It’s been long enough since the release of The Force Awakens that I feel it’s fair to write a post with a big fat spoiler about the movie and post it somewhere where viewers wouldn’t necessarily be on their guard. Still, if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to be spoiled, then sweet holy Moses, leave right now. (Which, by the way, is also my recommendation for the movie.)
Yep. I hated The Force Awakens. I hated it so much that I’d rather watch the prequels. The prequels were so laughably, outrageously bad that I can watch them without them affecting my love of the Star Wars universe. The Force Awakens was just well-made enough that my brain takes it seriously, which makes the utter betrayal of the violence, culminating in Han Solo’s murder, extraordinarily difficult to write out of my brain.
Star Wars (by which I mean the original trilogy) was grounded in love – friendly, fraternal, parental, and romantic. The plots of each film, and the fate of the galaxy, depends not on who has the most Force power and the best aim, but on who has the closest friends and the strongest relationships.The real cheering, fist-pump moment of Star Wars is not the destruction of the Death Star, but the swooping arrival of Han Solo and his conscience in the Millennium Falcon. The first threat in The Empire Strikes Back isn’t the Empire, but cold weather, and once again, there’s Han, taking on an impossible rescue of his closest human friend. Luke pays Han back when he abandons his training on Dagobah, a moment in which we see him choose serving humanity as he is over earning greater Force ability through hermitical monasticism (a message entirely fumbled in The Force Awakens). Lando, pulled into the rebellion by friendship. Luke and Leia, putting the fate of the galaxy on hold to get Han out of Jabba’s palace. Vader, realizing at the very end that he values his son over his master, his power, and his own life. And of course, Han and Leia, whose story I will get into in more depth later.
Love among the new cast in The Force Awakens is lucky. It’s merely superficial, so rushed it might end up in hyperspace. This is much more pleasant than what the writers do to love of longer, deeper standing, and relationships viewers have invested in for decades. This love is tortured. Relationships are estranged, shipped off to live in isolation, and of course, stabbed in the goddamn chest.
Because If you haven’t seen it, the spoiler of the move is this: Han and Leia split up because their son goes over to the Dark Side and murders all of the other Jedi training with Luke. Then murders Han, stabbing him in cold blood. Yes. Then throws him off off a bridge. Which is over a reactor, which is blown up. Then the planet that the reactor is on is blown up. You know, just in case we had any hope whatsoever.
Can you tell I’m pissed?
Han and Leia’s romantic relationship was my first adult love story, and in many ways, it set the tone for what I expect and value. I want equals: Han can be part of the team that rescues Leia, but later, she’s going to be on the team that rescues him. I want snappy dialogue and sexy conversations. I want a couple that complements each other. Leia gives closet idealist Han a cause and the courage to stand for something greater than survival and a fast buck; Han gives the politician-rebel-princess a personal and emotional life. I want a relationship that isn’t confined by gender conventions. Strong, ideological Leia withstands torture by Darth Vader and delays evacuating a collapsing base so she can coordinate a rearguard action. She kills Jabba the Hutt with her bare hands and her own slave chain. Han, by contrast, is all heart. When Han is being lowered into carbon freeze and Leia blurts out, “I love you,” his iconic “I know” response is perhaps the most perfect, romantic understatement in film history.
The Force Awakens took that love, and stabbed it in the chest. And threw it off the bridge, and into the reactor, and so forth.
Kylo Ren, the son of Han and Leia, ruins this movie with his violent murder of a character I’ve loved for so many years that I almost see him as a friend. But even worse, the existence of such a son perverts Han and Leia’s love story in the previous films. I don’t require parenthood as part of my happily-ever-after, but if an author does take me into the future and give the characters children, I sure as hell don’t want them to be murderous psychos. If we accept The Force Awakens as the definitive canon timeline, then cheering Han and Leia back in the originals becomes a bit like pulling for Mr. and Mrs. Manson. Perhaps they had a delightful courtship, but you can’t help thinking that everybody would have been better off if those two hadn’t gotten together.
Turning Han Solo and Princess Leia into disastrously failed parents also guts our faith in their relationship. Darth Vader, with no father at all, could be redeemed from the Dark Side to save his son, but Kylo Ren, with two loving parents, could stab his father in cold blood? Shall we blame Leia, trotting out the old standbys of refrigerator mothers and career women? Do Kylo Ren’s hangups about weakness come from seeing his dad be Mr. Leia Organa, a loser without the Force who probably doesn’t make as much money as his political powerhouse wife? Shall we say that a couple which subverted gender expectations can’t successfully raise a child?
