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Ride to ruin and the world’s ending…

I’d like to talk about the Star Wars prequels… Now I am an IT tech so I know exactly what a fist can do to the screen of a Dell laptop so just don’t, right, OK. Stay with me.

I perhaps had a bigger investment than most because A New Hope was the first ever picture I saw on the big screen. I must have been about four. In many ways it defined my youth but it was a manky film. The dialogue in those movies was atrocious and upon mature reflection the only things that made them watchable were Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. Even then not just as actors but… Well, just before Han Solo is frozen in carbonite Leia declares her love for the roguish smuggler. He replies simply, “I know”. This was Ford’s own idea and it works. Lucas had scripted it as, “I love you too” which I’m sure would have clunked. Indeed most of the dialogue clunked. And by “most” I mean “all”. It says something about a script-writer when his best lines are improvised by Harrison Ford* and replied to by a walking piece of shag pile going, “Mwaaah!”.

But it took the prequels to cast Star Wars into it’s proper setting. I recently watched (it was the dead zone of a Sunday afternoon before Antiques Roadshow (that’s my excuse)) Revenge of the Sith. Now I recall that was the best of three dreadful movies but that is damning with the faintest of praise. And the setting is thus: the original Star Wars was shite but it took the utter dreadfulness of the prequels to really show it all for what it was. The, for want of a better word, moral centre was a cockamamie form of New Age drivel called The Schwartz**. Alec Guinness did take a percentage (an innovation at the time) because he thought it was utter ballcocks and he might as well have a punt. And what a punt it turned out to be! It made him a very wealthy man in his retirement and whilst that erased his distinguished cinematic career he was at least handsomely compensated with the kerching.

So, let’s take Star Wars apart. The dialogue is shocking (I’ve said that)** but what really, really fails is that the prequels show in no uncertain terms the paucity of Lucas’ imagination. The original trilogy is frequently compared to The Lord of The Rings and arguably holds a similar place in our collective thought. So we were expecting The Silmarillion right? No, we got Jar-Jar Binks and an Anakin Skywalker that you wanted to throw crockery at. Essentially the digging into the mythos revealed that unlike Tolkien the fantasy was built on sand. OK, high fantasy (it is not SF) can cope with utter evil but Episode I has the Trade Federation. It should have been set in Brussels and not a galaxy a long, long way away. Binks was put in there to be cool with the kids*** because the studio said so. So what is Tom Bombadil for… Well even JRRT was at a loss over that but it worked because Tolkien put his life and (considerable) talent into the back story. Lucas busked the prequels off the back of the original trilolgy and made a dismal Horlicks of it because there was no fire in them. It took the prequels to show me how bad the originals were because the prequels couldn’t be as bad as they were (and they were shockingly bad) if the original legendarium wasn’t shite.

If that is our myth then I thank God for Peter Jackson. Obviously as a Tolkieinista of long standing I have “issues” with Jackson’s version (don’t we all?) but when all is said and done his achievement was magnificent because he was working with a tale that was the life’s work of a man of genius and is a great story and Jackson didn’t cock it up too much. It is arguably the greatest story ever told. Didn’t you ride in the first Éored at dawn? “A Sword Day!” I did. I did in bed aged about ten. My body might have been in Gateshead but my soul was on the fields of Pelennor swinging an axe. And so was yours.

It is of course vital we have such myths but Star Wars is not the one****. The one true myth of the English speaking peoples (and beyond) was told by Tolkien and Peter Jackson (if we ignore his mess that was The Two Towers movie). If I can single out one moment in the Star Wars movies where I lose it it is when Qui-Gon does a blood test on Anakin. I’ll take a broken sword and a piece of elven glass over that any day. Did Lucas not appreciate what he’d done? He’d taken his mystical Force and turned it into something that can be tested like cholesterol. Moreover did he not realise (and he must have been aware of The Lord of the Rings) that the strength of those books is not that Frodo or Sam are special in some medically definable way but that they are ordinary but tough. Well Sam is anyway. Sam is a gardener and odd-job man who yanks Frodo up Mount Doom and never forgets he’s doing it all for his Gaffer’s spuds back home. Now that’s a hero but then Tolkien based the character on his batmen in the trenches of The Somme.

