The plot of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is well-known now, almost three years after the film's release, but the narrative almost followed a completely different trajectory surrounding Luke Skywalker's lightsaber. Despite being lost during the fateful duel at Cloud City, Luke's old weapon returned in the sequel trilogy, calling to Rey at Maz Kanata's castle. The mystery surrounding the saber's reappearance is one of the biggest sticking points of the new films, as there's never been a sound explanation for how Maz came to be in possession of it. The filmmakers weren't sure what to do about it, infamously brushing it off as "a good question for another time."
It seems highly unlikely that question will ever be answered (Episode IX has plenty else on its plate to take care of), illustrating how the lightsaber's role in the modern movies evolved over time. At one point, during peak speculation about The Force Awakens' plot, the ancient weapon was going to be the driving force behind the whole story. Fortunately, things changed.
The Lightsaber Was The Force Awakens' Original Plot Device
Episode VII picks up on Jakku, where daring pilot Poe Dameron retrieves a portion of a map that supposedly leads to the missing Luke Skywalker. At least from a superficial perspective, the map plays a similar part to the Death Star plans in A New Hope. For the first half of the film, it's what the heroes and villains of the story are both after, as the prevailing belief is Luke's triumphant return or brutal death would change the tide of the brewing conflict forever. In particular, Supreme Leader Snoke is worried about what Skywalker's reemergence would mean.
The map is a simple and effective MacGuffin, easing audiences into this new era for Star Wars and firmly establishing what's at stake. But for those with long memories and fondly followed the ever-brewing Force Awakens rumor mill, the Ahch-To map was hardly a thought on anyone's mind for much of the discussion. Just about every plot rumor that came up pointed to Luke's lightsaber being the main plot device that led to Rey and Finn encountering Han Solo and taking their first steps into a larger world. It allegedly was so prominent in Episode VII that it was set to be the first thing audiences saw after the opening crawl.
The Lightsaber in Space Opened The Force Awakens
In keeping with Star Wars tradition, The Force Awakens opens with the classic pan up in space, revealing a First Order fleet embarking on Jakku. Stormtrooper transports arrive on the surface, take Poe captive, and the rest is history. But well before the film's release, it was theorized the opening shot of the movie was the lightsaber falling from space. A rumored opening sequence suggested a Jakku villager named Naka happened upon it and accidentally started a fire by igniting it. Naka brought the weapon before the Vicar (which is what Max von Sydow's Lor San Tekka was known as at the time), who alerted the Resistance about the lightsaber's appearance. Of course, the First Order learned this information as well and went on their own mission to retrieve it. Much like he did with the map in the final film, Poe hid the saber in BB-8 and told him to flee.
Kylo Ren was said to be actively pursuing the saber because, potentially, its kyber crystal had the ability to open an ancient Sith tomb Luke was guarding. As Kylo tried to track it down, Rey and Finn crossed paths with Han and Chewbacca, sending them all on a quest to find Skywalker so they can return the saber to him. Instead of being a tortured old man consumed by regret, Luke was said to be going insane because of his responsibility to keep the tomb safe. Obviously, this didn't pan out, but there are some striking similarities between the rumors and the actual movie. The basic set up is the same, but the plot revolved around the map, and nobody knew the reasons why Luke vanished. Even when there are inklings of truth in Star Wars speculation, the theories can be all over the place.
Rey's Force Vision Replaced A Knights of Ren & Lightsaber Flashback
As it stands, the lightsaber doesn't show up onscreen until about halfway through the film, as the weapon mysteriously calls to Rey and triggers the now-famous Force vision where she sees images of the past and future. Recently, it was confirmed this sequence originally included a snippet of Luke's duel with Darth Vader, with actor Robert Boulter cast as a young Skywalker. This was definitely one of the most talked-about portions of the entire film, as audiences attempted to make sense of it all. Apparently, it was a segment that went through multiple revisions, as the initial plan called for something else entirely - a flashback involving (you guessed it) the lightsaber.
During their stop on Takodana to visit Maz (who once was referred to as Rose), Rey, Finn, and Han were to hear a story that essentially told the history of the saber and how it ended up in Maz's possession. Rumors had this flashback sequence depicting a large battle between two warring clans, background about Ben Solo's training under Luke (and eventual turn to the dark side, forming the Knights of Ren), and Maz stealing the lightsaber from the Knights so she could keep it out of their hands. Afterwards, Rey runs away, terrified of the lightsaber's power and Kylo arrives on the planet to claim what he feels is his. Again, with a few tweaks, it's easy to get to what J.J. Abrams actually delivered in The Force Awakens. Following her disorientating vision, Rey claimed she never wanted to see the lightsaber again and went fleeing into the forest.
Why The Lightsaber Plot Was Changed In The Force Awakens
Making the lightsaber, one of the most recognizable aspects of the Star Wars franchise, the driving force behind the plot of a new movie certainly was a tempting proposition, but it's probably for the best that things were changed. For starters, the original setup doesn't make sense. None other than Mark Hamill confirmed the original plan was to see Luke's hand floating through space before landing on the Jakku desert. Remember, Luke lost his hand on Cloud City, a location on the planet Bespin. If anything, his detached limb would have fallen to the surface, rather than sail around the universe for three decades. Fortunately, Abrams and company realized this early on and made some necessary revisions to avoid getting the new Star Wars era off on the wrong foot.
There's a discernible logic behind the map that makes it easier to integrate into the larger plot. Luke Skywalker disappeared at some point following Return of the Jedi, and everyone wants to know where he went. Some people believed he went searching for the first Jedi Temple, so they tried to figure out how to get to the remote planet of Ahch-To. It's a very simple and streamlined story to follow, right in Star Wars' ballpark. And while there were some lingering questions about the map's origins in the immediate aftermath of The Force Awakens' release, they aren't nearly as problematic as trying to explain the infamous lightsaber beginning. Seeing that Abrams (or Rian Johnson, for that matter) bothered to explain how Maz found it, it's unlikely fans would have been satisfied with the initial plan.
When it premiered, The Force Awakens was widely seen as a triumphant return to form for the franchise, with many feeling Abrams captured the spirit of the original trilogy and blended it with the new. One has to wonder what the reaction would have been if the lightsaber plot remained in place, and odds are it might not have gone over well. It's no secret its reappearance and Maz as a story catalyst are the weakest aspects of the new trilogy, so Abrams definitely made the right call to mix things up.