Lucas: Powerful reteller of myth - or galactic gasbag?
April 10, 2002 10:06 AM   Subscribe

Lucas: Powerful reteller of myth - or galactic gasbag? Salon has a scathing review of Lucas' claim that the basis of the Star Wars saga is in "man's oldest stories" and that he was guided by Joseph Campbell.
"With 'Star Wars' I consciously set about to re-create myths and the classic mythological motifs," Lucas says. "I wanted to use those motifs to deal with issues that exist today."
Hogwash, says author Steven Hart. Star Wars is based not on "The Odyssey" or the "Upanishads", but on Asimov, Heinlen, Herbert and other 20th century S.F.
posted by rshah21 (32 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Star Wars is based not on "The Odyssey" or the "Upanishads", but on Asimov, Heinlen, Herbert and other 20th century S.F.

Which are based on older tales, and so on, and so on. Star wars is simply the most recent effective iteration.

Myth is funny like that :)
posted by UncleFes at 10:09 AM on April 10, 2002

I would tend to agree with Hart. Dragging in Campbell, a galactic gasbag all his own, was just window dressing.
posted by y2karl at 10:11 AM on April 10, 2002

As if Lucas is going to be so pretentious, he should at least steal from more interesting sources.
posted by mrmanley at 10:13 AM on April 10, 2002

I thought I heard somewhere that George Lucas was involved in the original script of Apocalypse Now, and when he realised that the politics of the time (early 70s) would make it impossible to make, he moved the story to 'a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away..." Darth Kurtz, anyone?
posted by fellorwaspushed at 10:14 AM on April 10, 2002

George Lucas is Fat Elvis redux.
posted by zoopraxiscope at 10:14 AM on April 10, 2002

I have no use for Joseph Campbell (or "Star Wars"). But who can deny that George Lucas has tapped into something incredibly deep and affecting? You don't spawn multi-generational subcultures with a story like "Howard the Duck".
posted by Faze at 10:18 AM on April 10, 2002

Zooprax: oh, good call.

I'm glad to see someone call foul on the bullshit Campbell/Lucas circle-jerk.

Faze: I don't know your age, but I can only speak for myself: they got me when I was five. That's the only reason I can think to care anymore.
posted by solistrato at 10:19 AM on April 10, 2002

My friends' kids (very young) became obsessed with "Star Wars" without any parental prompting. (Not knowing that they're supposed to hate Jar-Jar Binks, they ADORE him.) Why "Star Wars?" There are are plenty of other entertainment series out there they could have latched on to. Why not "Dr. Who?"
posted by Faze at 10:24 AM on April 10, 2002

because that last Doctor, rupert twatwhistle, (or something like that), was shocking.

what was his name? casper? f*ck me, he was awful.

posted by Frasermoo at 10:29 AM on April 10, 2002

Hell, I always thought he swiped the Wizard of Oz:

(gender reversed, of course)

Luke/Princess = Dorothy
Han = Straw Man
Chewie = Lion
C3PO = tin man
R2 = toto
Obi = Good Witch
Vader = Bad Witch

I've always thought that THX1138 was the better film. Really odd, very telling futurism. The car chase was pretty long, though. However I think that the very last scene is one of the best in movies... wonderful.
posted by n9 at 10:46 AM on April 10, 2002

Sylvester McCoy, Frasermoo.
posted by Summer at 10:53 AM on April 10, 2002

Star Wars has always been Space Opera. Take the plot and put it into the arabian nights, the old west, pirates on the high seas, al capone's still works. Don't ever get it confused with SF. I think author of that piece is a trekker with box-office envy. Like Star Trek is real science fiction and not just Guliver's Travels on a starship.

Asimov, Herbert, Heinlein, Dick, Bradbury, Sturgeon, Tipree, Van Vogt, Bester...countless heros. For Hart to invoke their names--and others--to condem Lucas is skewed. Could Herbert have written dune without The Arabian Nights, or Seven Pillars of Wisdom? Trantor without Metropolis? The Stars My Destination without The Count of Monte Cristo?

everything is connected, derivative, and original all at the same time. so what. they are just movies, books, comics. Rather than ripping on Lucas for incorporating the things he had experienced in SF as a kid, why not critique Movies & Fiction in general, which all draw from SF without giving it any credit.

i'd recommend Trillion Year Spree:The History Of Science Fiction by Brian Aldiss to anyone interested.
posted by th3ph17 at 10:54 AM on April 10, 2002

Wow, big deal.

