Stars Wars as a new genre

18.33, Sunday 30 Nov 2014

There’s a new teaser trailer for next year’s Star Wars movie, which reminds me: There was an opportunity Disney had when they acquired the Star Wars frachise from George Lucas…

A few years back I read Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey. It’s a western, and I love westerns as movies (Once Upon a Time in the West has, I reckon, the all time best set-piece of any movie, ever), but I’d never read westerns as books.

And it turns out that Purple Sage is the ur-western. It’s all there. The cowboy with the thousand yard stare; the widow in need with an inner strength; the violence; the land. It came out in 1912 and has sold over 100 million copies since. Its popularity defined the genre.

Okay so 1912. The first wagon trail along the Oregon Trail was 1836, the Gold Rush was 1849, the American Civil war was the 1860s, Billy the Kid was born in 1861 and died in 1881, the “cowboy” era of the Wild West was done by the mid 1880s.

I think once of the things that I love about westerns is that they turn the same mythology over and over again. The same characters - Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, Butch Cassidy - with the same biographies, the same geography and the same timeline - this well-known canon provides a background or structure which means that every film and every book adds depth and commentary on everything that has come before.

It amazes me that the time between the end of the era-as-fact and the beginning of the era-as-myth was maybe only 25 or 30 years… one generation.

That’s what I was hoping Disney would do with Star Wars. Return of the Jedi came out in 1983; it’s been about the same amount of time.

Imagine, imagine if Disney had said: Star Wars isn’t a franchise, it’s a genre.

The legendary galaxy, a long time ago, far far away, is well understood: What’s true is what’s in the Holocron continuity database.

Open the Holocron. Show everyone what’s in it. Let it become history.

Then let anyone make movies and books that share the Star Wars world. Not like all those other franchises that argue about what’s canon and what’s not… rise above it, become a new shared set of conventions, formulas, history and myth, just like the western but for the 21st century.

So that’s what I wished would happen, but we’re getting Episode VII instead and a bunch more movies coming soon, set in a fictional universe the cultural ownership of which will be policed and its geology mined for the untold riches of merchandise, which is how our world works in 2014 so I can’t feel disappointed, and I guess that’s okay too.

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