The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Star Wars and Lucas' Storytelling

A damned good post:


I will grant you the staggering dimension of Lucas' achievement in shepherding this six film cycle to completion. I'll also with agree everything you had to say in your Lifewriting tapes about the near perfection (at least in mythological terms) of the original Star Wars (a.k.a. A New Hope). But while I don't necessarily want to dismiss the magnitude of the achievement, having sat through Menace, Clones, and now Sith, I do find myself cringing a bit at the idea of considering Lucas 'one of the most phenomenal storytellers in human history'.

George Lucas as Bill Gates: The original Star Wars/New Hope was indeed a work of master story telling. It rightfully made Lucas a rich man. However, these riches put Lucas in much the same position as Bill Gates at the dawn of the age of the personal computer. That is to say, their subsequent successes were less a virtue of the quality of their products than an expression of their ability as business people, and an expression of the power of oligarchy. Much as the success of DOS and Windows had more to do with the business savvy of the team at Microsoft than with any fundamental superiority of the MS OS over its competitors, so too does the continued success of the Star Wars franchise have to do more with the existence of the earlier (and better) films than it does with any phenomenal storytelling exercised in the new trilogy. Thought exercise - had Phantom Menace actually been the first film, would the series have survived to see the second and third episodes, not to mention the subsequent Hope/Empire/Jedi trio? And would it have had anything like the effect on our culture that 'A New Hope' had?

In my mind, Lucas' primary achievement has been in maintaining control of the franchise. In doing so, he has avoided the primary pitfall that destroyed every other example that I can think of, dilution by committee. You have noted that subsequent sequels of good movies often suck. I would suggest this usually occurs when the creative force behind the original concept departs the franchise, leaving for greener fields and newer projects. This leaves things in the hand of a corporation, which means that any new outings will be controlled by committees whose idea of creative control is story by checkbox - fulfilling the demands of target audience demographics rather than the needs of story. Lucas' genius in this regard has been his continued control of the original concepts. This is, however, a two-edged sword. As you observe, the quality of the Star Wars story seems to peak when Lucas is answerable to someone, and wane the more complete control he has.

But it does seem to me that these achievements are more a matter of canny business ability than in any consideration of what it is that makes a good story, or indeed a good storyteller. In my mind, the high points of the franchise have been when Lucas was forced to be answerable to others, or in some way was sharing the responsibilities of implementation of the concept. The more complete his control, the more the storytelling has seemed to suffer. Maybe I'm just being a fanboy, disappointed that my experience with the last three movies has fallen short of the bar set in my mind by the original film when I was fifteen, but it seems to me that business acumen, however incredible, is only peripherally important to what makes a storyteller great. And given the great gaping plotholes and fuzzy thinking evidenced in the latest trilogy, I just have trouble thinking of Lucas' storytelling as being anything better than 'fair'.

My answer:
I disagree. While Lucas is a canny businessman, there is no evidence that promotion alone can create a blockbuster. A blockbuster opening weekend, sure--but then word gets around. And Lucas' supposed "blockbuster" machinery hasn't helped his other movies. Howard the Duck, anyone? If he was primarily a businessman, why did he direct these last movies himself, when everyone knows that the ones directed by others were considered the best? He is absolutely in love with this world dude. As to his business sense, well, sure. As to whether the movies were deeply flawed, yep. But I didn't say he was a great writer. I said "storyteller" and that includes the method of communication. In a tribal storyteller that would be voice, pantomime, pacing, facial expressions, dance, even music. And you have to factor in these factors with Lucas. Anyone who can organize resources to create what he has done is hiring people who can externalize his vision. Like I said, I don't even know who I'd compare him to. Six movies over 30 years is a staggering achievement. A final test: if I were to ask the question: "who is better", the only names ANYONE would come up with would be the names of other giants. He walks with the great. And that defines him.

And another thing: one measure (not the only one) of greatness in storytelling is the number of people who love something. Another is the ease with which a story translates across cultures. Another is longevity. another might be the critical response. Another is the number of different media the story can successfully be mounted in. Dude, there is NO storyteller, Shakespeare included, who does not have detractors. But if I merely say "it's great because I like it," then "Gone with the Wind" is lousy because I HATE that movie. But I have to admit it communicates, and to many millions of intelligent, filmically educated people. Lucas has earned his right to walk with the movie gods, dude. and I suspect that people two hundred years from now will agree. How would the story have played out if told in order? Irrelevant. How would "Pulp Fiction" have played out in order? Temporal linearity isn't the only way to tell a story. And choice of order is as valid a sign of skill as choice of words or images.

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