God knows what Lucas based his characters on but perhaps corruption is a test. There is corruption in both legendariums but Tolkien gets it right. The fall of Saruman or Boromir feels right and Smeagol/Gollum is a masterfully tragic character. Anakin just seems a petulant brat and not least because a huge element of his character development (if I dare use such a phrase in the context) is based upon his love for Padmé which is apparently against the rules for a Jedi. It’s things like that that destroy the legendarium. Lucas just made the celibacy thing up to give him a storyline. The first rule of creating myth is not to make stuff up. Jackson almost ballsed it up similarly by having fake tension in the Arwen-Aragorn relationship. Almost but not quite. I think any reasonable reading of the Lord of the Rings regards the Éowyn-Aragorn axis as entirely one-sided. Aragorn has a long-time girlfriend who is an elven princess and is the second-coming of Lúthien Tinúviel… A tough act for any lady to follow. Tolkien does sometimes clunk on the sexual relationships – Faramir and Éowyn for example are merely an exercise in tidying up but he has the good sense to have most of the love-interest largely “off-set” and not an essential plot-driver. Think here of, say Sam and Rosie or indeed Arwen and Aragorn in the books.

The same can not be said for Star Wars and certainly not the prequels which are entirely driven by an utterly ridiculous love story. Message to Mr Lucas… You want a love story – fine – but make the characters likeable. Anakin Skywalker is not likeable. This means his descent into that vague thing that is the “dark side” is not essentially tragic and it needs to be otherwise the whole thing is nonsense. And how is the dark side defined anyway? In terms of pop psychology? That is the most fundamental weakness of the movies. There are more paths to the dark side than exits off the M60. Is it evil to hate? Lucas says yes, I say no. Did Tolkien’s heroes feel a visceral hatred for their enemies? Well, yes. They had to. Their entire world was threatened by reckless hate and they had to act. Tell me how you can wield a sword in anger and not feel hate? The great confrontations in Star Wars lack this understanding. Am I the only one who thinks that when Luke Skywalker sees the Emperor he ought to just have gone the full Bruce Willis and yank a .45 and shoot him. Job done. Instead we have many tedious minutes of psychodrama signifying nothing.

This is not to say that Lord of the Rings doesn’t nuance it’s morality beyond the black hats and the white hats. It does and most notably in the case of Smeagol/Gollum who is portrayed as a victim of the ring and not just a nasty scrote. The moral heart of the story is in the Mines of Moria when Gandalf chats with Frodo about Smeagol/Gollum. That is equivocal and humane but what follows isn’t. “Thou shalt not pass!” on the bridge and the revelation that Gandalf is not just some old duffer who knows pipe weed and fireworks but a servant of the secret fire.

Tolkien understood evil at a level Lucas just can’t. And he understood good. That is why the hobbits are the heroes. They want a smoke and a pie and a pint and to just go home. Sam wants nothing more than to get it all over with and marry his sweetheart. Even Aragorn wants a restored kingdom, not a new one, and to slip between the sheets with an elven princess (who doesn’t want that?). The heroes are not playing for power and to the extent to which sex drives it it primarily drives it in terms of folks having pre-existing relationships and not ones made on the fly to generate plot elements. Tolkien understood very deeply that need to go home after an adventure. It is most obvious with Sam – note the end of the Return of the King where Sam gets back from the Havens and places his daughter, Elanor, on his lap and closes the story by saying to Rosie, “Well, I’m back again”.

There is nothing to compare with that in the Lucas cannon. There is no real understanding of real people and fantasy needs that otherwise it is utterly dreadful.

So that is why I’m a Tolkienista and not a Lucasista.

*It says more perhaps maybe Indiana Jones and the Very Long Title out jumped the shark by nuking the fridge.
**You ought to hear it being dissected in an astrophysics common room.
***OK, “Younglings”. When Anakin finally wigs-out he kills the Jedi including the “younglings”. This ought to be a moment of high drama and tragedy but it isn’t. It is farcical. “Yes, even the younglings” for fuck’s sake! Yoda himself looked to be straining at stool.
****In the doc connected to the movie we had – I wish I was making this up – comments from Nancy Pelosi as to it’s epic and indeed American nature. Perhaps she was shilling for Al’s sequel, “An Inconvenient Ring”.

15 Comments

  1. Chris says:

    I am in complete agreement with everything you say above, other than a minor quibble over the Eowyn/Aragorn relationship in LOTR. What Eowyn feels for Aragorn is about on a par with a crush; hence the ease and rapidity with which she is able to legitimately transfer her affections to (the equally admirable) Faramir later in the tale.

    Nail on the head elsewise. Lucas was a hack who lucked into a cash cow; and Alec Guinness making a passing comment about the Clone Wars was richer fodder for the imagination than three CG-infested films Which Never Happened.

    My geek is showing, isn’t it? Sorry.

  2. NickM says:

    Chris,
    Yes, I’ll buy that. I was thinking of the films maybe and Miranda Otto at 31 was too old to play Eowyn as a reckless girl. Bang on about the Clone Wars. Two words spawned three films. That’s what I mean about George Lucas’ lack of spade-work with the back story. That is it exactly.

