A New Year. The Same Cycle. (Reflecting on the Epic and the Star Wars Franchise)

The year was 2015. Obama was President. Same sex marriage was – finally – legalized in U.S. And Star Wars: A Force Awakens released in theaters.

Although the film was generally positively received, there was a thread of criticism that underscored the new production; the repeated mantra that A Force Awakens was basically a rip-off of A New Hope. It was repetitive. Derivative. The same story told again and again.

Despite it’s long history (going all the way back to the great sagas of the Illiad/Odyssey, The New and Old Testaments, Ramayana/Mahabharat, etc, etc, etc), the Epic today is often derided for being unimaginative. It’s too repetitive; derivative; or – gasp – formulaic! However, as I argue in The Shape of Fantasy being repetitive isn’t a bad thing. As Patricia Waugh discusses for metafiction:

There has be some level of familiarity. In metafiction it is precisely the fulfilment as well as the non-fulfilment of generic expectations that provides both familiarity and the starting point for innovation.

Patricia Waugh, Metafiction, 64, original emphasis

Roland Barthes likewise stipulates that the pleasures of the text come from expectations, which, for the Epic tradition, means a familiar narrative:

The pleasure of the text is not the pleasure of the corporeal striptease or of narrative suspense. […] the entire excitation takes refuge in the hope of seeing. (Barthes 10, original emphasis).

Roland Barthes, The Pleasures of the Text, 10, original emphasis

Thus, I argue that the latest Star Wars trilogy does an incredible job of delivering a familiar story in a new way. Is the plot line similar to the original? Of course it is. But it is also recognizably different, with a distinct ending, perhaps one that may alter the course of the universe enough that evil won’t rise up again (or at least, not too soon).

More importantly, these criticisms that Star Wars is repetitive misses the point. Brian Merchant (Motherboard) argues that “science fiction is supposed to be about exploring the unexplored, not rehasing the well-trod.” I disagree wholeheartedly. Science Fiction, like any literature, is about exploring the human condition.

There was another important event in 2015 in America that eventually had global significance. Donald Trump, on the campaign trail, trademarked his “Make American Great Again” slogan.

And, whether coincidental or not, A Force Awakens reinforces the idea that even when you overthrow a tyrannical fascist government, another one will rise up to take its place. We are doomed to repeat the cycle – and have narratives that repeat themselves – until we are able to break away from this cycle of oppression.

As the latest Star Wars trilogy draws to a close, the same criticism has been launched at the final installment: it’s repetitive. Redundant. Flat.

To which I would like to loudly reply, “Don’t you all understand the point of the Epic?? That’s how it works!”

Any attempt to break the formula is only going to result in audience dissatisfaction. As we’ve seen with the end of A Game of Thrones, the televised adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s unfinished novels, it is impossible to solve a good versus evil story-line without some hint of a messianic figure. A sacrifice is necessary to restore the balance. That’s the Epic. That’s how it works. You can play around with the formula, and toss red herrings to distract the audience from identifying the final messianic Hero, but, at the end of the day, the restoration of balance requires a Messianic character. And, more importantly, the bigger the unbalance, the more special the hero has to be. Not just any sacrifice will do (as evidenced by the number of soldiers that meet an unhappy fate at the front lines of the final battle). No, balance to the universe can only be restored by someone special. Maybe someone who has special powers or abilities, or perhaps are special due to bloodline (parentage is especially important in this patriarchal narrative structure).

So while I agree with the criticism that franchise did a great disservice to any hint of non-heteronormative or miscegenetic relationships, I disagree that the plot is a disappointment. The plot follows exactly the pattern of the Heroic Epic that I outline in The Shape of Fantasy, a pattern that includes repetitions and cycles.

Why? Why is the epic repetitive, but incredibly necessary? Because – as historical and current events have shown us – this story will continue to resonant in our society so long as evil exists in the world. Melodramatic? Maybe. But I feel entirely suitable for the state of the world today. So long as there are groups of people that oppress another, there will be stories about rising up and defeating it.

The Voice in My Head Sounds like Martin Freeman

Thoughts While Re-reading Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide

Although I remember Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (book adaptation 1985) as a favourite read, I approached the prospect of re-reading the novel with a mixed sense of pleasure and hesitation. Although I couldn’t remember the specifics of plots and scenes, I recalled moments of amusement and contemplation from when I read the book the first few times.

Given all that, it took me awhile to figure out why I was reluctant to read the book again. It took me about 20 pages to put my finger on it: The Hitchhiker’s Guide is one of those texts where the film adaptation (2005) has completely rewritten the imaginary world I had created in my head! Within the first page of chapter one, in fact, with Adams’ description of his main character, Arthur Dent, the image that leaps into my mind is that of Martin Freeman. From that moment, my inner narratorial voice itself speaks with Freeman’s voice. Now, this may be because Freeman has a distinctive voice that is easily recognisable, or because Freeman is a phenomenal actor, but the effect it leaves on me is one of resentment and discouragement. Despite watching the film only 1-2 times, as the first 20 pages unfolds, the story that runs through my head is the movie itself. Freeman getting irate in his bathrobe. Enter Mos Def stage right. And, given that Mos Def’s character, Ford Prefect, is described completely differently in the book (“His hair was wiry and gingerish and brushed backwards from the temples”), I think it’s understandable that I’m put out that his image replaces the character I had originally imagined in my own head.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Mos Def as an actor. He brings a charm to any role. And, I suppose in this day of inclusion, the thought to change the character stemmed from a requirement to make sure that all the characters didn’t look homogeneously the same (especially as half of them are aliens); although, of course, this moves risks casting Mos Def as a token character. (We won’t dive into my thoughts on the lack of representation for the ginger community, and the implications of re-casting the “alien” character with another visible minority.)

So I don’t necessarily object to casting Mos Def in the role of Ford Prefect. But I am dejected that my original picture of him has been lost.

Interestingly, Roger Egbert’s review of the 2005 film states that: ” You will find the movie tiresomely twee, and notice that it obviously thinks it is being funny at times when you do not have the slightest clue why that should be. […] I do not get the joke.” His review relays that the film was inaccessible for those who were unfamiliar with the book; indicating that those who remember the narrative and scenes were likely those who were already familiar with the book.

Did the movie (or other adaptations) replace the book adaptation version in your head? Or is there any book/film adaptation that was ruined for you as a result?