Do you need to see the Star Wars films to actually enjoy them?

Thirty years ago I would have laughed at this question. Silly rabbit, of course you have to see the movies to enjoy them. How else would you know what to do with all those awesome Kenner action figures you wanted so desperately? Recently my world view has been shaken a bit by my twelve year old neighbor. He is an avid Star Wars fan and we talk regularly about the virtues of the Star Wars saga in all its brilliance. He shows me his Star Wars Lego catalogs, his latest purchases, gives me an intensely detailed walk-through of his Lego Star Wars video game escapades. So, you will understand that i was a little bit shocked when I learned that he had never seen one of the movies. Not one!!!

Imge of lego Star Wars figuresWell if you aren’t shocked, it’s all right because I’m shocked enough for both of us. I mean I felt betrayed! How can he know so much about the series and never have seen one of the movies, not even episodes I, II, and III (even though they suck!). Well, I guess I am showing my own essentialism here, for it just seemed impossible to appreciate Star Wars without first experiencing the “real thing,” i.e., the films. And while my neighbor may be a particular case, I am beginning to wonder whether twelve year old around the world are growing up with a different Star Wars. A series of narratives they learn through video games like Battle Front and the insanely popular Lego Star Wars video games.
Not to mention the equally popular Lego Star Wars sets.

Image of Luke Skywalker Kenner Action figureI remember back in 2005 when my nephews first got the Lego Star Wars video game thinking why in the name of everything that is holy would these kids want to play a “fake” Star Wars game when they can play the “real” games like Battle Front, etc.? Well, I understand this is the marriage of two insanely successful brands that have subsequently fostered a veritable consumer feeding frenzy — but was the frenzy any less when the original Star wars figures arrived on the shelf? According to Wikipedia’s article on the Kenner toy company:

Kenner Products obtained the rights to produce action figures and playsets for the Star Wars trilogy from 1977-1984. After Kenner acquired the license to produce Star Wars toys when the Mego Corporation rejected it in 1976, Kenner popularized the 3.75 inch action figure that became an industry standard and continues to dominate the action figure toy market.

And my follow up question is –was there was a Lego Star Wars movie that I missed? Why would kids want Legos when they can have 3.75″ action figures? It makes no sense to me! What I failed to realize is that for many of these kids the video game is the movie.

Image of a Tusken raiderI guess my control over the notion of what the real Star Wars is doesn’t translate that well. I have my own, very historically specific memories of when I was my two nephews age, having seen Star Wars for the first time in a huge, single screen movie house (which allowed smoking!) and being utterly blown away. I also vividly remember coming home and dreaming of Sand People for months. I also remember when I was my neighbors age having seen The Empire Strikes Back for the first time and realizing just what it means to get hit in the head with a 2×4. “Did I just see Luke get his hand cut off by his ‘father’?” or “Are you telling me Han Solo is cryogenically frozen?” I had no idea what the hell was going on in my world, I waited six years for utter despair? It was my first real movie pill. I had to swallow it, but my sense of everything just wanted to throw it back up again. The force had truly been disturbed.

So, once again I have another pill to swallow: Can you actually appreciate the genius of the Star Wars saga without watching the films? Am I an essentialist if I answer resoundingly YES! –probably–but ya gotta draw the line somewhere and, damn it, if I am gonna get old and die that is the one I’m gonna fight for ’til the grave.

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11 Responses to Do you need to see the Star Wars films to actually enjoy them?

  1. Scott Leslie says:

    Was the story lesser the second time it was passed round the fire or is that how legends grow?