  3. Paul Marks says:

    I think Miranda Otto does O.K. perhaps she does not steal the show (as Eowyn does in every scene in the book in which she appears), but that is hard to do.

    As for Star Wars part whatever…..

    People point at how GL has got control of the script (which is why it is worse than the early films) and has little leftist stuff in it – like the when the boy has finally turned into Darth Vader he becomes Darth W. Bush “you are either on my side or against me” – “only the Sith deal in absolutes” comes the reply (forgetting all the times in all the films we have been told there is a light and a dark side of the force and one must choose……).

    However, my “favourate” bit is when they leave young Annakin’s mother behind – they do not have enough money on them to free her (and people outside the Republic do not accept Republic credit money – WISE PEOPLE, George making a good point without even knowing it) but then they LEAVE HER FOR OVER TEN YEARS.

    Did they forget about her? Or is it the “Jedi-are-supposed-to-ignore-their-families” get out?

    Either way it is pants.

  4. EndivioR says:

    “The first rule of creating myth is not to make stuff up.”

    I’d buy any dictionary of quotations that had this on the flyleaf.

  5. JuliaM says:

    I seem to be alone in quite liking the last three ‘modern’ Star Wars films…

  6. NickM says:

    Julia,
    If you told me you’re fave breakfast is a dachshund on toast I couldn’t be more surprised.

    Paul,
    I almost mentioned Anakin’s mother. OK, she gets killed and that is when he discovers rage but it doesn’t work because the rest of the narrative gives the general impression he hasn’t given a toss about Mum for a decade. He’s got a spaceship but he can’t buy a char-lady out of slavery on a two-bit planet. Did Lucas even think this through? Either Anakin is a brat who forgets his Mum because he’s “gone to the big city” or he loves his mum and her death drives him over the edge. You can’t have it both ways George. As to Jedis forgetting their families and concentrating on higher things (such as mangling English – thank you Master Yoda) well, that really doesn’t fit with the original trilogy does it?

    Personally I suspect Lucas just doesn’t “do” women. He apparently drove Carrie Fisher round the bend* and the whole thing about Anakin and Padme being secretly married really doesn’t work when they (a) share an apartment and (b) Natalie Portman is either heavily pregnant or has a cushion up her dress. I mean you don’t need Jedi senses there do you? Even our social services could work that one out.

    *Standard directing advice, “Can we do that again, just better…”

    EndivioR,
    Thank you. people think fantasy writing is easy. It isn’t. It has to be taut or it is dreadful. I think exhibit (A) here has to be much of the works of Michael Moorcock. (B) is almost anything by Philip K Dick after he went mad. VALIS is the maddest book I ever read.

  7. Lynne says:

    The person who inflicted Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks on his audience has to be a twat. I tolerated the first two movies, simplistic as they were, but what followed was pure dross.

  8. NickM says:

    Lynne.
    The Ewoks were the decision point for me. The Emperor says he’s got his finest stormtroopers down there and they get twatted by the fucking Care Bears using stone age weaponry. God knows what would have happened if Han Solo had led an army of “blokes from the pub”. It is quite simply the most ridiculous battle ever captured on celluloid. Frankly if Captain Mainwaring’s lot had taken out an entire Waffen SS armoured division it would be more believable. They at least had Jones’ van.

  9. Lynne says:

    Nick, regarding the furry little freaks, you could almost have plucked those oh so eloquent words out of my mouth. It was also a turning point for me. When I was dragged to the cinema to see the first of the prequels, I was ready to commit eternal fiery hell upon the hairy arse of Lucas because he had robbed me of both time, money and visual enjoyment, a-frigging-gain. Needless to say that however it is he grows rich these days it is through no effort of mine.

  10. JuliaM says:

    “Julia,
    If you told me you’re fave breakfast is a dachshund on toast I couldn’t be more surprised.”

    Pshaw! Everyone knows hot dogs are for lunch, never for breakfast… ;)

  11. Bod says:

    I always loathed the whole Star Wars thing with the fire of a trillion supernovae, but I guess it’s easy to come clean now among fellow sufferers. I tried to like it – I really did – I even watched the movies a couple times just to make sure, but I always felt that Lucas had stolen both my life and my sanity.

    Maybe I’m just a miserable old bastard, but you know, not ONE of the characters was worthy of empathy or sympathy. Whole planets sterilized? Meh. Decapitated mentors? Bleh. The tragedy of Annekin embracing the Dark Side? Ugh.

