Stewart Gardiner finds that his argument supporting the portrayal of Luke in The Last Jedi is brought to life in the prologue of Jason Fry’s novelisation
Star Wars has always humanised mythology. George Lucas crafted archetypes who were also living, breathing people; characters to fall in love with rather than be admired from a respectful distance. To discard this approach simply wouldn’t be Star Wars. Thankfully, the sequel trilogy, Rogue One and Star Wars Rebels have each followed successfully in Lucas’s footsteps with regard to character. However, the more successfully this has been applied to original trilogy characters, the greater the ire from certain corners of fandom. It’s as if some have forgotten what made Star Wars so relatable in the first place. After all, Luke Skywalker wasn’t relatable because he was a hero. He was plucked out of obscurity to be transformed into one. This could be you, suggested Lucas. You can be the hero of your own story. Kids across the world took him up on that.
What if Luke had already known his heritage and all that implied at the start of A New Hope? Would he have been so likeable? Probably not. Although he turns out to be from a privileged line (in terms of the Force, rather than wealth or social standing), that’s not how he is introduced. The discovery of his heritage is a burden rather than a reward and by the end of Return of the Jedi he has earned his standing as a Jedi Knight. Luke Skywalker remains sympathetic and deserving over the course of the original trilogy. Star Wars is heavily mythological, but Luke’s journey is also the cinematic equivalent of a Bildungsroman.
Luke’s story is a coming of age story with spiritual, mythological elements. This is key, because mythology alone mostly offers up a binary view of good and evil, of heroes and villains. Traditional myths and folk tales present two dimensional characters, whose lessons learned act as instruction to readers. Greek and Roman gods display human characteristics, but not in realistic ways; they represent certain traits rather than reflect the human condition is all its mutability. Fairy tales present something wrong with the world that requires fixing. Once resolved, a happily ever after status quo is put in place. All that means is that the message has been delivered and the story is over. A moral lesson can be reasonably frozen in time, but a person cannot.
Lucas worked hard in making Star Wars a lived-in universe, populated by memorable characters who weren’t mere lessons walking around in people clothing. The end of Return of the Jedi is not that of a fairy tale. It always felt as if the world of Star Wars lived on beyond that final scene and wasn’t reduced to a happily ever after. Although obviously set before the events of the original trilogy, the prequels strengthen this idea by highlighting the cyclical nature of conflict in the Star Wars galaxy. If that wasn’t enough, Lucas undermines Luke’s hero’s journey by showing the failure, hypocrisy and hubris of the Jedi Order.
Brimming With Life
Unchecked nostalgia does not invite change and trapping characters in amber renders them inert and unbelievable. Rian Johnson understands this and therefore avoids such pitfalls. Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi is brimming with life. He’s lived a life since Return of the Jedi, that much is immediately apparent. Luke may not be in a good place now, but that’s not to say he never was. Life tends to be like that.
Something similar has happened before in Star Wars, but under different circumstances. Obi-Wan tells Luke in A New Hope that he and his father were great friends, that Anakin was a good man. Upon initially watching the prequel trilogy, one can be forgiven for thinking this another of Obi-Wan’s fabricated truths. Admittedly this used to be a sticking point for me, until The Clone Wars, where Anakin is thrillingly charismatic and indeed he and Obi-Wan have a strong friendship, albeit not without its issues. The Clone Wars makes clear that in the films we meet Anakin at points of crises, where he is often unlikeable and at odds with Obi-Wan. Why should the sequel trilogy discard all of that?
It would have been disappointing and indeed incredibly boring to meet Luke after all these years and find he is an untouchable hero. That would have been a slap in the face to Lucas’s legacy.
A Mirror to His Younger Self
In my review of Pablo Hidalgo’s The Last Jedi: The Visual Dictionary, I asserted that “if one were to suggest that Luke always remained the same then he would never have left Tatooine in the first place. If he wanted to go to the academy so badly then why didn’t he just go? Perhaps it was easier to just stay at home.”
This was in reaction to those fans who claim Luke isn’t Luke in The Last Jedi because, they argue, people don’t change. But of course they do. Hidalgo astutely holds up a mirror to connect older Luke to his younger self:
“In many ways, the toil of his existence on the island mirrors his youth spent on Tatooine. The chores he spent great energy avoiding in his teen years now mark the clock on his long, tiring island days.”
