The Force Awakens

In 1977, Star Wars – A New Hopelaunched a whole generation on a journey with a farm boy from a desert planet, to the discovery  of a mysterious destiny and a mysterious power, to meet a whole litany of curious friends and foes and to reveal a unique courage and mission to save the galaxy. 

Lucas was a self-confessed Joseph Campbell fan and his use of the Hero Journey to frame the Skywalker journey is marked. As such, it resonated with epics and classic tales told for generations.

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The next episode, The Empire Strikes Back took the same cast of characters into a deeper journey of love, loyalty and self discovery. Continuing with the Skywalker journey, the film dove into one of the most timeless horror motifs of fairy tale and myth – that of the murderous parent.

Grimm’s Tales abound with step-parents who would murder their child, lock them in towers, poison them or abandon them to witches and wolves. The most primal love story of parent-child is turned on its head as child struggles to find not only life but the meaning of love.

Return of the Jedi simply closed the chapter with Skywalker as he emerged from a crysalis of youth into maturity of a Jedi, facing not only his foes but his most dread fear. He overcame hate with compassion, dissolved darkness with light and again restored peace to the galaxy. It’s another Hero Journey extraordinaire.

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The most recent iteration, Episode VII, The Force Awakens, [2015], was a much feted reboot of the originals by wunderkind J.J. Abrams. The film, starring many of the original cast members, was however, a rather disappointingly repetitious revisit of the same mythical narrative tropes.

Nothing truly took the story forward.

It feels as if we are reliving “A New Hope“. We are introduced all over again to a disenfranchised orphan [this time a girl], and we follow her journey as she discovers a mysterious destiny and a mysterious power, encounters a whole litany of curious friends and foes and and discovers a unique courage and opportunity to face and thwart evil.

Not only did it repeat many elements of Episode IV, but the characters are only briefly developed and even the protagonist Rey is one-dimensionally perfect. She can fight, she can fly, she can wield the force without training, she is beautiful and good. One feels we are truly in a Disney movie with a modern day princess as our heroine. There is no petulant selfishness of Luke Skywalker nor his journey of growth.

Rey has no journey – she’s already amazing.

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The most interesting character is the son of Leia Organa and Han Solo – now the prince of the First Order. Professing allegiance to his grandfather, Darth Vader, Ben Solo seeks to grow his power and suppress his confused feelings of love or compassion. The ultimate test for this young Jedi is to sacrifice what is most dear to him, to prove power and vengeance are most justified.

This point of tension, reverses the narrative motif of The Empire Strikes Back. No longer murderous parent – we see the inverse – murderous son.

His journey is an ultimately human one, feeling betrayal he seeks to free himself to greatness by removing the father who disappointed him. The nuance of the Dark side of the force here is sharpened.

No longer do we see the dark side to be pure hate, fear, vengeance or lust for power, as established by the Anakin / Darth Vader story. No,  now it portrayed as a necessary and justified path to self fulfilment. 

Very Nietzschean.

Interestingly the German philosopher Frierich Neitzsche’s ‘will to power’ was the bedrock and foundation of much of Hitler’s Nazi philosophy.

It will be interesting to see where the Ben Solo journey takes us in coming instalments and how the epic and mythic narrative types are deepened and extended.

 

 

 

 

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A Wrinkle In Time

Madeline L’Engle’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time” [1963] combines physics and metaphysics into an engaging science fiction fantasy novel for young adults.

13 year old Meg Murry is a bit out of sorts with her life, misunderstood by teachers and classmates and not as gifted as her athletic twin brothers Sandy and Dennys. Her father, a brilliant physicist, has disappeared a year earlier without a trace, leaving her beautiful and clever scientist mother and happy family with unresolved grief and questions.

Meg’s five year old brother Charles Wallace, a child prodigy, is her only kindred spirit and companion amid all the confusion of her teen existence.

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One dark and stormy night, Meg, Charles Wallace and their mother, are visited by their curious neighbour Mrs Whatsit. The eccentric old tramp mysteriously mentions,

there is such a thing as a tesseract…

…nearly making Mrs Murry faint. She reveals that it was their father’s life mission to discover the tesseract and he was close to making a breakthrough when he mysteriously disappeared. The revelation launches Meg and Charles Wallace on an adventure to find their father.

With the help of Meg’s high school friend Calvin, they track Mrs Whatsit to her ramshackle house in the woods where they discover her two equally mysterious and eccentric friends, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. These women transport the three children through a tesseract, a fifth dimension fold in the fabric of space-time, to the planet Camazotz where Meg’s father is held captive by “The Black Thing”.

Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace discover the universe is threatened by “IT”, an evil presence which already partially has a grip on planet earth. “The Black Thing” or “IT” controls minds and enslaves all living beings, removing all freedom, joy, creativity and love.

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Charles Wallace seeks to counter “IT” with his intellect but succumbs to its mind-controlling powers. It is only Meg who discovers that she is in possession of the one thing “IT” does not have – love.

The novel is a classic in teen and young adult fiction, placing the cosmic battle of good and evil into the hands of children. Meg realises that parents cannot always solve things, and sometimes kids can solve problems themselves.

Originally despondent she did not have the genius intellect of Charles Wallace or the athletic good nature of her brothers, Meg realises she is in possession of the most powerful force in the universe to counteract evil – love.

 

The Sorrows of Young Werther

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was only 24 years of age when he wrote and published the autobiographical and highly emotive work, The Sorrows of Young Werther [1774]. He wrote the work in just 6 weeks and its instant success made him an international celebrity.

