Who stole Star Wars?

To be honest, I’m not real sure why what brought this on. It may have something to do with playing Star Wars: Empire at War, the latest SW offering from Lucasarts. The game’s single player campaign takes place in the time leading up to (and into) the events in the original film. That means the creators had to come up with a narrative that fits into the known events of the movie (or movies) while not radically changing them. In some respects this is a creative challenge, but it can be limiting. Or there could be liberties taken: For instance, in this game’s story, Han Solo and Chewbacca perform some espionage for the Rebellion, meaning he had contact with the principal players of the larger story before his appearance in A New Hope. The assumption we made as fans was that Han did not get involved with the Rebellion at all until he picked up his troublesome passengers in the Mos Eisley Spaceport. It would certainly fit in with his persona; “I only look out for one person, me!” I thought then about the Star Wars franchise as a whole, and how it has evolved since the summer of 1977.

George Lucas has gotten really beat up by fans over the last 5 years or so. But why? To hear some hardcore fans of Star Wars you would think Lucas was skinning cats on live TV instead of creating movies. But I thought about something: This is Lucas’ creation. He not only owns the rights legally, but also emotionally: This is his baby, and really it is his choice to do with it as he pleases. So why is the fan community so outraged? Why is there constant criticism, and even verbal attacks against the creator and his crew? What gives them the right? Actually, nothing.

Yes, that’s what I said, fanboy. Clam up your freaking piehole! Star Wars is as much yours as it is anyone’s. Except for Geroge Lucas, because it is more his than anyone’s. No one says we have to like the movies he’s made in this decade, but none of us should say he is wrong, his vision is wrong, or his choices are wrong. These are his to make, like it or not, and you, fan, have no leeway to say so.

I’d say most average persons would agree. But the conviction folks have for their belief in Lucas’ errors made me try to understand why this is. I think the answer has to do with time.

Star Wars was by far the most significant cultural event of my childhood, just as it was for most folks my age. It was more than a movie. It was personal. With Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi we were drawn even further into the universe Lucas created. But then what happened? Nothing significant happened in the Star Wars universe year after year. And in the meantime, the people who were drawn in by the series began to adopt it for themselves. Lucas had said that he would revisit his creation, but as year moved on to year we began to treat it as a closed system. Then the fans began to create their own parts of the universe, adding to the mythology, extending it, adding new characters and new adventures for old characters. And, to Lucas’ credit, he embraced the community’s additions, making some of it “official”.

Then in the late nineties the word came that Lucas was revisiting the beloved franchise, creating the first three chapters that were hinted at. We as fans were excited, because we believed we would be taken back to our halcyon days, when Star Wars was more than a movie. We should have been more realistic.

The conventional wisdom has said that the reason the “new” Star Wars movies were critically received by fans was that our expectations were far too high for it to succeed. My thought is that in the time between the end of the first trilogy and the new films, the fan community assumed ownership of it. They really didn’t of course, Lucas had never given it up. But with all that the fans had done, they began to believe that it was theirs. So unless Lucas was to provide something that fit in with their view of what the franchise should be, then it was going to fail.

Lucas is not fully blameless in this: He seems to have not regarded what the fans had done in the intervening time. Lucas was not obliged to, but he could have included them more. Beyond the original Star Wars, the most highly regarded of the other five films was The Empire Strikes Back. Not surprisingly it was the one film Lucas had little to do with: not the director, not the screenwriter, his contributions were the story and producing. The lesson here is that sometimes letting others contribute can make a richer, more intriguing product. The greatest example of this is Star Trek: Gene Roddenberry created it, set down the ground rules, but he then turned it over to others to deliver it to us. Part of the genius of Roddenberry’s creation is that he knew to let it go, to let the community go with it. He was the architect of the universe, setting the plan for others to follow.

