side and was eventually killed by his twin sister. Meanwhile, Mara Jade, Luke Skywalker’s expanded universe wife, gets killed by Jacen Solo, her own nephew, when she tries to confront him and bring him back to the light. Han becomes a washed-up wreck, and Luke goes into exile; Luke’s son Ben gets killed as well.
In the end, nearly every main character that was remotely interesting either dies, loses all the people close to them and becomes a sad sack, or first experiences the second one and then the other—kind of like most Game of Thrones characters. By the time Disney got its hands on the franchise, you could practically count on one hand the amount of interesting characters left whose stories hadn’t already been driven into the ground with incredible force. In the end, Disney felt they needed to be able to go their own route with old characters and be able to feel more free to introduce new ones as well.
In Star Wars‘s early days, there were a few novels that just kind of left everyone wondering what kind of drugs the author was using. This was mainly because back then, the people in charge, Bantam Books, were basically just letting a lot of sci-fi authors try their hand at the universe and see what they came up with. Still, it is kind of hard to figure out how this one not only made it past the editors but even got a reprisal years later in the form of multiple appearances in The New Jedi Order—a 19-book series.
The Sii-Ruuk are a species that shows up in The Truce at Bakura, and they use a process called entechment to suck out your soul, slave it to a piece of machinery, and use your life energy to power it. You are stuck in a nightmarish state, powering their desk lamp or whatever until your energy finally fades, your soul passes on, and you die. This is a terrible, horrific thing that really belongs in the most disturbing sci-fi horror novel, but instead, it makes multiple appearances in the Star Wars EU. This is an example of killing it with fire not even being nearly enough.
The Yuuzhan Vong were introduced largely in The New Jedi Order. This series focused on the invasion of the Star Wars galaxy by a group of extragalactic invaders called the Yuuzhan Vong. This species was largely humanoid but was a black hole in the Force. You could not feel them in the Force or use Force powers on them, but they could not use the Force at all themselves. They came in great numbers and swarmed through the galaxy, almost taking over and destroying everything. Using great organic machines, they reshaped entire worlds to their will.
What made the entire thing so bizarre, and almost ruined the universe from that point forth, is what they left behind. These invaders eschewed all conventional technology and pleasure and thought it evil. They worshiped pain and were extremely sadistic and masochistic. All of their weapons and technology were actually living, which was extremely bizarre and otherworldly. Their shapers, a group of their species responsible for massive genetic engineering, changed entire worlds and left their ridiculous organic matter and other invasive organisms littered all over the universe. The entire thing was simply too crazy for the Star Wars universe and ruined it forever—a hard reset was almost necessary after the horrible disaster of the New Jedi Order series, which never should have been and whose creators should still be ashamed by the existence of.
One thing many people who are only casual fans (not that there’s anything wrong with that) are unaware of is just how mind-bogglingly huge the entirety of the Star Wars continuity is. There are so many stories throughout so many comics, role-playing game write-ups, novels, short stories, video games, movies, cartoons, and so much media that some may consider it impossible to keep track of. However, there is actually one man whose job it is to do just that.
His name is Leland Chee, and his official title is “Keeper of the Holocron.” He has been at it for decades now, and even with the EU no longer official canon, they still want someone to keep track of the old continuity as well as the new timeline, so he still has a job. It is an incredibly staggering task, but he has managed to keep a comprehensive timeline updated over the years, with levels of “canon” for every single story for decades. However, this was all just one more reason that Disney felt they needed to tell people to just enjoy the old stories and stop worrying so much about actual continuity in a fictional universe. While Disney still has its own new continuity now, it is a much less crowded galaxy to work in with the old EU now being legends.
Another big problem facing Disney wasn’t just the big three but that even if they did want to cast them in a story, they had already been written into a corner. The period in the 30 years or so after Return of the Jedi has been by far the most popular era to write stories for in Star Wars, so that period is incredibly congested. Nearly every single moment is filled thick with story, and there really isn’t much of anything you can do to fit anything significantly new in anymore.
The fans wanted new movies in the period after Return of the Jedi, but that period is glutted with stories, and many of them are, quite frankly, terrible. A clean slate allows the writers a chance to simply write a good story and allows for new, young fans to get into Star Wars without needing to go read several dozen to a couple hundred books to get up to speed with everything that is going on in the universe.
When Harry Potter was transferred to the big screen, some fans really liked it, and some were incredibly disappointed. Some of the later movies, especially, have been criticized as feeling rushed, and many feel in hindsight that it wasn’t just movie seven that should have had two parts to properly tell the story. However, while it is understandable that Harry Potter and its prodigious length made it especially difficult, it is always hard to translate a book into film. Books are told in an entirely different way, where everything is told to people. On the other hand, movies are a medium where everything is shown to people.
This is why the powers that be are likely reluctant to use book stories from the Star Wars expanded universe for new Star Wars movies. One medium often doesn’t translate well to the other, so it really makes more sense, if you can, to just write an original story rather than trying to translate a preexisting one from a book to a movie. It also creates an air of expectation that can be hard to live up to. If you say you are taking heavy inspiration from a particular book, certain fans will get upset the more you deviate from the source material, and that disappointment can lead to long-term lost revenue streams.
Probably the biggest reason of all, though, one which many fans do not tend to think as much about, that Disney decided to go ahead and throw out the EU is because they want to be able to surprise people. The truth is that if you go with story lines that most people already know and don’t deviate from them much, there really isn’t going to be that much surprise, just you bringing a previously told story to the big screen. While there are plenty of people who will enjoy it, it just won’t spread through word of mouth as much or fuel as much excitement for the next movie.
If you already pretty much know what is going to happen, there really isn’t anything at all to speculate about or talk about, so there is little discussion surrounding the film. This means little to no hype and hardly anyone but the really big fans going to see the movie. The writers know that if you really want a large, general audience, you need a new story that will give people something to talk about for sometimes years to come while they wait for the next installment. For this reason, using preexisting EU stories simply weren’t practical, so Disney decided to go in a different direction.
The final reason Disney got rid of the EU is because while they did need it gone, it is never really gone if they do need any of it. The EU still has a wealth of existing planets, characters, aliens, organizations, technologies, and all sorts of other things to draw on. While all previous story lines may be axed, they can borrow if they want and bring out fan favorites all the same. For example, due to the way they were written, without even knowing how the prequel trilogy would go down, the first Star Wars expanded universe trilogy by Timothy Zahn will never be adapted into film.
However, the character Grand Admiral Thrawn, a blue alien who uses his knowledge of art to analyze his opponents, is a fan favorite, and Disney has already brought him into the official canon in all new stories. The truth is that the EU wasn’t truly destroyed; it was just marginalized so that Disney could make sense of the entire mess. All of the old content is still there and can and will be drawn on as needed, but there is simply no benefit to continuing the old continuity system—sometimes you need to start fresh.