“Help Me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re My Only Hope”
Princess Leia, Star Wars: A New Hope.
It is customary to begin a new year with new resolutions, and even make them public to add a little bit more pressure to follow them through. What follows are not resolutions, writing advice or reflections about scholarly achievements. This post is about two great stories which will celebrate this year, respectively, their fortieth and the twentieth anniversaries.
Since Star Wars and Harry Potter have been studied, analyzed and imitated ad nauseam, I’ll mention only a couple of similarities between the stories:
- A fantastic world that appeals to millions of kids and to the kid in everybody. The “world” can be as large as a galaxy far, far away, with its thousands of inhabited worlds, or the Diagon Alley in London and the Hogwarts Castle in Scotland.
- Young storytellers, who still remembered what was it like being a child. George Lucas and J.K. Rowling started to work on their stories in their twenties. The first installment in each series was released when the creator was in his/her early thirties.
“It’s the flotsam and jetsam from the period when I was twelve years old,” says Director George Lucas, 33. “All the books and films and comics that I liked when I was a child. The plot is simple —good against evil—and the film is designed to be all the fun things and fantasy things I remember. The word for this movie is fun.” For once, a director is right about his own work. Star Wars has brought fun back to the movies and glowingly demonstrated they still can make ’em like they used to…
Says Lucas: “It’s not a film about the future. Star Wars is a fantasy, much closer to the Brothers Grimm than it is to 2001. My main reason for making it was to give young people an honest, wholesome fantasy life, the kind my generation had. We had westerns, pirate movies, all kinds of great things. Now they have The Six Million Dollar Man and Kojak. Where are the romance, the adventure, and the fun that used to be in practically every movie made?”
From Time magazine, May 30, 1977.
“In an age of Nintendo and Teletubbies (of which Jessica is a fan), Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone reads like a children’s book written 20 years ago. Aimed at the 9-13 age group, it is essentially a boarding school novel, a setting which has become unfashionable. “It had to be a boarding school to sustain the fantasy,” Rowling says. “He had to go somewhere that’s an enclosed world to have his adventures. Kids are incredibly powerless because everything is determined for them, so a rich fantasy life in which they do have power is almost inevitable. And a middle-class boarding school is a world where they are free of their parents. Being an orphan is very liberating in a book. I think it’s a common fantasy of children that somehow these parents aren’t their parents.”
From “Tales from a single mother”, The Sunday Times, 29 June 1997.
Both Lucas and Rowling stressed the fun aspect of their stories. Looking back from the vantage point of 2017, I think that the lasting influence of Star Wars and Harry Potter is not just a matter of being fun and offering escapism. Not even the triumph of good over evil. I’ve seen many movies and read even more books with all the “right” elements. Some of them I enjoyed (like the hilarious Back to the Future movies and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series), but none made a similar impact.
I think that the difference is that Star Wars succeeded to make its message of hope believable. As The Times article had said almost forty years ago:
“That innocence and that feeling for romance are what make Star Wars so fresh, so much fun and, finally, so fantastic. Lucas believed everything he put on film, and somewhere under the celluloid, he is Luke Skywalker — out to slay the dragon, rescue the princess and find the Holy Grail…
Despite the talent and the money arrayed against it, Star Wars has one clear advantage: it is simple, elemental, and therefore unique. It has a happy ending, a rarity these days…
But wait! Darth Vader has escaped, cloaked in evil and eager for revenge, and the Galactic Empire still holds, in chains 1,000 solar systems. What hope have our gallant adventurers against forces so vast and so dark? Another richly imagined universe of hope, obviously, and Lucas is already planning to bring them back in the sequel to Star Wars…”
Forty years later, I’m tired of sequels to the original Star Wars, and I’m grateful to J.K. Rowling that she saved Harry and his friends from a similar fate.
What I wish for 2017 is a new message of hope.