The Art of Storytelling
As a lifelong Star Wars fan (born in ’83 and raised on the Original Trilogy while still young enough to enjoy the Prequels), the Disney era has been pretty tough to take so far. That’s been reflected by a rising cynicism in my posts here, which, while understandable given the current state of Star Wars, isn’t exactly how I want to celebrate my fandom of the greatest film saga in Western culture.
With Solo only weeks away it’s time to heed the call of the light and bring balance to the blog. Welcome to the first part of a series about why Star Wars is so special – and where else to start but with the story itself?
A Long Time Ago…
It’s such an accepted point now that it seems almost redundant to make but, for better or worse, Star Wars is the defining cultural mythology of our society. The tapestry that George Lucas created over the years between 1972 and 2005 (and even later if you include the Clone Wars) has become ingrained in our society on multiple levels. Yet as iconic as the John Williams fanfare is, as visually striking as Darth Vader is, these are cultural milestones first and foremost because of the purity of the story they are attached to.
It’s no coincidence that A New Hope was used in my film school to illustrate both the hero’s journey and three act structure, as it’s a light but devastatingly effective use of both forms. Is it the most powerful example of either? Probably not, no. But when the story is wrapped so beautifully and remains accessible to all ages it becomes an unbridled success of cinematic storytelling.
What loose ends remain at the end of A New Hope resolve over the next two chapters of the story, as Luke Skywalker both wields his father’s lightsaber and confronts Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. Vader’s revelation flips the story on its head in a masterful example of escalation, and the stakes are irrevocably altered. Return of the Jedi lays a claim to being one of the best third chapters of a film trilogy by delivering a satisfying conclusion to the overall narrative, and in doing so each film becomes an organic part of a much larger whole.
As Robert McKee attests in Story, his classic work on the art of writing for screen, a successful tale turns within every scene, with each scene leading to a turn within its act, to each act leading to a turn within the overall narrative, all the way until the story is resolved. This ‘arcs within arcs’ approach is why the OT works, either when taken one episode at a time or as a complete three-part story.
A Greater Theme
Nowhere does Lucas’ knack for great storytelling come to the fore more than with the Prequel Trilogy; although unfortunately that’s because the tardy execution jars so much against the sweeping epic of intergalactic power that lays beneath…
Lucas took a huge risk by making Episodes I-III, but the story he told creates a greater narrative of Anakin Skywalker across six films. Luke’s journey to reject the rigidity of the Jedi Order and fight for the good in his father is made stronger by seeing the undoing of the Jedi in their prime; a fundamental point to understand if you’re confused about why Mark Hamill’s character in the Sequel Trilogy makes no sense.
The Prequels are often unfairly maligned but they tell a great story about the corruption of unchecked power. There are certain elements that I would change, but I’m far happier to live in a world where they exist.
Reason to Hope?
Some threads of the Sequel Trilogy could have fit into this overall arc, at the very least those embodied by Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens. However, in practice the disconnect between Episodes VII and VIII and the story that came before is too great to reconcile; particularly without the involvement of a storyteller as studied and imaginative as Lucas.
Rogue One succeeds by telling an independent Star Wars story about hope and sacrifice that doesn’t disregard what came before. I acknowledge yet don’t agree with criticism that the film jumps around too much at the start, as it’s all essential groundwork for the powerful denouement – which remains one of the finest of the series.
It was a huge relief to see storytelling of this calibre alive in the Star Wars universe once again after the mediocrity of The Force Awakens, and it gives me hope (ha!) that the standalone films may continue to deliver the narrative experience that the sequels lack.
So, there you have it. I love so many things about Star Wars but everything starts with the story. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject, get in touch in the comments below!