by Isaac Butler
This week has brought a slew of announcements about JJ Abrams upcoming Star Wars film, and with them has come the kind of shitstorm that always arises when announcements are made about beloved properties. One of them centers around the lack of women in the main cast of the film. As Parabasis readers might guess, I'm generally supportive of those complaints.
But the other set of complaints hover around a different issue, namely the annoucenment by Abrams et al that they are abandoning the "Expanded Universe" for the upcoming films. What does this mean? Basically, it means that the six existing Star Wars films and the cartoon show set during the Clone Wars are the only things that count as canon. The video games and dozens of Star Wars books do not.
This seems like a compeltely practical and understandable decision to me. Requiring that anyone writing a screenplay that takes place after the death of Darth Vader read and have a comprehensive knowledge of a mythology and continuity that spreads over dozens of books is absurd. It also assumes that there are no internal contradictions or retconning with the books which, given the scale of the various series that make up the Expanded Universe, strikes me as unlikely. The new films are also designed to reach the audience of one of the most popular film franchises of all time, and a significant percentage of that audience has no familiarity with the books.
It is a good thing for these movies that the creative teams will not have to shoulder the burden of all of that excess world building and can instead focus on telling a story they want to tell. Does this approach have mixed results? Yes, of course it does. Take Abrams own first two Star Trek movies. The first film totally abandons canon by existing in an alternate time line and is a smashing intergalactic adventure. The second is a laborious nonsensical popcorn movie that abandons everything about Star Trek that makes Trek Trek. But if anything, it's the second film that exists more in conversation with the canon of Trek than the first.
I feel weird even having to explain that the creative team is wholly within their rights to abandon canon and continuity if they feel so inclined, but a lot of people are really angry about this. Perhaps the most reasonable representative of this camp is the Washington Post's Alyssa Rosenberg, who writes:
The folks who are guiding Star Wars have decided to abandon the Expanded Universe, the novels, comics and games that carried the original story forward. Those stories will live on, but as a sort of alternate timeline rather than as material for adaptation as Disney, which now owns the franchise, plans a major build-out of the Star Wars universe. Animated series set during the events of the live-action prequel movies, and another animated show in the works, will continue to count; the events of those series will be factored into world-building and character development. But the rest of the stories so many of us have spent so many years caring about? Like Alderaan, they will live on more in memory than in reality.
I don't see what impact the films non-inclusion of the stories that Star Wars fans have "spent so many years caring about" has on their investment in and enjoyment of the books, unless the books are bad. If the books are bad, than I can see why their primary values were worldbuilding and the eventual hope that readers would see them on screen. Neither of these are aspects of books that make them good. If all that matters is worldbuilding, then you might as well read a synopsis of all the new details of the universe on wikipedia. If the book is just a three hundred page treatment for a movie, then it essentially has no literary value.
Rosenberg really likes several of the stories and characters to be found in the Expanded Universe, and makes a good case for their worthiness, but those characters and stories still exist in the novels which, last time I checked is a perfectly valid mode of storytelling. I remain befuddled by our culture's insistance that making a book into a movie (or now an HBO series) is the highest honor we can bestow upon it, the thing that finally makes all that spending of time worthwhile. Books are awesome!