    I hadn’t been aware of Lucas’ taking *more* control of the creative aspects of the prequel. How can something develop negative creativity?

  12. Pogo says:

    I’ll have to leave the Tolkien appreciation to you, I’m afraid that his stuff has never floated my boat.

    However, as an old fart who cut his cinematic SF teeth on the original Buster Crabbe “Flash Gordon” films at “The Gaumont” on Saturday mornings, I suspect that you’re reading far too much into “Star Wars” – it always seemed to me to be little more than “cowboys and Indians” in space, lots of action, bugger-all story, but who cares… In no way, shape or form a great work of art. :-)

  13. NickM says:

    Pogo,
    It might come as a surprise to you but… I also watched the original Flash Gordon at the local flicks on a Saturday Morning. Yup, that would be late ’70s/early ’80s.

    I have to disagree about Star Wars though. Pop culture does matter. It infects our language and that means our thought. Let’s take a slightly different example. The song “Imagine” by John Lennon is abysmal. It has nothing to offer but vague platitudes (which on dissection are quite foul) but people sort of believe in it. People believe in Star Wars in much the same way. It isn’t great art in the sense of being any good but it is great in the sense of “large or immense”. It’s like when people say “football is only a game”. Well, it is but… If had just arrived in Singapore right now and hopped in a cab I bet you the driver would say, “Ah, English, so what you think about Chelsea paying 50million for Torres?” and I’d say, “Madness but they got the cash and what about the Geordies selling Carroll?” and he would know. It’s about shared and instantly accessible culture. It matters. Our myths are foundational to what we are. Do you accept a bet? Go a whole day without making a reference to pop culture. Even tougher bet. Go a whole day without quoting Shakespeare.

    At a deep level these things do make us. Ever read The Iliad? Seems weird doesn’t it? A lot of neuroscientists and the like think it is almost proto-human – a precursor if you like – because it was created before writing was known to the Greeks. A pre-literate culture is different. It thinks differently. Star Wars and LoTR are the myths for the post-literate generation. For the generation that thinks a book is something you download onto a Kindle. You think I’m joshing there? I’m 37, highly educated and I can’t write any more. I can type a storm but I can’t write. I haven’t written a frigging thing since I did a first year university module on Descartes. The idea of writing an exam essay has filled me with dread since. All my math and physics exams I did in pencil. It is probably fair to say my writing is more legible in Greek. I even slash “z”s in the German manner because otherwise they look like “2″s.

    I simply have no idea how to compose anything more complicated than a shopping list on paper.

  14. Peter MacFarlane says:

    Couldn’t agree more. The only puzzle really is why anyone would want to compare a great work of literature with a pile of slick American rubbish.

    As for Bombadil, it seems to me that the first few chapters of LotR are very episodic and uneven, just as The Hobbit is. It took Tolkien a while to realise, I think, that he was writing a Major Epic, and thereafter (from about The Council of Elrond onwards) every single plot element is part of the major story. Before that, they’re not – Bombadil is not the only example. The language too, progresses from chatty, to serious, to positively portentous, as the books go on.

  15. NickM says:

    Peter, yes.

    Basically it shifts a gear when the Hobbits get to Rivendell. The reason for this is that JRRT gets a call (probs a letter back then) from Unwins saying “The Hobbit” is flying off the shelves and can you do us a sequel. That is how LoTR started because JRRT at first sent them a draft of what would be “The Silmarillion” and they were like, “If we set the presses rolling for this we’ll go bust – more little fellas with hairy feet!” So JRRT started on LoTR and then found that it took him eventually much deeper than he expected. This is because he’d started the spade-work in hospital in 1917 recovering from battle-wounds.

    In a sense LoTR is a genuine sequel because it is almost the ultimate exemplar of the Tolkien doctrine that you should never go out the door because you never know where that road might lead. It certainly was for him.

    There is a further twist to the tale. People started getting interested in filming LoTR in the ’60s. JRRT read some treatments and regarded them as risible. So… He sold the film rights for 5 grand. Now it is easy to him being ripped off by that because it turned into a multi-billion dollar franchise but was he? He was an old man, comfortably off by then and his thinking (as proved correct) was that there was no way they could film it with current technology. He spent a sizeable chunk of that money taking his wife on a cruise.

    So who screwed-up? JRRT who sold the rights to a script unfilmable with any tech he could even imagine for what is in this modern CGI world seen as a pittance? Or JRRT who took the love of his life on a holiday of a lifetime from the cash?

    Edith Tolkien is buried under a headstone that calls her Luthien.

    I think ’nuff said.

    “All that matters is that we do what we can with the time allotted to us” – said Gandalf to Frodo in Moria.

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