Roundtable: Star Wars: The Original Trilogy
Aren: The films of the Star Wars Original Trilogy are the most popular films of all time. They’re also our favourite films, so taking all these facts together, there’s no shortage of topics for conversation. That being said, there’s no way we can get to everything there is to discuss about the Original Trilogy, so let’s forgo fan commentary and highlights that we’ve grown fond of over the years and try to dig into a few specific thoughts we have about these films and what they’re doing. It’s useful to look at this article as simply the first entry in a longer discussion that will continue once we get to the Prequel Trilogy and the Disney Trilogy.
The Expansion of the Story World
Anton: My review of the original Star Wars addressed the film’s unique narrative qualities, and both of you spent time arguing that each sequel significantly altered the trajectory of the series. Let’s start with the evolution of Star Wars.
Aren: Sounds like a good starting point. Everyone likes to think of the Original Trilogy as a monolithic unit. While they do work as a complete trilogy and narrative sequence, there are also significant changes in approach between A New Hope and the sequels. I think the most important of these is that The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi radically open up the storyworld. A New Hope is compact and self-contained, but The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi open the scope and show just how vast and complicated this fantasy world is. It’s impossible to imagine what we’d think of the world of Star Wars if we’d only gotten A New Hope, but it’s nonetheless fun to try to trace how much of what we think of as Star Wars in terms of worldbuilding is reliant on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
The sequels not only give us more planets to explore that vary from Tatooine and Yavin IV, but they start to let other elements of the universe come into play and affect the relatively straightforward conflict between the Rebels and the Empire. Take for instance the presence of bounty hunters, who work for the highest payer, but have no real interest in the Empire, or Lando, who tries and fails to extricate himself from the conflict. In Return of the Jedi, its vision of Tatooine is completely free of Imperial influence as gangsters like Jabba the Hutt hold the power. Luke and the other heroes have to contend with threats completely separate to the Empire.
Anders: I love how it shows the idea that the galaxy is bigger than just the conflict between the Empire and Rebel Alliance (the opposite of what we get in Disney’s more recent sequel trilogy, where, as Anton pointed out, they shrink the dynamic so that it’s unclear how the galaxy actually operates politically). Again, it suggests the size of the universe and reflects Luke’s comment in A New Hope, “If there’s a bright centre of the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.” So, while I argued and still think that The Empire Strikes Back does the most heavy lifting in opening the world, the groundwork is laid in A New Hope.
Aren: Anton is absolutely correct that A New Hope gives us glimpses into the corners of this immense story world, from the Krayt Dragon bones to the denizens of the Mos Eisley Cantina, but aside from Greedo, who momentarily waylays Han, it never lets those elements of the universe interact with the main storyline and influence the way the narrative plays out. The sequels let that happen.
The Secret History of Star Wars
Anton: I haven’t read all of Michael Kaminski’s The Secret History of Star Wars, but from the beginning, do you think he exaggerates the case? What I mean is that I’ve always enjoyed reading A New Hope both as Episode IV in the saga but also as a sort of its own thing. And being able to switch between a canonical and chronological reading of the film to trying to think about what it meant in 1977 as a standalone film doesn’t strike me as mind-blowing. But maybe it’s partly that he’s resisting the more commonly held approach as well as fighting again fan mentality.
Aren: He definitely belabours his point and repeats himself, as he’s not a professional writer. The Secret History of Star Wars is simply a labour of love by a devoted fan who wanted to get the timeline correct. However, he is most definitely fighting against fan theories about the formation of the films and against Lucas’s own mythical tales about coming up with the films.
Anton: It’s like The Chronicles of Narnia. Which is the first book? The chronological first, The Magician’s Nephew, or The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, which was published first? I think when I was younger I was more hung up about enforcing a “comic-book-continuity mindset” on works, where there has to be a definitive right answer and you shift everything previously to make room for later developments, rather than both appreciating works in the context of their release as well as episodes in a larger story.
