I’m currently reading Into the Woods by John Yorke, a treatise on storytelling and story structure, by an author with extensive experience writing for British TV. It’s a well written and interesting book, one which gives you plenty of food for thought, even if you find yourself questioning the author’s theories. I encountered one such moment early on, and it irked me enough to write this post. It’s when Yorke turns his attention to the Star Wars films, while discussing the concept of “resolution” in classical story structure, and isn’t particularly complimentary in his analysis (emphasis mine):
“The resolution is the final judgement after the battle. If the heroes have overcome their demons, they are rewarded. ‘Hugh Grant’ learns to be assertive, James Bond saves the world — both get the girl. Often the story ends in some kind of sexual fulfilment — although even in mainstream cinema there are some interesting anomalies. In Star Wars Luke should really end up with Princess Leia, but she turns out to be his sister — his reward for vanquishing evil is fame instead. Such a subversion may go some way to explaining the film’s phenomenal success: it’s very sexlessness makes it digestible to children of every age — but perhaps its placing of fame on a pedestal above love says something too about the values of the society that both spawned it and still continues to nourish its success.”
Now, I’m a geek, but not an ardent fan of Star Wars. I think the prequel movies are uniformly terrible, have no interest in any of the fandom or expanded universe stuff, and of the original trilogy, I think The Empire Strikes Back is the only unreservedly great film. That said, I think Yorke’s analysis here is inaccurate and unfair. He doesn’t seem familiar with the plot of Star Wars, and is using a half-remembered version of it as a stick with which to beat cultural traits he dislikes, namely infantilism and glorification of fame. It’s a shame because, whatever its flaws, Star Wars does contain some interesting subversions of typical story beats that actually work against those traits.
The most obvious error in the above quote is the assertion that Luke’s reward for vanquishing evil is to be famous. This is, frankly, a bizarre claim. By the end of the first film, Luke has achieved a certain notoriety within the rebellion by blowing up the Death Star, he gets a medal and everything, but he’s no celebrity, just a successful pilot. At this point, we might expect him to continue on this trajectory, becoming a famous war hero and leading the rebellion, but that isn’t what happens. Instead, his story in films two and three takes a turn toward the smaller, more personal and spiritual. He leaves his comrades in the rebel alliance, journeys to Dagobah to meet Yoda and learn some Jedi stuff, and eventually discovers that the enemy he is fighting is in fact his own father.
In the third film, Luke’s arc again has nothing to do with fame, and nor does he achieve any. He plays little meaningful role in the battle to blow up the second Death Star, except to jeopardise it when Darth Vader senses he is on the rebel shuttle. His story is a personal one. He overcomes the temptation of the “dark side”, of giving in to evil, and in the process succeeds in his aim of redeeming his father. To claim this arc is inspired by or rewarded with fame is untrue — it is the exact opposite. Luke sacrifices almost everything out of paternal love for a man he has every reason to despise. At the trilogy’s conclusion, he watches, alone, as his father’s body burns on a funeral pyre, while elsewhere his friends celebrate their victory. He returns to the party, an almost unnoticed figure on its sidelines, and even there he is distracted by (literal) ghosts. If this is a depiction of fame, it’s a gloomy one, to say the least.
There is subversion here, but in a less vacuous direction than Yorke suggests. Luke, the character who begins the story as the apparent hero, becomes a darker and more ambiguous figure, preoccupied with his personal struggle, and is mostly incidental to how the world is eventually saved. Instead, his heroic and romantic role is gradually supplanted by the character of Han Solo, who himself changes, from a selfish pirate to a responsible soldier of the rebellion, during the course of the films. The romantic arc between Han and Leia that informs much of the second film also discounts the idea that the Star Wars films are sexless. It figures less in the third film, but not as a result of juvenility. Even if elements of Return of the Jedi, such as the Ewoks, are aimed at children, the story of the protagonists by this point in the trilogy is about maturity.
When the protagonists are all reunited in the third film, their feelings of selfishness, desire, jealously and animosity that have bubbled throughout the previous movies are now sublimated by the jobs they have to do in the rebellion, in particular its final battle to destroy the second Death Star. Only Luke retains a personal agenda. Again, any idea that the Star Wars films glorify fame are undercut by how all they participate in this battle. They are clearly important lieutenants within the rebellion’s forces, but they are not commanding its fleet or giving heroic speeches, if anything their overall importance appears to have lessened since the end of the first film. Leia is just a soldier here, not a princess giving out medals. They are all following orders within plans laid out by others, assisted by many comrades. And their reward for vanquishing evil is simply the chance to enjoy their lives in peacetime, free from tyranny. Plus Han Solo gets the girl, of course.
It can be difficult to separate Star Wars, the cultural and commercial phenomenon, from the Star Wars trilogy of films, particularly when the former is so overpowering. Nonetheless, I think it does a disservice to those films, and the people who made them, not to consider them objectively, instead of in light of what they became, and what they inspired. They are messy, flawed works of art, but they deserve to be judged on their own merits, not those of the society in which they were made.