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May 19, 2006

Star Wars - The Hero's Journey

For a while now I've been developing a story, an epic inspired by many of the classic stories (including Star Wars). Joseph Campbell and others have suggested that certain themes reoccur in the classic stories, spanning cultures and time, and I've been collecting these themes in order to incorporate them. A few are summarized below.

What strikes me most is how in the debate among fans of the Star Wars series, the subject of storytelling is seldom raised. The focus on why some feel episodes I, II, and III weren't as good as the original trilogy seems to be on specific characters (Jar-Jar Binks) on the use of computer graphics (instead of miniatures and puppets), the acting and dialogue, and on the importance of nostalgia in placing value on the movies.

I agree that the three new Star Wars movies were not as entertaining as the original, but the above reasons didn't seem to fit. The acting and writing in the original was almost as campy, and for every spaceship in The Phantom Menace that looked too slick, there was a ship or creature in the original that looked too much like a miniature or puppet.

As research, I watched 'Episode III - Revenge of the Sith' and 'Episode IV - A New Hope' back-to-back. I hadn't seen the former in a year, and hadn't seen the latter in many years, so my perspective was relatively fresh.

What struck me was how much the original Star Wars fit the template of the classic epic, while Revenge of the Sith (as well as episodes II and III) did not at all. In Star Wars, the hero (Luke Skywalker) has a band of friends (droids, Han, Chewie, Leia) who help each other in a series of trials, all in order to get secret plans to the rebel base and blow up the Death Star. In Revenge of the Sith, there is effectively no hero. Anakin is arguably an anti-hero, conflicted between different motivations, but he has no real friends and no one seems to like or trust him. Instead of working together to solve problems (as in the garbage-compactor scene in the original) the characters in the new movies only seem to work against each other. And most importantly, there is no clear obvious goal.

Any story should be able to be encapsulated in a simple sentence (eg. in "Hamlet", Hamlet tries to avenge his father's death.) even if this oversimplifies the plot and ignores other qualities of the story. But in Star Wars Episodes I, II, and III, even immediately after watching them I couldn't come up with a basic summary of the plot. There are lots of details related to the Trade Federation and political conflicts between the Senate and the Sith, etc. but there is nothing as straightforward as "An unlikely hero sneaks from point A (Tatooine) to point B (rebel base on Yavin IV)"

There were other problems as well, all related to storytelling more than specifics of movie-making. For example, in the original, each main character did heroic deeds, to help the group and propel the storyline (Leia gets the group from point A, the cell block corridor, to point B, the garbage compactor). In the new episodes, the actions were usually vengeful, or simply going from one place to another without conflict, and some characters did nothing (while Amidala did some shooting in Phantom Menace, her actions didn't move the situation forward, and in the other two movies she didn't actually do anything)

There was certainly action in the three new movies, but very little of it was part of the Hero's Journey. The dog-fights-in-space scenes were cool, and Obi-Wan's fight with Jango Fett on Kamino was fun to watch, but it all seemed gratuitous rather than advancing the main story, which was unclear to begin with. In that regard, Phantom Menace was the best of the three new episodes, because more of the events that took place served the arc of the story. The pod-race was necessary because Qui-Gon needed to replace the warp drive in order to get off Tatooine. But Obi-Wan's fight with Jango Fett and most of the other conflicts in the first three movies could have been deleted from the movies without detracting from the main story.

Each movie can be seen as a single story, and in particular, the original Star Wars is a stand-alone epic - but each trilogy can also be seen as a single story with three separate acts. In particular, the final showdown of Luke and his antagonist (Darth Vader), and Anakin and his protagonist (The Emperor) happen only at the end of episode 6.

I could blather on indefinitely, but my main conclusion is that for better or worse, for a story (particularly an action-adventure story) needs to include several if the elements of the classic epics in order to be entertaining.

Below is a small sample of some of these elements and classic stories that include them. Think about where these elements occured in any of the three new Star Wars movies.
Dorothy Gale Luke Skywalker Frodo Baggins King Arthur Harry Potter
Orphaned Lives with Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, journeys alone Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen killed (double-orphan) Lives with Uncle Bilbo Abandoned by father, King Uther Pendragon Parents dead, raised by Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia
Mentor Glinda the Good Witch of the North Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi Gandalf Merlin Dumbledore
Band of (misfit) Friends - usually one intellectual friend and one emotional friend Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion Ben, Han, Chewie, Threepio, Artoo, Leia Samwise, Strider, and the other six Lancelot, Guinevere, Galahad, Percival, etc. Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger
Quest Get to the Wizard of Oz Get the Death Star plans to the Rebels Throw the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom Pursue the Holy Grail Each book has its own quest, typically solving a mystery
Showdown with Villain Killing Wicked Witch of the West Destroying the Death Star Kill Gollem, Sauron, Saruman Multiple, The Green Knight, Morgana Le Fay Multiple run-ins with Voldemort, presumably killing him in the last book
There are many dozens of attributes of the 'Hero's Journey', most of which also fit in the stories above (a trial that marks the hero, entry into a fantastic world full of strange creatures, temptation followed by atonement, protection/salvage of an artifact, passing a gatekeeper through to an inner sanctum, etc.) Many other stories from antiquity ('Gilgamesh', 'The Odyssey', 'Oedipus', 'Superman') follow these patterns. And even more mundane stories such as "The Dukes of Hazzard" also follow them. The most successful storylines from many Disney movies ("The Lion King") do so as well.

Posted by mslaybau at May 19, 2006 11:55 AM

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