There are a lot of mixed feelings towards George Lucas these days after three poor prequels and the ill-judged efforts at a ‘special edition’, among other things. It’s trendy to hate him.
Personally, I don’t. I feel sorry for him.
This is all speculation, but the way I see it, Lucas created something great, the kind of work that any writer dreams of creating: something that millions upon millions of people adored and that became a fixture of the cultural landscape. Only, his creation grew beyond his talent. A lot of what people loved most came from other people working off of his original ideas (Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasden, Irvin Kershner, etc). Later, with the Expanded Universe, he saw audiences eating up completely new stories set in his world, but which he had had little or nothing to do with.
Then when he tried to add to it, with the prequels and the special editions and such, the same people who’d been so excited about the EU and so on hated them. I saw a footage once of the first full-screening of The Phantom Menace for the principle filmmakers, and no one seems very excited about it. Lucas himself sounds anxiously disappointed, like he knows it wasn’t what he intended it to be.
This great, brilliant, personal masterpiece…and seemingly everyone else who touched it was making more of it than he could. Star Wars was his world, and here other people were doing his world better and getting praise and adulation for things he never would have done or thought of. Again, the work had grown beyond his talent. I imagine it must have been like a teacher when his student starts to contradict and correct him, only more personal.
In a word, the whole experience must hurt him badly. What must it be like to know that you made one of the great works of modern fiction, but that audiences don’t want you involved in it?
His was certainly the wrong reaction, by clumsily annotating the originals and trying to seize full control back when he clearly lacked the ability to handle it. But pity is not reserved only for those who have never done wrong. Let us all pray that we never find ourselves in such a position, or that if we do, we at least take a lesson from his example and strive to avoid his mistakes.
3 thoughts on “Sympathy for George Lucas”
*Was* “Star Wars” an especially personal masterpiece, though? I mean, it’s basically a Flash Gordon pastiche stretched over a stolen Kurosawa plot, with a genre-appropriate dollop of the supernatural thrown in for gravitas. I don’t say this in disparagement, you understand; there’s no rule that says a cinematic masterpiece can’t be just that (and, if there were, we would have to revise it to account for this film). But to treat it as the product of some quirky, heartfelt world-building process is surely absurd; I doubt any other great movie has ever had “product of the Dream Factory” stamped on it so unmistakably.
And that may be Lucas’s real problem. If he had been content to simply be the talented Hollywood filmmaker to whom it was given to make the ultimate Hollywood film, his reputation probably would have done fine; no doubt his intimates would still have complained in their memoirs about his insufferable self-importance or whatnot, but only a handful of film buffs would ever have known or cared. But his film happened to be a fantasy – or, at least, the most nearly unique aspects of it were – and he happened to be living in the shadow of that splendid accident, J. R. R. Tolkien. Just imagine making a record-shatteringly popular fantasy in *the exact year* that “The Silmarillion” was first published – and then think about the kind of humility and honesty it would require to admit in a thousand different interviews that, no, there was no intricate mythical structure behind “Star Wars”, just a bunch of movie clichés mixed together until they felt right. Of course his head was turned; of course he grasped at Joseph Campbell and whatnot to make his opus seem deeper and more deliberate than it was – and, not being the sort of cheerful con artist who could mouth such things with perfect solemnity without ever being tempted to believe them, of course he eventually managed to convince himself that he really was some kind of brilliant myth-making auteur, and to forget both the humbleness of his original aspirations and the essentially communal nature of the process that had so spectacularly achieved them. At which point, it was inevitable that he would sooner or later try to remake the world of “Star Wars” entirely in his own image – with what results, we all too sadly know.
(It’s not just Lucas, either. I’m convinced that J. K. Rowling would be a much happier woman if she had felt free to let the world of Hogwarts run purely on moment-to-moment whimsy, with no more concern for the wider implications of any given spell than Roald Dahl had for the Everlasting Gobstopper’s significance to chemical engineering. But, just as neither Benedict XVI nor Francis has ever quite been able to shake the notion that being pope means doing the kinds of things that John Paul II did, so no modern fantasy writer, however successful and individual, seems able to bring himself to believe that Tolkienesque world-building is no necessary part of good fantasy. Chesterton was right: the modern world is a place where a million ordinary people suffer because one extraordinary person was successful – where, as soon as Hermie gets his dental practice, all the other elves start trying to convince themselves that they don’t really like to make toys, either.)
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‘Personal’ and ‘the product of some quirky, heartfelt world-building process’ aren’t necessarily synonymous. It was, of course, a variation on Flash Gordon and other sci-fi serials / pulps with a bunch of elements put into a blender. But I think it was a personal thing nonetheless: the sort of thing he liked for its own sake and wanted to see. It was, after all, the project he chose to make when having the chance to make anything he wanted. At the very least I would imagine it became personal once it was clear that this was the work he would be known for.
In any case,I think the point still stands regardless of how personally he took the project: that this was the biggest and most important thing he’d ever or would ever do as a writer, and he wasn’t wanted on it. Even if we take the personal investment or personal feelings out of it, that’s a pitiable position for any writer to be in.
But I think you’re right about Lucas’s problem being trying re-write what he’d done into something grander and more ‘artistic’ than it really was, when he’d have been better off admitting that a lot of it just instinct or luck. That’s impressive enough as it is, but it doesn’t fit the ‘brilliant writer’ image.
And you make a good point about moderns feeling obliged to ‘be great like that other person’. Something to think about.
Just when I thought I’d heard every possible take on Pope Francis…! [chuckles]