The Force Snores in Its Sleep: Questions on Lewis and Campbell

Readers in private emails asked me two questions about my review of THE FORCE AWAKENS whose answers I suspect some readers here might be interested in reading, to help spark additional debate.

First Question:

One reader asked why I did not use the method first described in C.S. Lewis’ seminal work, AN EXPERIMENT IN CRITICISM, to govern my analysis, but instead failed properly to explore ideas with which I disagreed presented by the film?

To the contrary, the method of Mr. Lewis is precisely what I did use. For those of you unfortunate enough not to have read this fascinating work of nonfiction, Lewis proposes, in brief, that books should be judged based on their intended use by the reader. Some read books as smokers use safety matches, to be used once as an entertaining pastime, then discarded. The book entered into the reader and is digested, so to speak, like candy. Others read books as a man enters a new nation he means to made his own, and he adopts its language, customs and manners and goes native.  The man enters the book and is changed. This second type of reading invites endless rereading.

In my defense, I thought my column made my point with pellucid clarity, repeated several times. The reason why THE FORCE AWAKENS was such a good movie that I liked so much is that it was the most entertaining pastime I have enjoyed in the theater since my childhood venture to see EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. That is, this film is satisfactory and moreso when taken as the first kind of film, mere entertainment meant to be seen and forgotten.

The reason why  THE FORCE AWAKENS was such a bad movie provoking some comical paroxysm of nerd-rage and geek-wrath was that it was not sufficiently deep or well crafted to allow me to enter into the film as if into a new world.

This has nothing to do with my age: I was able to enter into INSIDE OUT, the latest Pixar film, with no ossification of my youthful sense of wonder. But neither Riley nor Riley’s Joy was a boringly all-proficient character. They failed, they learned, they grew. The human interaction between Riley and her parents, and, inside her head, between her various emotions, imaginary friends, memories, and dreams were perfectly portrayed as real and engaging and likable.

In order to be a real enough a make believe world to be entered into, the story cannot be a mere retread or retelling of the surface features of a prior story without any new material or a new heart. The hideous and unmentionable Vox Day had what I thought a perfect example which he presented as a thought experiment on his evil blog of evil.

The absurdity of what Abrams has produced, from a story perspective, can perhaps be best understood if one applied his storytelling technique to a hypothetical remake of Lord of the Rings.

Imagine the Shire. Imagine a party, not a birthday party, but a 50th wedding anniversary for Sam and Rosie Gamgee. In the midst of the party, they disappear, and leave behind them a mysterious piece of jewelry for their daughter, Frodette Gamgee. Then, one day, a grey-bearded, dark-skinned stranger appears; it is Gandhi the black dwarf, warning Frodette that it is a shard of Morgoth Bauglir’s iron crown, in which the fallen Ainur had imbued with his immortal essence. The shard had escaped notice in the War for the Ring, but now that Sauron and the One Ring are gone, it is the key to ruling Middle Earth.

A new power, an evil power, an invisible power has risen in the East, and the King of Gondor, Aragorn’s son Sarugorn, has been acting strangely of late. Frodette must bring the iron shard to Aglarond, where the King of the Glittering Caves will know what do… but beware, the Knight Riders of the Invisible Empire are hunting for it!

I, for one, would pay good money to see KITT the talking car, with David Hasselhoff at the wheel, gunning for Frodette Gamgee! In fact, I would like to see her behind the wheel of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang trying to run the racecourse through the evil Pass of Caradhras, with the Batmobile, the Black Beauty, and the Mach Five in hot pursuit!

In sum, FORCE AWAKENS was at least as good as RETURN OF THE JEDI, and for the same reason, that the viewers got to see their beloved childhood favorite characters again.

Outside those characters, it was as forgettable as an episode of BUCK ROGERS, and I mean the shows starring Gil Gerard, not the ones starring Buster Crabbe. I would put in a step below JUPITER ASCENDING, which I am more likely to watch again just to see a guy skate through mid air.

On the level of a reader who reads a book like a smoker uses a match, it is not just good, but great. Great cotton candy.

On that level, I loved the film, and I am not being sarcastic or ironic. Go see it.

But in order to be a world large enough for the viewer to enter into it, and be worthy of multiple viewings and permanent enshrining in the viewer’s lifelong imagination, the plot would have to be something that grew organically out of the events at the end of RETURN, and struck a deeper level with more profound implications, as EMPIRE STRIKES BACK did with STAR WARS, or the second TERMINATOR movie did with the first, or ALIENS with ALIEN. A world where the bad guys have only one tactic, build a death star, and the good guys have only one character on their side, Rey who does everything better than anyone but forms no emotional attachment to anyone, is a world that is too shallow and stunted to absorb the viewer.

On the level of a reader who loves the Galaxy Far, Far Away and has for years, and wants to step inside the diorama, the story is not big enough to serve. On this level, it is not just bad, but abominable, an insult to the memory of Obi Wan, whose unquiet blue ghost still haunts the energy fields binding the galaxy together.

On that level, I hated the film, and thought it was about as good as the live action GREEN LANTERN flick through which I once suffered. Hated it. Don’t go see it.

So I give it five stars and zero stars at once.

Without reference to the C.S. Lewis experiment in criticism, which asked not what the author is trying to do but what the reader is trying to achieve, I would have to pick one of my answers over the other. Both answers are correct.

Second Question:

One reader asks why I did not mention Joseph Campbell (and his Hero with a thousand faces) as the reason why Lucas turned to traditional plots, despite that this was Lucas’s own explanation canonized by Campbell’s TV interviews on The Power of Myth.

I made no mention of Lucas’ claim to be following the Hero’s Journey of Campbell because I am very, very skeptical of this after-the-fact explanation. I frankly don’t believe it.

Lucas was remaking a pulp film like Buck Rogers, and after STAR WARS became phenomenally famous, he groped for some means to give it a patina of intellectual respectability with snobs.

Unwilling to admit the humble power of nostalgia for 1940s cliffhangers which was behind STAR WARS, Lucas likened the bombastically simplistic plot and use of stereotypes with myths.

Myths do, after all, have an elegance of form superficially similar to simplicity, and archetypal characters superficially similar to stereotypes. A superficial person might mistake the two.

Compare the STAR WARS trilogy to the Lord of the Rings to see the contrast.

Is Luke Skywalker’s grown from farm boy to Jedi Knight as complex, mythic, or profound as Frodo Baggin’s growth from country squire to suffering servant to savior of the world, exiled, at the end, to the elfin lands? 

Even to write the question causes me a sardonic smile. C3P0 is no Sam Gamgee, and never becomes a mayor, and Leia suffering captivity in her metal bikini is not akin to Aragorn’s passage through the Paths of the Dead. There is no comparison between Flash Gordon and a real myth with real mythic depth and power. 

I have read Campbell, and rarely seen such a load of hooey. He forms his general theory of a unity of mythic themes, his ‘monomyth’, by the simple expedient of ignoring all contrary examples.

(The last author I read that was so blatantly peddling hooey, whom I likewise dismiss as a lightweight for the same reason, because he uses the same expedient of merely ignoring counterevidence, was Jared Diamond. For some reason, he enjoyed similar popularity among the intelligentsia.)

Campbell is exactly the type of lightweight unscientific intellectual
fashion a poseur like Lucas would grasp in order to impress the snobs.

I saw a similar reaction in the film community when the snobs were impressed by the wire-fu antics in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, and they scrambled to invent some reason to explain away the embarrassing admission that they liked wire-fu antics which we allegedly low class folks have been enjoying in Hong Kong action flicks for decades.