What I am wondering about is how Salon ripped off Star Wars Origins without credit. Who's the galactic gasbag now?
posted by y0mbo at 11:08 AM on April 10, 2002

Besides the other sci-fi, Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress - the hugest influence - has been released as a luminous Criterion Collection DVD. Superb viewing, and they even have an interview of Lucas lying about all this right on the disc :)
posted by anser at 11:43 AM on April 10, 2002

What thephil said about Aldiss. Far more enlightening than Campbell, and far better written.

Campbell tends to wax a little rhapsodic :)

When you get through the Aldiss, try...

*anything by Tom Shippey.

*"Studies in narrative and structure, esp. of the fantastic," C. Brook-Rose, 1981.

*A rhetorical analysis of popular American film, M. Newman (ed.), 1991

*Science Fiction: history, science, vision, R. Scholes, 1977

*there's also an unpublished manuscript out there by an M. Phipps entitled "The myth and magic of Star Wars, A Jungian interpretation" that directly addresses this topic. If you have access to a graduate-studies level library, you can probably get it from somewhere.

Don't ask me how I know this stuff :)
posted by UncleFes at 11:46 AM on April 10, 2002

I guess my question is who is Hart to say that Star Wars was not based on Campbell or The Oddysey? How does he know? Unless he's George Lucas, the entire foundation of his story falls apart. (Note that this is a different than saying "If Lucas was inspired by those classics, the results sure don't show it.") I could probably write some esoteric story "inspired by" The Illiad or The Oddysey that might not bear any literary resemblance, but it would be wrong to imply that I was lying when I identified my inspirations.
posted by pardonyou? at 12:05 PM on April 10, 2002

[sidetrack] anser...The Hidden Fortress is Fantastic. One of the most pure bad-ass moments on film is Mifune jumping onto the horse, chasing down the soldiers, and heading right into their camp to challenge their Leader to a Dual. Amazing. Full speed on a hands...sword raised...perfectly calm. Love that.

[back on track]

i think any writer or film-maker can be caught in a trap of not acknowledging influence, or even projecting back and claiming influence years later. If i were to sit down and write a story--especially an SF story...there is no way i'd be able to consciously catalog every single bit of information in my head, and the story, that came from someone else.

and UncleFes, i'll guess that you, like myself and many other, know this stuff because we were socially malnourished as children and read books instead of bonding with peers. But thats just a guess®. It is my wholly original guess though, and does not draw on anything i've ever read, watched, heard or even thought before.
posted by th3ph17 at 12:08 PM on April 10, 2002

People who give only two extreme choices in their annoying subject lines: simple-minded, or super geniuses?
posted by Ben Grimm at 12:09 PM on April 10, 2002

I've been reading Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind, about the young filmmakers in the 70s recently. Apparently, Lucas was telling folks back then that 'Star Wars' was an allegory for the Nixon presidency.

Of course, this was after the film started to get popular- before that he had been saying it was just a light entertainment with no deep meaning.

Guess he just ended up with a better revision (in his mind) of it's "deeper" meaning.
posted by ice_cream_motor at 12:44 PM on April 10, 2002

"...but on Asimov, Heinlen, Herbert..." and whod they base their stuff on... If Lucas' words are even taken in context, what is the point of contention?. Lucas' work does those things he mentioned..." re-create myths and the classic mythological motifs," do they not?.
posted by clavdivs at 12:47 PM on April 10, 2002


I have to agree with pardonyou it seems wrong for Hart to disparage these remarks, much of Star-Wars does seem to be based on Campebell's theories, mixed of course with some great sci-fi undoubtedly inspired by the mentioned authors.

The other thing point to argue is that Lucas is a PRODUCER not the writer for much of his "works" Check out his writing credits His best works (e.g NOT Howard the Duck) are written by Lucas.

