For some time now, I have been among those who have argued that the fandom associated with the Star Wars franchise is akin to a religion. There are those who will quarrel with the word choice, but it is hard to gainsay the dedication of fans to the original films, to the point that (as I have argued) the most devoted fans were made livid by the changes to the “canon” made by George Lucas in the special editions of Episodes IV, V, and VI—arguing with great passion, for example, that Han really did shoot Greedo first—in a way that suggests these films have taken on the character of sacred texts for the fans. In addition, as is well-known, Star Wars has its own mythological structure of the “hero’s quest” which Lucas borrowed freely from the works of Joseph Campbell, and which underlies the original trilogy as the hero is called to an adventure that leads him to confront his own “dark side” complete with Oedipal dimensions.
The fans of the original films (myself included) also did not disguise their distaste for the prequel films (Episodes I, II, and III) which were widely viewed by them as a gigantic disappointment after waiting some 16 years between Return of the Jedi (1983) and The Phantom Menace (1999). For the true believers, then, the anticipation that has led up to the release of The Force Awakens has been a mixture of dread and hope—as they feared it might be impossible to make a good Star Wars film that lives up to the originals, but they also hoped that fellow fan and director J.J. Abrams might create an episode worth watching.
So far, the fans seem pretty happy. A fan thread on reddit.com, for example, contains some criticisms of the film, but overall favorable reviews that see it as delivering a good story and good characters. An addition to the myth has been vetted and accepted.
Of course, there are other additions to the “canon” that have been considered. Besides the prequel films, Lucasfilm created two animated television series, The Clone Wars (which also included a theater-released film) and Star Wars Rebels. And there are also video games, novels, and fan fiction that occur in the so-called “Expanded Universe” of Star Wars, although once Walt Disney Corporation acquired Lucasfilm in November 2014, all these materials were rebranded and dubbed Star Wars Legends to indicate their “non-canonical” status. The debates about what should be included in the authoritative story canon are dizzying, and mirror the sort of debates that religious traditions have had throughout the ages about their own scriptures.
But The Force Awakens is somehow in a different category. As an official addition to the film episodes, it really had to find a way to be authoritative for all, and further the myth in the process. And it’s not easy to add to a myth.
The success of the film for fans then had to be built on it not quite being a remake, but something close to it—a mashup or remix of elements that have worked before, as Christopher Orr wrote in the Atlantic, but sufficiently new to be interesting. And this is what J.J. Abrams delivered. As “Captain_Flemme” put it in the aforementioned reddit thread:
“I think Disney and Abrams decided that episode VII had to be a copy of episode IV because it is the backbone of the Star Wars saga. Now that this episode exists, the new trilogy will forever be linked to the original trilogy. They have completely eliminated the risk that people say ‘This is not Star Wars’, because it is exactly Star Wars.”
Those of us who have been talking about the mythic power of Star Wars for decades should not be surprised that this film has succeeded not by being novel, but by being derivative. What interests me is that the fans fully understand and accept this. They are not unwitting dupes who consume whatever the culture industry produces; they didn’t like The Phantom Menace because it didn’t follow the myth closely enough, and they will like The Force Awakens because it does, with enough interesting additions for them to discuss for years. And this also should be no surprise, because this is how religions operate, by returning to their foundational stories even as they find new ways to look at them—and films offer one way to do so. Think of all the film versions of the life of Jesus Christ that have been made in the last hundred years; the people who flocked to see them were not looking for a new episode, but “the old, old story.”
Featured image: J. J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley & Oscar Isaac by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.