Monday, December 21, 2015

10 Lessons Star Wars Taught Me About Life and Storytelling

“I remember when I saw STAR WARS back in 1977. To this day it’s the closest I’ve ever come to a religious epiphany.” That quote is from a recent Facebook post by my friend, the writer Derrick Ferguson. I think it perfectly expresses how many of us feel about the effect that movie and its sequels had on us.
I am a member of the Star Wars generation. I was born in March, 1977, a few months before the release of the first movie. I never got to see Star Wars in the theater during its original run, of course, but, three years later, my very first moviegoing experience was The Empire Strikes Back (thanks, Dad!). Regardless of being born a bit too close to the release of the first film to see it first run, you can bet all your smuggled credits I knew the story backwards and forwards. How could I not when, because of when I happened to come into this world, I was absolutely surrounded by the action figures, comic books, records that told the story, and all the other merchandising that avalanched down upon the world after the success of George Lucas’s magnificent space opera?  

Now, at the age of 38, with the newest Star Wars movie just having been released (no, I haven’t seen it yet, but I will as soon as I can), I’m pondering just what a tremendous impact the original trilogy (I really dislike the prequels) had not only on my childhood, but on my imagination as I grew to be a man and a writer.
Before I encountered all the other films, literature, comics, and other forms of art and entertainment that influenced me, there was Star Wars. My exposure to it even predates my other favorite universes, like the fictional future of Star Trek, the Victorian-era mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, the horror-laden concepts of H.P. Lovecraft, and the wonderful stories of J.R.R. Tolkien. Before all that, and all the stories in all their formats that I read or saw in later years, there was Star Wars, and it’s had an effect on my life that I cannot even calculate the depth of.   

Here are ten things I now realize I initially learned from those three amazing movies, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.  
I suspect that if I look back on this list in ten or twenty or thirty years, these points will still be informing the way I think, the way I dream, the way I write, and the way I view the world around me.

1. It can be more fun to root for the underdog.
That where the drama comes from! Seeing a small group of rebels face the mighty Empire is what makes Star Wars work. And the same could be said of Gandalf and his band of hobbits, elves, and dwarves in The Lord of the Rings, or of so many other great adventure stories. The joy of adventure fiction comes from betting on the side that the odds are against. And this bleeds over into other aspects of life too. Even when it comes to sports, I find victory means more when your team isn’t expected to win. I got more satisfaction out of the Yankees just managing to make the playoffs this past season (and, unfortunately, losing in the first round) than I did in some of the years when they were sure to win the World Series and did.  

2. The mentor is just as important as the hero.
As a kid, Star Wars was, to me, all about Luke. That’s who I wanted to be. But, looking back, I realize the importance of Obi-Wan (and Yoda, too) and how indispensable those guiding teachers are to our hero’s success. Gandalf, Professor Charles Xavier, Burgess Meredith in Clash of the Titans, and Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix: those characters are essential to the stories and their presence should not be too overshadowed by the younger heroes we are more likely to identify with.    

3. The monster in the backyard can be just as scary as the big villain.
One of the things that add such wonderful texture to the Star Wars universe is how danger lurks around every corner and on every planet and how those threats don’t always come from the Empire. Sand people on Tattooine, the creature that hangs Luke upside down (presumably to eat later) on Hoth, and the asteroid that turns out to be a living creature are all examples of how a world with many small dangers scattered about is more interesting than one with only a single main villain or set of villains.

4. Women can be kickass heroes.
As a little boy, I, of course, wanted to be Luke Skywalker. And I thought of heroes as usually being men because that’s how it was in most of the fiction I was exposed to. Even today, I see fans of Luke debating fans of Han about who was better. But we can’t forget Leia! Princess Leia was the glue that held that story together and was just as important as the boys. She sets the whole story in motion by drawing Obi-Wan back into action. She gets captured by two of the most feared members of the Empire, Darth Vader and his boss, Grand Moff Tarkin, and then (while Luke is still a naïve farm boy on Tattooine) proceeds not to cower in fear but instead threatens Vader with political ramifications and tells Tarkin he smells bad! And, something I realized only recently: the only time in the original trilogy that a major hero kills a major villain up close and personally is when Leia strangles Jabba with a chain! Tarkin died in the Death Star explosion, Vader and the Emperor killed each other, and I don’t think Greedo or Boba Fett (despite the latter's popularity, which comes from the fact that he looks cool) qualify as major villains on the level of the others I’ve just mentioned. Leia was, I think, the first female character I encountered who was just as tough (and maybe more so) as her male co-adventurers.   