Anders: I’m not entirely clear which part you think Kaminski’s exaggerating or overstating. I think you’re absolutely right in saying that he’s resisting the myth that has built up over the years, which is that it was always intended to be “The Tragedy of Darth Vader.” The “secret history” is presenting the evidence that it clearly wasn’t. What I think is at stake for some people is the effect of that evidence on the grand accomplishment these films are.
Anton: The whole “secret history” idea oversells the idea. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’ve come to similar conclusions independently that I don’t find the book (from what I’ve read) as particularly illuminating.
Anders: I think what I like about the book is exactly that it confirms my conclusions by doing the copious work of citing and laying out the case that I don’t have the time to do.
That said, I have no problem thinking about how the final story—at least the six episodes that Lucas made—works on a collective level and recognizing how the story builds up over time and about how they are also films, created under particular historical and production contexts that shaped their final form. What I reject is the idea that the accomplishment is somewhat lessened if Lucas didn’t have it all planned out. If anything, Kaminski’s book makes a case for it being an intensely creative and perhaps even more impressive accomplishment in one sense.
Aren: People can only conceive of great art as coming from a master plan executed perfectly by a single artist. People have limited imaginations, especially Star Wars fans.
Anders: Now, I think Anton’s comparison to the Narnia books is a helpful one. I don’t think there is a “right” or “wrong” answer to what order to read them, or view the Star Wars films, but I definitely think that which one you start with changes your experience of the texts irrevocably. (For the record, I think The Magician’s Nephew is the best book in Lewis’s series, but The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is obviously written to be read as an introduction to Narnia.)
Aren: I’m with you there. Read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe first, but The Magician’s Nephew is the best, and when I reread the Narnia books, I always start with that one now.
Anders: Likewise with Star Wars, beginning with the prequels will give an entirely different experience and when we get to the Original Trilogy, we will be drawn to different things, which are given more emphasis by the introductions and background of the Prequel Trilogy. That said, I would suggest watching the Original Trilogy first, preserving the focus on Luke over Vader. But the fact that you can watch them in a different order is illuminating of Lucas’s brilliance—conscious or unconscious—in crafting a cohesive mythology out of the films. Think of the way that Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen’s dialogue in Star Wars—“He has too much of his father in him.” “That’s what I’m afraid of.”—is read entirely differently if one knows that Darth Vader is Luke’s father. It’s clearly a case of retconning, but it works so well!
Aren: It does for the most part, but even the gaps in narrative logic that come from retconning don’t bother me much anymore. Perhaps I’ve been watching too many horror movies that play fast and loose with narrative canon, or perhaps I’ve simply grown weary of how movies have taken on the obsession with narrative threads and payoffs that is central to comic books. Regardless of what the motivation is, I can't even bother to try to reconcile the clearly individualized Stormtroopers of A New Hope (think about the conversation between the two on the Death Star when Obi-wan is sneaking around) with the revelation that they’re clones in Attack of the Clones. That kind of narrative parsing isn’t interesting to me. However, it’s absolutely essential to a large segment of Star Wars fanboys.
So to get back to Kaminski’s book, his argument is perhaps not as mindblowing to people like us who don’t have a problem with viewing Star Wars as both a creation of George Lucas’s imagination and an individual cinematic story that changed due to production issues and the ideas of the times. We can live with the tension between the two stories and it doesn’t lesson our appreciation of the films. But so many Star Wars fans cannot, and it’s those people that Kaminski is speaking to, trying to set the historical record straight, so that people can then make up their minds with all the facts intact.
Anders: What the Original Trilogy does so well, and what I think might be its greatest accomplishment as storytelling and filmmaking, is the way that it evokes a world so effortlessly. Anton alluded to this in his review of Star Wars, but the whole trilogy does this. When you actually sit down and think about how much we don’t see, how much is implied, how much work throwaway lines and background details do, it’s clear why Lucas and countless others—from the old role-playing games and Expanded Universe novels to Disney—were able to build on this world and create a modern mythology.
Sorting Out Nostalgia and Critical Evaluation
Anders: Part of Kaminski’s project is also to reveal how our evaluations change over the years, contrasting the audience reception of the films in the moment to their stature now. How much of people’s praise of these films is rooted in nostalgia? I think we’ve made a good case for the legitimate excellence of these films as films, not just as blockbusters, but does nostalgia blind us to reality? Or can we root nostalgia in a historical appreciation for what these films meant in their various moments (1977 or 1997)? Or is it impossible to recapture?