The novel recounts the love of sentimental young Werther who dresses in a characteristic  blue coat with a yellow vest. He loves nature and is enchanted by the peasants of a rural township in Germany where he falls in love with Charlotte [Lotte]. She is a beautiful young woman who must look after her younger siblings after her parents death.

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Werther’s love is thwarted however, for Lotte is betrothed to a much older man Albert. The Sorrows of Young Werther are recounted in a series of letters to his friend Wilhelm and the melancholy depths the young man reaches, affected Goethe’s readership profoundly.

So significant was the novel that it stimulated a flood of Werther merchandise including a perfume called “Eau-de-Werther”, a craze for yellow waist-coats, and at least one copy-cat suicide.

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Characteristic of the Sturm und Drang movement of the late 1700s, it gained popularity for being a direct reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Roughly translated as “Storm and Stress” the movement was characterised by emotional turbulence, individuality and sentimentality.

Goethe had experienced terrible pain in love with a young woman Charlotte Buff two years earlier, who was engaged to a friend Albert Kestner. The writing of this novel was therapeutic because he admitted years later that he,

shot his hero to save himself..

…a reference to his own near-suicidal obsession over Charlotte. Moreover, an acquaintance of Goethe’s named Jerusalem who was similarly infatuated with a married woman, shot himself.

Goethe combined Jerusalum’s sufferings to his own experiences, and wrote the novel, Werther.

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Goethe treated the writing of the short novel as a cathartic exercise, hoping to exorcise some of his intense feeling.

Rather than releasing him, however Goethe’s novel was to have an significant impact disproportionate to its size. It not only helped to create Romanticism, but also articulated adolescent turmoil in a manner which has continued in popular format, to this day.

There would be no Catcher in the Rye and no Rebel Without a Cause without Werther.

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Napoleon Bonaparte considered it one of the great works of European literature and carried Werther with him on his campaigning to Egypt. The work influenced the later Romantic period particularly Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s monster finds the book in a leather portmanteau, along with two greats — Plutarch and Milton. Shelley equated Werther’s case to the monster, of one rejected by those he loved.

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Goethe described the powerful impact the success of the book had on him, writing that even if Werther had been a brother of his whom he had killed, he could not have been more haunted by his vengeful ghost.

Yet he also acknowledged the great personal and emotional impact that The Sorrows of Young Werther exerted on forlorn young lovers who discovered it. As he commented to his secretary in 1821,

It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him.

What was he hoped, closure for him, opened a wound in Europe’s collective consciousness and effectively haunted him the rest of his days.

 

 

 

The Wild Duck

It is not often that plays made into films, particularly remakes of classics written in another language and era, translate well. However, sometimes it is done well and a particularly good case in point is the 2016 Australian film, The Daughter, based on Henrik Ibsen’s classic, The Wild Duck [1884].

Adapted for screen and directed by Australian film and theatre director Simon Stone, the film features an ensemble cast including Geoffrey Rush, Miranda Otto and Sam Neil.

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The original play, The Wild Duck, is a Norwegian classic, set in the 1880s. It is considered to be Ibsen’s greatest work and recounts what he discerned to be the fatal effects of the “life lie” and the destructive nature of idealism in a quest to dislodge fantasy.

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It centers around the rather singular character Gregers Werle who returns to his home town after a self imposed exile to visit his father Hakon Werle, a wealthy merchant and industrialist. He encounters his old school friend Hjalmar Ekdal, who married a servant girl of his father and is working under Hakon’s patronage. Gregers  is bitter with his father over the suicide of his mother 16 years earlier from an affair with the servant girl Gina and discerns that she was married to Hjalmar as a cover for her pregnancy.

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Feeling his old school friend is living a lie, particularly in relation to his 16 year old daughter Hedvig, who is in fact not Hjalmar’s child but rather Gregers own half-sister and Hakon’s daughter. The idealist Gregers cannot help but reveal the truth. However, in doing so, he upsets the fragile equilibrium of everyone’s life. His idealism drives him to speak frankly and bring all to light. However, in exposing the skeletons in the closet he rips up the foundation of the Ekdal family and their whole dreamworld collapses.

Deprive the average human being of his life-lie, and you rob him of his happiness.

Re-written into rural Australia, the film opens with wealthy landowner Henry shooting down a wild duck. As the story unfolds we see the return of unhappy Christian after 16 years in the USA, to his home town for the wedding of his father Henry. Tension between father and son expose the unresolved pain from the suicide death of Christian’s mother 16 years prior. Christian encounters his childhood friend Oliver and observes his seeming idyllic rural life with wife Charlotte and daughter Hedvig. Oliver works at Henry’s sawmill and looks after his father Walter, a slightly doddery old man who rehabilitates injured animals. It is Walter who takes the injured bird from Henry to convalesce it with the help of 16 year old Hedvig. It is Christian, alcoholic and facing the demise of his own marriage, who cannot help but reveal the painful truths to not only Oliver but also eventually Hedvig, leading to the unraveling of their family.

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The Wild Duck is littered with symbolism centered chiefly around the wild duck. Gregers  imagines Hjalmar as the wild duck in his entrapment in the “poisonous marshes” of his household – shot down by wicked Hakon. The old Ekdal lives in a fantasy world, rehabilitating animals when he himself had been fatally wounded by Hakon and willingly conceals the truth about Hedvig from his own son. Moreover, Hedvig figures as the wild duck in that she loses her family and place of origin and is caught up in the mendacity of three generations of deceit. Most significantly, it is Greger’s “truth telling ” which catalyses the fatal blow for Hedvig and the duck, bursting the fragile fantasy world of their imagined protection.

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The story in modern form is still as powerful as the 19th century stage-play and a credit to the film makers and actors for translating it so effectively to film.