And was I the only one who thought Willow was one of the better Fantasy Flicks?
posted by bitdamaged at 12:56 PM on April 10, 2002

Umm... I thought we ignored Salon/Onion/Guardian links and spent the thread bitching at the person who posted it.
posted by McBain at 1:07 PM on April 10, 2002

You don't spawn multi-generational subcultures with a story like "Howard the Duck".
Not really. "Howard the Duck" is clearly influenced by Aztec myths and Babylonian folk tales about talking, anthropomorphic birds
posted by matteo at 1:32 PM on April 10, 2002

Coruscant, the world-girdling capital city of Lucas' galactic republic, is a direct steal of Trantor...

If this is plagiarism, it's Timothy Zahn's fault, not Lucas's. Coruscant was his concept originally and was just used by Lucas in the prequels, mainly to keep a continuity between the films and the expanded universe of novels, comics, etc.
posted by Hammerikaner at 1:39 PM on April 10, 2002

I'm just gonna hammer on this because I think Campbell's a quack and Lucas has no talent.

*harp harp harp*

The problem with someone who's self-consciously mythmaking is that oftentimes it ends very, very badly. Star Wars was that rare, one-in-a-million thing that somehow defined an entire generation. It worked, and it was out of the fucking ballpark. I don't think Lucas even knows why it worked, but it did.

It was only after the phenomenal success of Star Wars that Lucas somehow became enshrined as this new mythmaker. He began believing his own hype. The fact that Return of the Jedi is an utter disaster when it comes to storytelling says to me that Lucas derailed somewhere after Empire (and that Irvin Kerschner and Leigh Brackett had more of an influence than anyone will give them credit for).

What bothers me about the mythologizing of the Star Wars universe is that it's just so...blah. There's no personality to anything there. It's all just kinda there. I mean, it's kinda sad when Ben dies, but then right back into shooting TIEs. It has none of the deep, alien archetypal power that real myth has. There's no real anguish. It's great melodrama and action fare, but as a myth, it's kinda lame. It's like beige myth. If someone's going to be the new mythmaker, why some boring guy from Southern California with no real ideas? Lucas knows the notes, but he can't play the music.

Bitdamaged: Lucas' writing credits are mostly for story, which is just the broad outlines of what happens in the movie. And yes, you're horribly wrong about Willow. ;)
posted by solistrato at 2:09 PM on April 10, 2002

General points: a) Star Wars can contain mythic elements without Lucas having intended it. b) The more you copy genre cliches, the more mythic you get. Part of the idea with myth is that these are stories that have been passed down for generations, gradually changing to suit their context but retaining the core meanings that apply in any context. So the more common or cliched the trope (i.e. the trash compactor), the more likely it has some manner of "mythic" meaning (in quotes as I don't quite buy into the whole Campbell thing).

I can totally get with the writer's beef in this article. However, parts of it are oversimplified for the sake of cleverness - I thought the passage about Obi-Wan somehow failing as "wise old sage" was embarassingly literal-minded.
posted by D at 2:13 PM on April 10, 2002

Paul McGann played the last Doctor, thank you very much.

First off, concerning the story elements borrowing from older story elements plundering from ancient tomes, etcetera etcetera, this is largely moot, as Hart's article admirably takes to task the mystical figurehead status that Lucas has granted to himself (and that a sizable portion of the fanboys have swallowed up) in an effort to cash in with more Star Wars merchandise and gain legitimacy as some great cultural sage. I applaud Hart for his foci.

The second main point is that Lucas did not write the Star Wars scripts exclusively. This is part of the myth that everything came from Lucas, despite the fact that Lucas only exclusively wrote the first movie (and this with heavy story doctoring from John Milius and crew) and that it was Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan who were responsible for Empire's script (Lucas only "wrote" the story, later severely finelined by these two real writers). Kasdan also saved Lucas' ass on Return of the Jedi.