I’ll suggest that nostalgia is always revisionist, even in its most positive sense. We cannot recapture experiences of the past, as our subsequent experiences shape and colour the memories we have of the original. But one of the things I’ve come to appreciate about Star Wars is its durability and ability to grow with me. Clearly, I appreciate them differently than I did as a 12-year old, and my own children have a different experience of them than I do. But they’re still great.
What I find sad is that the revisionist nature of nostalgia, the fleeting nature of memory and experience, causes some people to reject their past experiences as entirely without value or merit. Obviously, sometimes experience causes us to understand our past perceptions as flawed. But with Star Wars I don’t think that a clear-eyed view of things reveals everything as flawed and merely a rose-tinted view of the past. If anything, people often value new things over old and I think a lot of the criticism of Star Wars stems from recency bias. But placed side-by-side with almost any new popular entertainment (not trying to open up a can of worms, but I’m looking at you, MCU), the Original Trilogy clearly comes out on top.
Aren: I think you’re onto something bigger here because people always mistakenly think that art continually grows better (I remember an acquaintance of yours unpersuasively trying to tell me that movies are better now than in the past, clearly not knowing who he was talking to), and that the newest methods of filmmaking—of how realism is favoured above all else and how good writing is simply viewed of as narrative construction without obvious logic holes—are favoured over older styles. However, at the same time as people think this, they also revere the Original Trilogy in their original forms without ever actually engaging with them as films.
So nostalgia allows different kinds of people to either dismiss Star Wars as a silly thing they liked as a child, or to dismiss all subsequent works or changes to the original work, because it doesn’t conform to their memories of the work from when they were a child. They cannot ever again watch the films with new eyes or experience them as children, and so they have to externalize that problem and blame it on Lucas for tinkering with the edits or for subsequent films to have destroyed the allure of the Original Trilogy. But it’s really that these viewers haven’t come to terms with their own engagement with growing up. It’s why I’m very confident in dismissing Star Wars fanboys, the type who whine endlessly about the Special Editions, the Prequel Trilogy, or about The Last Jedi, as suffering from arrested development; they’ve never grown up, so I don’t have to take their complaints seriously.
Anton: I hear what you are saying, but I don’t entirely agree. I think it’s perfectly reasonable for someone to only like A New Hope, or the Original Trilogy, or the Lucas trilogies, so long as they have good reasons. My problem is that most complaints are either inaccurate or misguided. So they will trash what’s hokey about the prequels, but not admit that the Original Trilogy can also be hokey. It’s using the trope of the bad prequels and Special Editions (bad acting, bad dialogue, bad CGI—these are dogmas more than evidence now) instead of real, very specific examples.
Anders: I’m actually with you that it’s reasonable to just prefer the original film (the binary_sunset position from TheForce.net boards) or just the Original Trilogy. It’s just as you say, the reasons they give I find unpersuasive.
Anton: But I think you’re both generally right that nostalgia and uncritical thinking combined with extreme adoration for these texts makes it very difficult to have a good conversation with many people about what works and what doesn’t in Star Wars. It’s too personal for most people to disentangle from other aspects of their life, values, and views of art.
Aren: On a different note, something I have realized because of this retrospective is that my affection for these films continues to grow each time I watch them, confirming that my love for them isn’t misplaced. I have seen Return of the Jedi more times than any other movie and yet I discover new ways to appreciate it and new things to focus on each time I watch it. And these revisits don’t discount my childhood impressions of the film. If anything, my new takeaway from doing a revisit focusing on its formal elements is that my appreciation of the craft actually confirms the dazzlement I experienced as a child. The Battle of Endor completely enthralled me as a child; nothing was more exciting to me. And now, as I investigate the ways that the filmmakers are manipulating editing and using all the tools of analogue filmmaking to maintain a constant state of excitement, I find myself simply reaffirming what I thought as a child, which is that it’s a technical marvel. Looking beneath the hood, so to speak, only makes the entire machine more impressive.
