THE FORCE AWAKENS finally late Thursday night, December 17, 2015 and the Disney era of the STAR WARS phenomenon officially begins. I find it so fascinating in my late 40s to watch the clamor build toward this film premiere because I have strong memories of the original and all that followed. My interest lays equally in my desire to see where the story goes and my rubber-necking the global crowd chorus surrounding this monumental debut.
There are plenty of resources out there that can recount in minute detail every step of the production of the original STAR WARS and the succeeding films, cartoons, novels, and…yes, one stupefyingly horrible television holiday special. I want to focus specifically on my memories, as best and as accurately as I can be at this point, of the original STAR WARS. I will leave it to others to discuss the colossal impact of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and how that last-minute second-draft exclusion of Luke’s father and inclusion of a new revelation about his father is the “Big Bang” moment where the phenomenon of the STAR WARS universe actually began. I want to focus on this stand-alone movie that cookbooked itself along the structural path of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” monomyth and was a nostalgic attempt itself by George Lucas to capture the feelings he had as a child watching FLASH GORDON serials at the movie theater. He wanted to reproduce that feeling for modern children. It was also his attempt at upgrading science-fiction adventure film effects to a degree never seen before. And maybe more than anything else, Lucas recognized the importance of sound in the experience than anyone before him. Those of us who do have visceral memories of sitting down to see STAR WARS in the theater for the very first time will understand. From the bombastic John Williams score to the rumble of a seemingly endless giant space ship coming into view for the first time to Darth Vader’s wheezing and threatening voice to the hum of the light sabers and the “pew-pew” of the laser blasters (something that has now replaced “bang-bang” in the childhood playground lexicon). Lucas created more than just a movie, he created an experience—and with EMPIRE he gave birth to a phenomenon that has grown to maturity and moved on without him. And by all accounts—if the current 9.5 out of 10 rating on IMDB is any indication—has surpassed him with the advent of THE FORCE AWAKENS.
If anyone ever doubts me when I point out to them that the original STAR WARS (years before “A NEW HOPE” was retroactively assigned to it) is a fairy tale, I just say these words to them: “A LONG TIME AGO IN A LAND FAR, FAR AWAY . . .”
Recognizing that STAR WARS is a fairy tale does not, and should not; diminish its impact in any way. In fact, it may actually increase its impact because it moves it away from science-based speculative fiction to its proper place as an archetypal myth that taps into humanity’s shared memories as a species. All that is truly unique about this story is that it is set in space rather than an unspecified Ancient Age in our history or, perhaps, Middle-Earth. It even makes blindingly obvious sense that Disney, our modern corporate Brothers Grimm purveyor of all things “Fairy Tale”, has taken on the task of continuing the saga that Lucas birthed.
My personal experience with STAR WARS began during the Christmas break of 1976 into 1977 when I got my hands on a copy of the novelization ostensibly written by George Lucas (but actually ghost written by Alan Dean Foster). Yes, it is true, back in the halcyon days of the 1970s there was literally no concept of a movie being spoiled by audiences already knowing the story going into it. Not only did I read STAR WARS some 5 months or so before it even opened in the theaters, it did not diminish my enjoyment of it at all. In my 10 year-old mind and heart, it only built my anticipation to see what I had read finally visualized onscreen. It also meant, I already had some built-in understanding of what was going to happen in terms of plot that I might have missed out on at that age just from watching the movie that first time. It is interesting to me the difference in the culture now in that the novelization for THE FORCE AWAKENS is not going to be available for purchase until Friday, December 18, to coincide with the film’s release date. “NO SPOILERS!!!!” is the clarion cry of the modern film-goer. In 1977, it was more like “TELL ME EVERYTHING SO I’M NOT SURPRISED!!!!” Hell, I read the novelizations of STAR WARS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, LOGAN’S RUN (technically just the source novel), and STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (interestingly, also ghost-written by Alan Dean Foster) well in advance of ever seeing the films themselves.
Needless to say, my anticipation was strong. I think I may have even re-read the novel a couple of times before I saw the movie. Remember that this is before anyone, Lucas included, had any inkling of STAR WARS being anything other than a one-off space fantasy for kids that might make some money and sell some toys for him (as Lucas retained the licensing rights and marketed the shit out of it the best he could). In 2015 terms, this is insane, but back in 1977 the short-sighted and narrow vision of Hollywood executives was such that they did not recognize the potential value in marketing and licensing of their films. This might be the area where Lucas was his most visionary. He clearly remembered that feeling as a child of wishing there were more toys and other knick-knacks associated with the films that captured his imagination and heart. So, he basically trail blazed this entire area and tapped into a market that nobody but him seemed to realize was out there. Fast forward almost 40 years and the tail wags the dog now. Oftentimes films begin with the notion of how they can license it because while box office generates income, it comes to an end fairly quickly. But popular and smart licensing can become perpetual income.
