Even with a rudimentary knowledge of Star Wars lore it’s easy to see that The Force Awakens is not a new story. Yes, technically it is. It’s a sequel and it moves the Star Wars saga forward, but it’s not a new story. I think that’s what made The Force Awakens so appealing. It was a retelling of the original Star Wars movies.
As I watched it, I pondered the involvement of Disney and realized something. Maybe Disney does seem like a merchandising company these days, but their fundamental core is re-imagining beloved stories. Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid; they’re all retellings of classic tales. Even Walt Disney’s first animated short was based on Alice in Wonderland (but Alice dreams of cartoon animators and movie stardom instead of the Jabberwocky and white rabbits). Storytelling is why Disney bought the creations of George Lucas and Stan Lee. Instead of Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers Grimm, they are inviting a new generation into the stories that matter to modern people. That’s who Disney is. It’s in their DNA.
Consider their 2010 release “Tangled” based on the story of Rapunzel. The Rapunzel character and story have iconic elements that are familiar to almost everybody in the west. Children and adults know about the long-haired girl locked in the tower by an evil witch and how she hangs her hair out the window for the prince to climb up. Some may even know about how Rapunzel healed the prince’s blindness. And though it’s not as familiar as Cinderella, elements of the Rapunzel tale are woven into our collective consciousness.
Other parts of the original story are not as familiar. Rapunzel was, far all intents, sold by her father to the evil witch in exchange for herbs. The prince also wasn’t exactly a rescuer. He climbed her hair for a nightly booty call and over the course of a few visits impregnate Rapunzel. When the witch discovers Rapunzel’s clothes are growing tight around the waist she cuts off her hair and banishes her to the wilderness. The witch then tricks the prince using Rapunzel’s locks and sends him plummeting from the tower into a patch of brambles. Blinded, he wanders the land for years until he stumbles across Rapunzel and their young children. He is healed by her tears and they live happily ever after.
Rapunzel is a classic, fun a story, but honestly it’s not as good as Tangled. Disney created an entirely new tone for the story with their changes. Tangled’s Rapunzel challenges her kidnapper and goes on an adventure of self discovery. There is no prince. Instead she falls in love with, and saves the life of, a good-hearted thief. When she’s reunited with her mother and father we see that they’ve held out hope for her return for sixteen years. Disney’s story still retains all the beloved elements of the original, but it incorporates them in a richer more thoughtful way.
I think Disney did the same for The Force Awakens. They kept the classic motifs we love about Star Wars. The orphan Rey, with her proclivity for gadgets and dusty brown garb, reminds us of when we met Luke on Tatooine. Han, Rey, and Finn’s visit to a cantina at Takodana conjures memories of strange-faced, clarinet playing aliens in Mos Eisley. There’s probably no need to even mention Han and Kylo’s meeting on the catwalk or Poe’s ace flying at the Starkiller base.
But Disney introduced thoughtful new twists too, especially with Kylo Ren and Finn. Kylo intentionally evokes the spirit of Darth Vader, but unlike Vader, Ren is plagued with insecurities and self-doubt. The character of Finn humanizes the mindless automaton that was the Storm Trooper. His fear of death and ability to question the morality of his actions brought a complex new element into the robotic role of Storm Trooper. Both characters ask us to look deeper at people we want to disregard as “bad guys”.
This kind of imaginative storytelling is an integral part of what it means to be human. Before we made fire, developed complex language, or organized ourselves into tribes we told stories. Stories are how we remember who we are despite growth and change. They tell us where we’re going and remind us where we’ve been. They told others what mattered to us and what kind of people we were. Stories connect us to our history, to our identity, but most importantly to each other.
Whether it was Cro-magnon tribes, family units, sports teams, or today’s geek clans, stories bind us. Consider why we remember the story of the The American Revolution every year in July or why Great Uncle Bob loves to reminisce at the family reunion. What are your own motivations for sharing stories about Star Wars, comics, cooking, or football with another person? We love to share our stories and passions because we long to be known and to know others. We share our stories to invite that connection. We listen to other’s stories to gain that intimacy. It’s who we are. It’s in our DNA.
Unfortunately what I’ve learned from this experience is that when we’re passionate about something we’re also prone to self-sabatage. Too often we refuse to share our own stories until we’ve vetted the other person’s credentials. Or we refuse to listen to another person’s story because we’ve assumed we already know who they are. Worse yet we become obsessed with protecting our the purity of our own stories from outsiders and rob ourselves of experiencing the benefits they give us. These actions thwart the possibility of the human connections we most desire.
Instead we should throw the gates wide and invite anybody and everybody to love what we love. We should share our stories and passions with anyone, encouraging them to jump into the waters of what we’ve found to be good. We must also kindle a genuine curiosity for the stories and passions of others. Rather than protecting our sacred things we should be actively looking for their reflection in the sacred stories and passions of others. Sharing what we love is the truest form for geekhood, and there’s no better way to awaken the force of humanity in ourselves and others.