Interestingly, Jason Fry echoes this idea in the novelisation:
“He’d spent his youth resenting chores on Tatooine; now they gave structure to his days on Ahch-To.”
The characterisation of Luke in The Last Jedi was obviously very carefully thought out and executed, which is apparent in the film itself and its ancillary media. That these two supporting works should reflect each other is to be expected due to how the Story Group operates. Seeing my argument about an unchanged Luke never leaving Tatooine brought to life in the prologue to the novelisation was, on the other hand, quite exciting. I believed in what I had said of course, but to have it confirmed within a Star Wars story is a rare gift.
The Road Not Taken
Jason Fry’s opening line is a doozy: “Luke Skywalker stood in the cooling sands of Tatooine, his wife by his side.” Wait, what?
A novel has the advantage over a film where something like this is concerned, since without visuals one doesn’t know when it is taking place. Without seeing Mark Hamill, Luke’s age cannot be guessed at. Which is presumably one reason why this sequence didn’t end up in the film. My initial thoughts placed the timeline at some undetermined point between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, indicating that Luke had indeed lived a life since we last encountered him. It’s a thrilling notion that he has loved (Camie from his Tatooine days no less) and presumably lost (when we meet him alone). But all is not as it seems.
Instead of filling in biographical gaps, the prologue plays with ideas presented in Robert Frost’s oft quoted poem “The Road Not Taken.” This is not the life that Luke has lived, but that which he could have lived. “The Force was at work here,” Luke realises afterwards, “it had cloaked itself in a dream, to slip through the defences he’d thrown up against it.” It also draws comparisons with Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, where Jimmy Stewart’s character is shown what the world would be like if he hadn’t survived childhood. Instead of a guardian angel, Luke has the Force. But it nevertheless paints a devastating picture for him:
“Whatever it was, it had failed. Alderaan was a debris field now, along with Mon Cala and Chandrila – all destroyed by the battle station that had burned out the infections of Separatism and rebellion, leaving the galaxy at peace.”
Like Something Went Wrong
Camie and Luke married, and became partners with Beru and Owen before taking over the farm. “There’d never been children – a pain that had dulled to an ache they no longer admitted feeling.” Camie keeps telling him to “let the past go” – a sentiment echoed by Kylo Ren to Rey – but Luke cannot take her advice. He’s haunted by another life that he should have led instead of this one.
“Like something went wrong,” Camie tells him. “Like you got cheated, and this is all a big mistake. Like you should have followed Tank and Biggs, and gone to the academy like you wanted to. Like you were meant to be far away from here.”
Even though Luke is part of a lineage, events still needed to coalesce in just such a way to make sure he left Tatooine and found his destiny. The Luke Skywalker that we meet in A New Hope could quite have easily stayed at home. Even when I watched as a kid, I think I must have intuited that. Which makes it all the more powerful when he does accept the mission. Granted, it takes his aunt and uncle being murdered by stormtroopers to incite him to action – understandably so – but this only makes him more human. That moment changes him, but it’s not as if a switch has been flicked and he’s suddenly a different person (a hero). He’s reacting to a trauma – in this case the death of his surrogate parents – so why shouldn’t a trauma later in life affect him too? To posit that it wouldn’t cheapens Luke as a character.
No Story Without Change
Later in the novel, Luke is overwhelmed when he steps onto the Falcon for the first time in an age. He recalls how it had “taken him away from Tatooine decades ago – a shell-shocked farm boy hurled into the middle of a galactic civil war he’d wrongly assumed would never touch him, his step-parents, or his friends.” Wrong assumptions do not vanish with adulthood. “He wondered what that Luke Skywalker would think of what he’d become” – because he is not blind to the state that he is in. Which is not the same as being able to avoid it in the first place.
Anyone who wants an unchanged Luke will find all of the resulting Star Wars story in the prologue of The Last Jedi novelisation. If, on the other hand, they’re quite attached to the narrative of the original trilogy, then perhaps they should accept that, like people, characters in Star Wars change and happy endings don’t remain so forever.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi: Expanded Edition by Jason Fry is published by Century in the UK and is available now. © & TM 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. Used under authorisation.