Despite the darkness of finals gathering above the Mordor of my desk, quite a few of my students went to the midnight premiere of The Hobbit last Thursday. None of them seemed too concerned with Peter Jackson’s much-criticized decision to expand the shortish novel into three long films: overall, the Tolkien universe is too seductive to gripe about an excess of sloppy foreplay. When what you want is dwarves and hobbits and Gandalf and Gollum, three films will do nicely.
I can sympathize with their attitude. If I had been given the opportunity to attend a midnight opening of The Return of the Jedi or Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, I would have taken it. In the same way that my students have grown up with the Bagginses and Harry Potter, my generation (I use the word loosely, as I’ve never been exactly sure which generation it is I’m supposed to belong to) had Star Wars and Indiana Jones.
These were the fantasy epics that I wore out VCRs watching and rewatching until I knew every quip and every stunt by heart. As films, the Indiana Jones movies – including the shaky fourth one – are far superior to the overwrought, cliché-addled Star Wars movies (raise your hand if you are offended), but as a child I didn’t notice the difference. Years after the appeal of cartoons like He-Man and Voltron faded, Star Wars and Indy enthralled me.
Both franchises, of course, share Harrison Ford and John Williams and a few other people, but besides the overlap in personnel, there’s one striking thing they have in common: in each of them the heroes’ survival depends on the acceptance of magic.
Here’s the scene in the original Star Wars film in which Luke, under Obi-Wan’s supervision, is practicing against a robot:
Han Solo, still in the smug bastard phase of his character development, looks on unimpressed: “Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful force controlling everything…. it’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.” In effect, Solo is objecting the way any skeptic would in the presence of dubious claims: asserting the null hypothesis, and refusing to conflate his inability to explain every strange phenomenon with the need to accept an unlikely answer. His dismissal is answered by a weary and patient smile from Obi-Wan, who has heard the doubters before.
This is an important scene in the film, because in the Star Wars universe, of course, Han Solo is wrong. His behavior clarifies what we are meant to understand as a potentially dangerous flaw in his character – his lack of faith – and simultaneously implies that this flaw may be somehow connected to his disregard for the greater good. From a storytelling point of view, the challenge faced by the hero, Skywalker, is here effectively recast as one not only of skill and courage, but of the refusal to succumb to the kind of nihilistic doubt displayed by Solo.
(If you think I’m reading too much into the scene, I offer the simple defense that I saw it that way when I was a boy: I might not have had the vocabulary to put it into words, but the import was clear enough.)
I single out this moment because it’s one of the most striking examples of a dynamic that is enacted repeatedly throughout both film series, from Darth Vader choking an insufficiently credulous general to Henry Jones, Sr. whispering “you must, believe, boy,” as his son prepares to literally step into the void. In these movies, those who doubt fundamentally misconstrue the realities of their universes and risk death.
In one sense, I do not think there anything wrong with any of these scenes. Filmmakers are under no obligation to create universes that mirror ours – or to do much of anything else, really – and I am not at all concerned with whether any given set piece was intended to be didactic or not. George Lucas is a terrible filmmaker, and I have long suspected that his papier-mâché characters and shoebox-diorama plots are rooted in a general inability to observe reality very closely, but he isn’t guilty of anything other than aesthetic crimes. I do think, though, that the possibility of a certain lesson being taken away from the film by children is worth considering – the lesson that belief matters more than anything else, and that the power of things worth fighting for, the power of everything we mean when we use the word Good, is inextricably linked to the willingness to believe.
Lest anyone think I am griping at magic, consider the illustrative contrast with the newer films I mentioned. As far as massively popular, childhood-defining fantasy franchises go, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are different because the need to believe in magic never enters into their stories. Harry and Frodo must overcome all manner of fear and doubt to succeed, but the existence of the supernatural is always present in their worlds as a simple fact about how things work. There is no lesson to be taken away by young minds about how we must believe in magic. There is only the lesson that we ought to believe in hope, and love, and the power of good to overcome evil. Gandalf’s magic is no more important – in fact, is considerably less important – than Aragorn’s sword or Bilbo’s cleverness. “The Shire!” is a very different kind of rallying cry than “may The Force be with you.”
I cannot help but wonder what the lasting impact of films like those in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series was on those of us who grew up in their shadow. Certainly, the films were neither universally watched nor universally revered, and nor were they the only fantasy movies that people of my generation loved. And The Hero Who Must Believe is a figure potentially as old as storytelling itself. But the unique cultural significance of the Star Wars and Indy films, and the almost dictatorial role they exercised on millions of young imaginations, places them in a different category than other movies of their era. I have no hard data to work with here – no numbers or experimental groups – but only a speculation that, for every child who grew into an archaeologist because of Indiana Jones or fell in love with space because of Star Wars, there are two more who grew up unconsciously mistrusting overt skepticism because of the same movies.
It’s just a thought. But I would be happy to hear from anyone with experience either way, who grew up adoring the same movies. As far as The Hobbit goes, I will go to see it sooner or later, and in the meantime at least I won’t have to worry that my kids are subtly being told that unquestioning belief is more valuable than withheld judgment.