There are tragic, tragic interviews with parents of ISIS fighters, school shooters, and the like, which highlight the terrifying parenting possibility that you can’t truly control if your child grows up to be good human being. Perhaps The Force Awakens intended this narrative, rather than one of parent blaming (although, given the emphasis on Han in Kylo Ren’s rants, it seems unlikely). Imagine that it does. This is a gut-wrenching conflict. Give it more time and dialogue. If Han and Leia are going to be estranged by it, that’s something we viewers care about. The first trilogy took personal and emotional storylines seriously, as when the entire first third of Return of the Jedi was spent bringing Han and Leia back together. What a waste to take a relationship we’ve followed and cared about for decades, destroy it off-camera, and give it a minute of public reunion – less time than was spent chasing tentacle monsters around Han’s smuggling ship.
If you do decide that this is the right conflict for a Star Wars movie, then give it a happy ending. Have the courage to defy the obvious route to critical praise and the cheap and easy plot device, and be true to the trait that made you a beloved story for forty years. Because Star Wars means happy endings. It built its reputation and won its fans by being a universe that is safe for the people it encourages you to love. If you haven’t watched the original trilogy in a while, the gentleness will amaze you. These are the films to show children outgrowing kid’s movies who are still too young for the sex and violence of Bond-type adult action films. Alderaan is destroyed facelessly, from a distance (not with the gasping, horrified screams of doomed crowds in The Force Awakens). Leia is tortured so gently that her hair and dress are immaculate afterwards and she feels good enough to wisecrack about Luke’s height and lead an escape down a garbage chute. Obi-wan, Yoda, and Anakin die willingly and with meaning, and they don’t even have to miss the big party.
After watching The Force Awakens, I tried to convert my brain back to the alternate timeline of Star Wars novels. I couldn’t read them without picturing the movies and hurting all over again. I haven’t had the nerve to try watching the original trilogy, and I hope against hope that it hasn’t been stolen from me as well.
But for those of you fortunate enough not to have seen The Force Awakens, here are the novels which give Han and Leia a future to believe in. This alternate timeline seems now to be marketed as Star Wars Legends, so look for that tagging to see books which don’t follow The Force Awakens.
Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy (first book Heir to the Empire): the first major novel release after the original films, and still considered the best of the extended universe books. It’s the one we all really wanted to see made into a film, but that didn’t mesh with the actor’s new ages. A brilliant strategist named Grand Admiral Thrawn takes over the remnants of the retreating Empire and launches an attack on the New Republic, while Han, Leia, and Luke struggle to counter his moves with diplomatic, military, and Force strategies. Han and Leia welcome their twins, neither of which, thankfully, is named after anybody dead. Luke meets Mara Jade, who served the Emperor and despises him. Clearly she becomes his alternate timeline love interest, and is one of the few new characters introduced by any author to be so compelling that they turn up in books by other authors (although not everyone does her justice). The trilogy as a whole is a definite A read.
The Courtship of Princess Leia, by Dave Wolverton. Set before the Thrawn trilogy, Courtship is really… not that great. It reads a lot like someone who doesn’t quite understand romance novels trying to write one using stereotypes (“How about a rival prince? Hostility? Kidnapping!”). Leia is being pushed to marry the heir to a significant network of planets as a political alliance, so Han kidnaps her and takes her to a planet he won in a card game that turns out to be ruled by Force-wielding Amazons (because the Godwin’s Law of men writing science fiction is that eventually you will come to a planet of Amazons, and they will all want to have sex with you). There is some fun to be had, as Wolverton manages to capture the charming-yet-disaster-prone side of Han’s personality, and some of the Amazons come back as better characters in books by other authors.
Tatooine Ghost by Troy Denning: I have never read this book, and I’m so excited to learn that it exists! It has the best reputation of all Han and Leia stories around the Internet. Apparently the two of them are on their honeymoon trying to buy an artwork that contains an important code in it, which takes them to Tatooine and forces Leia to confront the history of the Skywalker family there. Apparently Denning did some cleanup of plot hole logic from other books, including courtship and the prequels (why did they try to hide Luke on his father’s home planet under the same last name?). I’m definitely ordering this one right now.
What about you guys? Do you love Han and Leia like I do? Did you hate The Force Awakens like I did? Why or why not?