Taking a look back at that original novelization, however, gives us a different point of view about STAR WARS than our malleable memories tends to hold onto. Today most fans would describe it something like “STAR WARS EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE continues the story of Anakin Skywalker after his turn to the ‘dark side’ of the Force as he confronts his grown children in this epic saga of his rise, fall, and redemption.” In 1977, inspired by Lucas’s childhood love of the old movie serials, if he imagined anything larger than just this one story it was within the context of telling the adventures of his own version of Flash Gordon—Luke Skywalker. This is borne out even in the title of the book, based on his original screenplay, which is specifically just “STAR WARS” with a subtitle of “FROM THE ADVENTURES OF LUKE SKYWALKER.” And so Luke Skywalker was where my attention as a child was focused. The back cover description feels very different than what has come after:
“LUKE SKYWALKER CHALLENGED THE STORMTROOPERS OF A DISTANT GALAXY ON A DARING MISSING—WHERE A FORCE OF LIFE BECAME THE POWER OF DEATH!”
“Luke Skywalker was a twenty-year-old who lived and worked on his uncle’s farm on the remote planet of Tatooine . . . and he was bored beyond belief. He yearned for adventures out among the stars—adventures that would take him beyond the farthest galaxies to distant and alien worlds.
But Luke got more than he bargained for when he intercepted a cryptic message from a beautiful princess held captive by a dark and powerful warlord. Luke didn’t know who she was, but he knew he had to save her—and soon, because time was running out.In retrospect, I almost see STAR WARS as separate from the other films because of this. It seems to exist within a separate continuity at times and a different focus. This and RETURN OF THE JEDI are pretty much the only movies out of the 6 released to this point that actually have a “The End” moment.
Armed only with courage and with the light saber that had been his father’s, Luke was catapulted into the middle of the most savage space war ever . . . and he was headed straight for a desperate encounter on the enemy battle station known as the Death Star!”
STAR WARS did make quite an impact on me, but since I was not surrounded by the current mass culture obsessed with everything geek, this was mostly relegated to existing and growing inside my own head. I became pretty obsessive about it for a couple of years, but especially that first year. I talked my mom into getting me STAR WARS covers for my bed. I rabidly wanted a STAR WARS t-shirt to wear on the first day of school. Believe it or not, there was a time when you could not just run into Target or Wal-Mart and choose from dozens of cool t-shirts. No, at that time, we had to actually go to a t-shirt shop where they had a giant iron-on machine. As a customer, you would flip through a box with various iron-on designs (kind of like picking out a tattoo design these days) and choose the one you wanted and then pick out your t-shirt color and they would use the machine to do a quick job of adhering your chosen design (which would not positively survive very many washings unfortunately). I chose the STAR WARS design with C3PO and R2D2 on a baby-blue t-shirt.
At 10 years-old, I guess I considered myself a little too old for action figures already so I wasn’t particularly concerned with getting those (and they were not very well-done if we’re all being honest), but I did kind of want that huge Millennium Falcon that was made to hold the Han Solo and Chewbacca figures. I never got that. However, I did buy the model kit of R2D2 and made my own Artoo. I really liked that one and kept it around for a long time. I bought the comic book series from Marvel based on the movie, but was disappointed in it initially. Primarily my disappointment was over the artwork, which I didn’t feel was to the level I wanted it to be. Thankfully, when I checked back into the series later around the time of EMPIRE, the artwork was perfection by Al Williamson. No one has ever come even close to matching Williamson’s work at capturing the look and feel of STAR WARS in comic book form. I laugh now remembering how much I wanted to get my hands on a proper toy light sabre but the only ones available were just so cheaply made and lame I actually never bothered to buy one.
The quality level on toys today is so superior to what was available back then that it is almost incomprehensible. For Christmas, my parents gave me my first digital watch (a big deal back then) and it was a STAR WARS watch that included multiple faceplate designs so I could switch out the look on it. They also got me ”THE STAR WARS SKETCHBOOK” by Joe Johnston (yes, the same Joe Johnston who directed THE ROCKETEER and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER). As an aspiring artist, I devoured that book for the cool drawings inside but also, as a fan, it gave me a first glimpse into the process and background on the making of the movie.
I think a lot of people these days have a difficult time either conceptualizing or remembering the pre-video/dvd world that we lived in back in the mid 1970s.
Those 3 years between STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK felt like a lifetime. The original opening crawl for STAR WARS did not even have that “Episode IV” designation until that second-draft EMPIRE script took over the direction of the franchise. STAR WARS captured the zeitgeist of the 1970s and held onto it. Even 20th Century Fox had to recognize that people were clamoring to see it again (again, pre-home video). In fact, a small number of theaters in the U.S. had actually continued showing the movie for an entire calendar year. Audiences just kept showing up. Eventually 20th Century Fox did theatrical re-releases in 1978 which was successful enough to warrant another re-release in 1979, and then post-EMPIRE also in 1981 and 1982. All re-releases after EMPIRE had the “Episode IV” added to the opening scrawl.
From an $11 million budget and a $1.5 million opening weekend (which would be considered a huge flop these days in that it barely recovered over a tenth of the budget) it became the little engine that could and then matured into a roaring steam engine that is now the singular most successful film franchise in history. THE FORCE AWAKENS should be in an unenviable position but it is actually positioned in a perfect storm of expectation, talent, and support to make it about the quickest and easiest profit Disney has ever experienced on a film with a $200 million budget. STAR WARS slipped in under the radar in 1977 and surprised everyone. STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS is coming in like Godzilla stomping on Tokyo and I will be there on opening weekend along with you and everybody else. And I hope the memories made here and ongoing can tap into some of the simpler charm and tinge of wistful innocence that I can lull myself back into when I think back on my original experience.
MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU!