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The Classical Storytelling of “Star Wars”

The repetition in the franchise isn't a bug—it's a feature of Western storytelling.
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This week, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” became the highest-grossing film of all time at the North American box office when it passed $760.5 million. The immense success of this new installment in the Star Wars franchise, especially after the often-maligned prequel films of the early 2000s, has spawned countless takes on the enduring appeal of the series, as well as a fair share of criticism from fans upset that the new film recycles many plot points of the original movie.

One of the most thoughtful pieces amidst the hubbub comes from David Ehrlich of Rolling Stone:

It’s a movie about the old stories becoming new again just by virtue of being retold; even the more gratuitous fan-service moments — like Han’s eye-roller of a line about the trash compactor — reaffirm that the original trilogy has become more about myths than movies. Myths are living things, and that’s what makes Star Wars different from every other movie franchise there is now or has ever been: The campfire is so large and bright that the kindling doesn’t matter so long as there’s room for everyone to gather round.

Ehrlich is right to bring mythology into his analysis, as the cyclical pattern of the Star Wars story taps into a vein that leads right to the heart of Western storytelling tradition. While some fans of the series have cried foul at the over-familiarity of “The Force Awakens,” the film’s practice of borrowing from and remixing the previous episodes of the franchise is no new phenomenon for an epic.

The two most famous epics of antiquity, Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” though known today as standalone works, were episodes in a larger compendium of mythology. While the “Iliad” ends with the death and burial of Hector in the Trojan War and the “Odyssey” focuses on the journeys of Odysseus after the war’s end, the oral tradition from these two epics were derived comprised many additional stories, such as the infamous Trojan horse incident and the Judgment of Paris that serves as prologue to the “Iliad.”

Although there are no extant written records of these other epics, referred to now as the Epic Cycle, we already know how the stories go thanks to the Greeks and Romans of the centuries after Homeric times. The stories of the epic tradition had enduring appeal for ancient authors, who returned to this pool of inspiration endlessly in the production of new works. Greek tragedy frequently borrowed from epic; Aeschylus’s “Agamemnon,” Euripides’ “Iphigenia at Aulis,” and Sophocles’ “Ajax” are all derived from characters and situations in the Epic Cycle. Romans, too, turned to the epic tradition in addition to local Italian culture. Works like Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses would preserve and expand upon the Epic Cycle, cementing repetition and innovation as cornerstones of storytelling.

“The Force Awakens” partakes of this same storytelling tradition that inspired generations of authors in antiquity. The rebirth in this new film of not only characters and locations but even plotlines and specific situations from across the various installments of the Star Wars saga hearkens back to the classical canon’s engagement with historical memory. In fact, the urge for adaptation is in the series’ DNA: even the original “Star Wars” drew heavily from Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 film “The Hidden Fortress.”

But whereas classical epic spoke specifically to the peoples of the Mediterranean, funneling the human experience into a story with geographic and historical roots, the Star Wars franchise has lifted off from historical specificity entirely. By setting its story “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” Star Wars has dispensed with a significant barrier to universality. The events that make up the Star Wars franchise aren’t deliberately tied to any one people’s history, thus rendering the films into an epic cycle that can take root in nearly any time or place.