  2. Sue says:

    Great discussion (one that provokes flashbacks to 1977!) Then, as now, the thrill of Star Wars also seems linked to the role of child as Author, doesn’t it? Epic figures to mobilize and inhabit, with the flash of a humming light-saber…

    The Lego(TM) and Star Wars marriage attracts its audience on a parallel plane — but here I think its actually a case of industry belatedly appropriating a creative subculture all its own: Brickfilms.

    http://www.brickfilms.com/films/332

  3. Jami Bryan says:

    Really interesting post. I love love love the movies (I was one of those crazies who camped out so that I could see the re-releases of 4-6 and the releases of 1-3 on the first day). And I owned action figures as a kid (and those great lightsabers with the sounds as an adult – but that is another story).
    But I have never played a Star Wars video game or had a Legos Star Wars set. Makes me wonder if “kids today”, the ones who haven’t seen the movies but love these games and sets, would think that I was the one missing out on the full Star Wars experience.

  4. jimgroom says:

    @Scott -the legend has certainly become greater than the first go around, and I think this “parable” gets at the heart of the evolution of the Star Wars saga to something much bigger than a few movies.

    @Sue – Child as author & Brick films, brilliant and does a much better job of framing the intricacies of this new development much better then my ad hoc approach. I haven’t seen the brick film so this is a huge link, thanks for this.

    @Jamie -commenting again I see- I love it! That is definitely the question. I bet my nephews and neighbor are like, “Movies, how two-dimensional can he be. I want something I can interact with and create with -I don’t want my narratives force fed.” And given how weak the narratives of episodes 1, 2, and 3 were, they may have an excellent point.

  5. Chris L says:

    Jim – if you haven’t already, run don’t walk, and read the section on transmedia storytelling and The Matrix in Jenkins’ book _Convergence Culture_ —

    I’ve noticed this effect for a long time… sometimes in a way that tricks the consumer. When my children were 3 and 4 they were all about the Lion King. They talked about it as if it were a part of their living environment, not a movie they had never seen! “All” they had been exposed to was the marketing– particularly the cross-media items, from video games to happy meals to childrens’ books to clothing decals.

    Actually, my daughter was even convinced she had seen the movie though I knew she hadn’t– I was very careful about what they could watch and she’d never even been to the theatre yet!

  6. jimgroom says:

    Chris,

    I will read that asap, thanks for the tip. It’s funny you should talk about Jenkins in this context because I took a class on Animation in Grad School with Heather Hendershot which was a cultural history of animation in TV and Film.

    One of the texts I picked up for my research paper was The Children’s Culture Reader which was edited by Henry Jenkins. It’s an awesome anthology of essays on the very issues you raise in your comment, marketing and Saturday morning cartoons during the 1980s. The questions of the child as consumer, selling toys and food to children, etc. It deals with much more than that, but I focused on these reading s because my paper for the class was on the movie South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (one of the funnest papaers I wrote in grad school).

    This book has several essays that frame the darker side of child as author (as I think your suggesting), it is child as consumer. Or, as in my case, children as an indomitable force of brand recognition that will subvert all parenting strategies and lead you to dragging your kid out of Borders kicking and screaming! (personalize experience mind you.)

  7. Jogos Online says:

    I still think that it is essential to have seen the films to fully apprecitae this stuff. Action figures and spins of games will never be fully appreciated otherwise.

    http://www.topjogosonline.com

  8. Rosie Powell says:

    How can he know so much about the series and never have seen one of the movies, not even episodes I, II, and III (even though they suck!).

    You lost me here. Good bye.

  9. Reverend says:

    Rosie,

    I do follow-up on that with acknowledging my biases, hoep I didn;t offend. But Jar-Jar Binks? That was tough to accept after the beauty that is Chewbacca.

  10. Ed Webb says:

    No, Jim, you’re right. On I and II, anyway. Having swallowed those two, I couldn’t even bring myself to see III, so I suppose it is just about possible that that one didn’t suck. And I loved and still love IV-VI, even in all their glorious cheesiness, even with the extra cheese of the remixed, added digital effects versions. Nope – I’m a Star Wars fan who loathes the more recent incarnations. That shark was seriously jumped.

  11. I have a similar experience. I really liked the original trilogy, and that’s one for the reasons I started collecting Star Wars action figures, models etc. years ago. But then I got so disappointed with episode I that also decided not to watch the other two.

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