What is it about Star Wars that makes it so endearing to the public consciousness? Is it really all about the lightsabre duels, the weird and wacky alien characters, or the intense melodrama behind the story that reaches almost soap opera-like proportions? Fans and critics have long speculated the secret behind the franchise’s popularity over the course of three generations, but the truth may actually lie behind the fact that it is a form of modern-day mythology that is universally relatable to this day.
We now live in an age of relentless comic book and franchise-based films. The reason behind Hollywood’s recent slew of reboots and prequels may simply boil down to pure economics, or the possibility that writers have simply run out of ideas altogether and have become lazy. Or it could be because computer technology is finally enabling filmmakers to properly recreate the atmospheric, and sometimes psychedelic, visions from writers and artists of old during the 1960s and 70s. Perhaps, after a slew of rather poor attempts to create movie versions of superheroes in the 1980s and 90s, Hollywood now has the chance to get it right. This could explain why George Lucas ended up making the Star Wars prequels look like one continuous video game – simply because the computer technology was not yet available in order to truly flesh out his original vision from 1977 to 1983.
What made the (original) films so endearing, even to this day,
is the universality of its characters, and how they incorporate into a modern-day mythology
However, special effects and big-name stars are not the main reasons behind an endearing and timeless movie franchise. What made the (original) films so endearing, even to this day, is the universality of its characters, and how they incorporate into a modern-day mythology that is often discussed with the same degree of adulation as the ancient Greeks whenever they were describing their own gods and heroes.
Creator George Lucas was supposedly the first Hollywood filmmaker to credit the influence of author Joseph Campbell – an American mythologist, writer and lecturer best known for his work in comparative mythology and religion. Following the release of “A New Hope” in 1977, Lucas claimed that its story was partly shaped by ideas described in Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” among his other works. In fact, Campbell’s concept of the monomyth (one myth) refers to the theory that sees all mythic narratives as merely variations of one single, great story.
In fact, Lucas went on to discuss this influence in Campbell’s authorized biography, “A Fire in the Mind”:
“…it came to me that there really was no modern use of mythology…The Western was possibly the last generically American fairy tale, telling us about our values. And once the Western disappeared, nothing has ever taken its place. In literature we were going off into science fiction…so that’s when I started doing more strenuous research on fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, and I started reading Joe’s books. Before that I hadn’t read any of Joe’s books…It was very eerie because in reading ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classic motifs…so I modified my next draft [of Star Wars] according to what I’d been learning about classical motifs and made it a little bit more consistent…I went on to read ‘The Masks of God’ and many other books.”
It’s not just Lucas who cites Campbell as a major influence. Many filmmakers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries have acknowledged his influence on their own movies, such as “The Matrix”, “Batman”, “The Lion King” and the “Indiana Jones” series.
Campbell also made use of the theories of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung on the structure of the human psyche, and often used terms such as “anima/animus” and “ego consciousness”.
In fact, upon closer examination of the original Star Wars trilogy, it can be argued that all the main characters are based on Jungian archetypes – i.e. highly developed elements of the collective unconscious that are often deduced by examining behavior, images, art, myths, religions, or dreams that are often universal in nature and are defined by history, culture and personal context.
Jung described archetypal figures such as the great mother, father, child, devil, god, wise old man, wise old woman, the trickster and the hero. In the context of Star Wars, we can readily identify these specific characters in accordance with their role in the overall story. “The father” is Darth Vader, “the hero” is Luke Skywalker. “The trickster”, or rogue, is Han Solo. “The child” provides comic relief, exemplified by characters such as C3PO and R2D2. “The wise old man” is Obi-Wan Kenobi (or Yoda). “The devil” is Emperor Palpatine.
Additionally, archetypal events such as birth, death, separation from parents, initiation, marriage and the union of opposites are commonplace throughout both the original trilogy and the prequels. These are common, (almost) universal events occurring throughout human history which we can all personally relate to at different stages of our lives.
In fact, the phrase “turning to the dark side” in the films can be considered an embodiment of “the Shadow” in Jungian psychology. The Shadow is a representation of the personal unconscious as a whole, and usually embodies the compensating values of an individual to those held by the conscious personality on the surface. Thus, the Shadow literally represents one’s “dark side” in Jungian psychology, those aspects of oneself that exist, but does not acknowledge or chooses not to identify with.
Whatever it is about the actual appeal behind Star Wars, one thing that’s for sure is that it’s successfully made a long-lasting impact on our collective cultural psyche that will, if all goes right under its new ownership under Disney, continue to astonish and inspire future generations to come.