Here’s another analogy that seems appropriate: Lucas’ creation is like the child that is tended and coddled throughout its life. Its safe, and it comes out exactly as its creator wanted, but it never had the chance to grow, to become more through the additions of others. Whereas Roddenberry’s creation is like the child given the key lessons of life, then let loose into the world. There will be dangers, and there may be mistakes, and it may become something different than what the creator thought, but it will ultimately become something even more interesting than anyone could have anticipated.

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  1. tomwest says:

    1. Lucas created a modern myth, complete with archetypal figures (the adventurer, the seer, the ruler, the redeemer) that speak
    to the very core of human existence. Fans have been so affected by his mythos for so long that his recent movies lose something in translation because of the expansion of the SW universe.
    2. The original trilogy appeals to more people because at a primordeal level, it is the part of the story that is about Anakin’s redemption, a return to light. The prequel trilogy is about a fall into darkness. The original trilogy also is more the classic story of a rise to greatness from the realm of the ordinary, a theme that Luke Skywalker shares with Harry Potter (though Luke whines a lot more).
    3. Lucas’ largest weakness in all of the movies has been writing and directing the romantic content. Empire handled this the best, as Dave pointed out, because it was directed by Irvin Kirshner with screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan. Lucas’ control over the creative content may have been better served in the prequel with some outside influence, as Peter Jackson did with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens with LOTR.
    4. If you watch the bonus material on the Episode III DVD, there is an hour documentary on what it takes to create 60 seconds of the film. To say that SW suffered because it only had George’s vision is leaving out hundreds of people who contributed ideas, visions, and sounds to the final product. Granted, Lucas always has veto power, but the movies go far beyond his influence alone.
    5. Remember that in order for George’s vision to come to the screen, he had to first revolutionize the industry, and then wait for technology to catch up with his imagination in order to create the first three episodes. Now THAT, my Jedi friends, is creative power.
    There’s my two credits. Play them on the Sabaac table.
    — Tom

  2. DaveHo says:

    Responding to the above:
    1 & 2. It’s well documented that Lucas based Star Wars‘ structure on Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces and it’s psychology on Karl Jung’s work on archetypes and collective consciousness. The story is a basic one that mirrors other mythology. Maybe its true that because of its universal structure it was easily assimilated. The newer trilogy did lose some of this archetypal structure (and seems to have replaced it with a framework of political history, namely, the rise of tyrants, and a clunky love story). He was attempting a more complex series of situations.
    3. Definitely. Would’ve loved to have seen that part of the story in the hands of another screenwriter. I think the concept behind it was okay, but it played out poorly.
    4. From a technical and aesthetic standpoint the movies are wonderful. The art design and technical achievements are incredible, giving them a polished look that time and technology offers over the originals. But there are almost NO new vehicle designs in the new trilogy that made an impression like the Star Destroyers, TIE Fighters, X-Wings, or Millennium Falcon (perhaps the Pod Racers and the Nubian Cruiser (Padme’s ship) made the biggest impression). This too is a factor of time: We came to love the look of the first trilogy so much that new things just don’t “feel” like SW.
    5. Ultimately, Lucas will be remembered not only for Star Wars, but for changing what movies can be. His real passion over time has been improving the experience of movies. However, I believe that if he really wanted to, he could have made the prequel trilogy on the heels of Jedi. I think that like creative people, he had lots of other things he wanted to explore (like the adventures of a certain daring archaeologist), and felt trapped by SW. It’s when the technology (that he helped shepherd) reached the point that doing movies on the scale of the Star Wars Prequels became financially and technologically feasible that he could revisit them (he cites the release of Jurassic Park as the moment he knew he could do it).
    Remember that ultimately this blog was a defense of Lucas’ work. The idea is that, as the creator of his property, he can do with it whatever he wants. My concern is that he is being accused of destroying his franchise, whereas no person should saddle the guy with that. I have more animosity to other people taking an original idea and breaking it (see my blog article They Remade THAT? for what I think of people butchering others’ ideas!)