The Special Editions
Anders: We haven’t talked much about the Special Edition changes (1997 and subsequent edits on DVD and Blu-ray) in our reviews. What do we think on the whole of the changes?
Anton: Some of the changes are great, particularly if you want to enjoy the films together. I remember a friend, a newcomer to Star Wars, rather casually noting how the Original Trilogy had garbage special effects next to the prequels. I don’t fully agree, but it’s partially true, especially if you watch the non-Special Editions. The original effects for the Battle of Yavin have dated.
Other changes do diminish aspects of the originals. Greedo shooting first instead of Han is a bad idea, both movie-wise, and for Han as a character, and is a great example of Lucas retroactively fudging his story to reflect his later-in-life conclusions.
Anders: Absolutely, that’s a good example of a change that is just misguided and unnecessary. I honestly think that a great deal of the criticism of the Special Editions would have been eliminated had Lucas allowed for the original theatrical versions to circulate. It’s a self-inflicted wound of his need to control the narrative (not unlike the myths that sprung up around the creation of the trilogy that Kaminski notes).
Aren: Exactly. If we could have the original theatrical versions alongside the Special Editions, I don’t think the vitriol would be nearly the same. That being said, I think it’s hard not to see some things as improvements and others as unnecessary, or occasionally bad. Greedo shooting first is the obvious example of a bad thing. Many of the CGI characters added into the margins of the frame in A New Hope work well when viewing the Original Trilogy alongside the Prequel Trilogy, but they’re not exactly necessary. They do little to add or detract.
But there are also things I think are a genuine improvement on the theatrical versions. The Battle of Yavin in A New Hope is significantly more exciting in the Special Edition than the theatrical version. As well, the small touches of adding Hayden Christensen into the ending of Return of the Jedi, and making Ian McDiarmid Emperor Palpatine in The Empire Strikes Back actually make the movies less jarring, not more, because they don’t contradict what we know of these characters in the prequels. But as Anton said, they often work to add to the experience of Star Wars as a six-film whole, even if they may not be the wisest decisions in terms of individual filmmaking choices.
Anders: I think it’s also interesting to think that we’re now in a place where the 1997 Special Edition release was closer to the release of the original in 1977 than it is to today.
Aren: That’s insane!
Anders: As someone who was born after the release of the original film, during the timeframe of the Original Trilogy, the 1997 experience was a wonderful one giving me a chance as a fan to experience a small piece of what it was like to see the films on the big screen.
It’s also worth noting that the 1997 releases are a distinct phenomenon from later Special Editions (in addition to the changes you mention, the first version of CGI Jabba still brings a specific time period to mind). They now have a nostalgic tinge to them for me as well, including remembering my first glimpse of the new changes that came out on the Making Magic CD-ROM (yikes, that’s dating it!) distributed with video games including LucasArts Rebel Assault II. The subsequent changes just become part of the ever-evolving relationship I have to these films.
Aren: It was exciting to watch Star Wars again on the big screen in 1997. The Special Editions were kind of the peak of optimism for Star Wars because we were getting its media saturation again, the CCG was released, new action figures were out, and Episode I was on the horizon. I have few fonder memories from childhood than going to the old Pacific Avenue Cineplex in Saskatoon to see A New Hope in Special Edition. I was the youngest person in the theatre and was even featured in the Star Phoenix because of that. If we’re talking about uncomplicated, positive nostalgia, that’s definitely the height for me.
Perhaps I fall into the same trap as others and think of the Special Editions as the Original Trilogy of my childhood (because they were!) and see them through rose-coloured glasses, but I do think there’s worth in them, even if they should have never obliterated the theatrical versions from existence. For all my belief in the dangers of nostalgia, I am as victim to it as anyone.
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977, USA)
Written and directed by George Lucas; starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Peter Cushing, and Alec Guinness.
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980, USA)
Directed by Irvin Kershner; screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan based on a story by George Lucas; starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz.
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983, USA)
Directed by Richard Marquand; written by Lawrence Kasden and George Lucas, from a story by George Lucas; starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Frank Oz.