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”.