5. Comedy has a place in even the most serious stories.
Star Wars is a dark story at times, certainly an exciting one, and full of suspense (especially when you’re a kid), and those wonderful little exchanges between R2-D2 and C3P0 nicely break up the tension and give the films a rhythm that’s just right for the rousing adventure series it is. I find that now, as a writer, I often find a way to sneak something I hope will induce a laugh or smile in the reader into even the darkest of my stories.   

6. You don’t have to know everything about every character.
Han Solo was a smuggler, a rascal, a greedy son-of-a-bitch with an “interesting” past, and that’s all we needed to know when we met him. Some characters work best that way. Marvel Comics’ Wolverine used to be one of my favorite superheroes, until Marvel decided to reveal way too much about his previously mysterious past, and that ruined the character. With James Bond, we were told everything we needed to know about him in the first 10 minutes of DR. NO: he works for the British government, he’s been on dangerous assignments before, he’s armed, he gambles, he seduces women, he drinks, and he smokes. The essence of Bond was boiled down and we, the viewers, were expected to take it from there, and we did, for 19 more movies! Contrast that with the recent, rebooted Bond movie series featuring Daniel Craig as 007. Those movies range from great to very mediocre, but if they commit one major sin it’s going too deeply into over explaining who Bond is and how he got that way. We don’t need fully detailed origins and histories for every single character!  

7. Sword fights are awesome!
There’s something about sword fighting that’s just so much fun! It’s better than watching people shoot at each other. It’s up close and personal, fast-paced, can go on for a long time or end with a single, deadly thrust. As much as I love the sword fights in Errol Flynn movies and Zorro and other such classics, my love of that sort of action began with the lightsaber duels in Star Wars.   

8. Injury can be scarier than death.
Seeing the Death Star blow up or even watching Obi-Wan struck down by Vader didn’t get to me nearly as much as that moment in The Empire Strike Back when Vader cuts off Luke’s hand. That scene horrified me when I was a kid, probably because it was something I hadn’t considered before, the idea that a heroic character could suffer a permanent injury like that.

9. Good stories mean different things to us at different times.
I must have seen each of the three films in the original Star Wars trilogy several dozen times, and I still haven’t gotten tired of them. This is because they mean different things to me at different times. I’ve identified with Luke on some viewings, Han on others. I’ve had times when my attention was focused on the brilliant performances of the first film’s two legendary supporting actors, Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing. In fact, Star Wars took on a whole new dimension a few years back when I watched it for the first time after seeing many more of Cushing’s films in the interim and having him become one of my favorite actors. Suddenly, Tarkin wasn’t just that old man who bossed Darth Vader around. Instead, he was the main villain of the first movie, and a frightening one at that. I’ve seen Star Wars as the great entertainment experience of my childhood, as a sentimental favorite of my adult life, and as a fascinating example of how certain threads of myth and archetype runs through modern films just as much as they ran through the various religions and epics of our ancestors from nations and cultures all across the world. Every time I watch the Star Wars movies, I find a new angle from which to consider them, a new way to enjoy them.   

10. Tell that story! Write that book! You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

As a writer, it’s easy to discard an idea or a story, because it often seems overwhelmingly unlikely that it could ever mean much to anybody else. “Who would want to read that?” we say to ourselves in moments of doubt. It certainly wasn’t easy for George Lucas to have Star Wars made. To studio executives, seeing the idea on paper, it must have looked to some of them like a silly little space opera more fit for a B-movie than a “real film.” And here we are, 38 years after its release, and it’s not only a story beloved by millions of people who had their entire childhoods shaped by it; it’s also a piece of storytelling and cultural mythology that’s been permanently etched into the consciousness of the human race. That’s not an exaggeration. We quote it constantly in all sorts of situations. People are flocking to theaters as I type this because they can’t wait to see the next part of the ongoing epic of Star Wars. That little story by George Lucas caught hold of the imagination of a generation and has yet to let go, almost four decades later. That story was an underdog. And it won. Now it’s immortal. Don’t let your imagination be discouraged. 

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