In a sense, the Lucas-only scripts of A New Hope and The Phantom Menace are the most telling of Lucas's writing abilities: cardboard characters, flat dialogue and countless other deficiencies are Lucas's bane. If Lucas was such a seer, why didn't he actually write the goddam screenplay for every story he coined? I'll tell you why. The man, much like Roddenberry, simply couldn't. Hell, why do you think he called in Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck for American Graffiti? George had some coming-of-age story and Katz and Huyck provided the dialogue that we remember the film by.

Quite a slipshod legacy for a man who ties himself to Campbell.
posted by ed at 3:29 PM on April 10, 2002

I think Lusas is a gasbag, but not because of this. I think the reason that there are storytelling problems with the whole series is that the story that he originally planned a trilogy of trilogies is a crock. I think Star Wars was a one-off B-movie, and when it became a phenomenon, he spun the trilogy-of-trilogies story as a way to guarantee sequels.

This would explain the romantic portrayal of Luke and Leia's relationship in Star Wars, Return of the Jedi's being a half-baked retread of Star Wars, and the revisionist history of The Force in Dennis the Phantom Menace.

Also, I don't agree with the Salon writer's assertion that Body Heat and The Big Chill are mediocre, and anyways, Body Heat is more of a James M. Cain/Billy Wilder knockoff (Double Indemnity) than it is a Raymond Chandler one.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:11 PM on April 10, 2002

People might be interested in taking a peek at these early scripts for the original Star Wars...
posted by Stuart_R at 6:03 PM on April 10, 2002

(Late to the party, but - ) there's a lot of Joseph Campbell dissing in here, without any real explanation as to why you might think him a hack or gasbag or whatever...

Anyone care to elaborate?
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:04 AM on April 11, 2002

I'll give you an example, stavrosthewonderchicken. In the famous PBS series about Campbell that made him a household name, he responds to some question from Bill Moyers by angrily referring to the Christian practice of baptism and the Jewish practice of circumcision. I don't recall the specifics of what he said, but Campbell actually gets furious, his wattles shake with indignation as he condemns baptism and circumcision -- I think he even uses the word "barbaric." A while later in the program, he is acquainting us with the practices of a religious sect in Thailand. One of these practices is to have a little girl place the head of a live cobra into her mouth. We actually see a film clip of this. Campbell, in a breathless voice, describes this ceremony as "beautiful!"
Now -- where does this guy get off condeming infant baptism and circumcision (not that I'm defending circumcision, mind you), and getting all fluttery and gushy about the clearly child-abusive Thai religious practice? If his neighborhood priest or minister ever shoved the head of a poisonous snake down a child's throat, I'm sure he'd be furious.
It's the old story of western intellectuals. Campbell, it seems, will be the bitch of anything that's third world or non-western, but he refuses to be awed or interested in, or even recognize the anthropological authenticity of the cultures in his back yard. Like many western intellectuals, he seems to be filled with hatred for the west (a state of affairs which, if you ask me, is some kind of Freudian hatred of the father thing). In any case, you asked...
posted by Faze at 7:20 AM on April 11, 2002

"But who can deny that George Lucas has tapped into something incredibly deep and affecting? "

Because it's popular? Popularity, has never, on it's own, equated to a deeper sense of meaning.

"I guess my question is who is Hart to say that Star Wars was not based on Campbell or The Oddysey? "

Didn't Campbell himself.... wasn’t one of his main points, that Lucas arrived at these motifs in a purely unconscious, or rather subconscious, manner? So from Campbell’s POV, Lucas never based his work on what he did. Campbell brought out his books on the topic after the first movie or two had been released anyway.

From the POV of whether or not Star Wars was based on The Odyssey, I'm not sure what you are asking for. Hart's credentials? His essay? Linked to and easily available.

"there's a lot of Joseph Campbell dissing in here, without any real explanation as to why you might think him a hack or gasbag or whatever...

Anyone care to elaborate?"

There have been previous threads on Campbell, both for and against. I tried to find them, but the search option still isn't working for me. Perhaps someone with a better internet connection could link to the threads or search results?

"I don't agree with the Salon writer's assertion that Body Heat and The Big Chill are mediocre (...)"

Good call. Nor do I.
posted by lucien at 11:28 AM on April 11, 2002

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