The Young Adult-ification of Star Wars

The Force Awakens

I recall clearly the momentous intellectual moment when someone first told me that the original Star Wars trilogy was modeled on—indeed, belongs to — the genre of Westerns. Yee-haw. Re-watching it, I relished the experience of taking the movies in, in context, for basically the first time. How fascinating, to look at A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return Of The Jedi’s storylines and style through this lens, to better understand the man and the inspiration that went into making them. My love for the franchise only deepened.

I was four full days removed from my first cathartic viewing of The Force Awakens when I started to really reflect on it. I had a lot of feelings. The strongest, however, were not about the relationship between the original trilogy and the newest release, about which so much has been written and wrung; they were alight with how wonderfully TFA reflects 2015, and specifically, a new powerhouse genre that we can’t get enough of.

I will take as my nerd thesis today that, with TFA, J.J. Abrams has Young Adult-ified Star Wars — and I’m delighted by it. The way the movie was written, cast, and produced discards the gruff, white-washed Western overtones of the 1970s releases in favor of progressive elements lifted from contemporary culture movements, like an emphasis on representation of women and minorities, an embrace of emotion, and a celebration of youth energy and democratized power. While these features are not entirely absent in the original trilogy, the heroes Abrams has created for TFA make my YA-loving heart sing. Here’s what I mean…

Allowing for the fact that I was a kid when I first watched (and re-watched and re-watched) the original trilogy, I certainly never thought of Princess Leia as a teenager. Rey, on the other hand… young Ella would have identified strongly with her. Carrie Fisher was, in fact, younger than Daisy Ridley when ANH was filmed and released; but the way that George Lucas and team position Leia — she’s a well-spoken and confident Princess, on a diplomatic mission of sorts, wearing make-up and patrician clothing— stands in contrast to the heroine whom we meet early in TFA. Rey is scruffy and make-up free, a loner who seems too young to be alone.

And yet, even more so than Leia, Rey needs saving precisely as much as she needs another chat with that Blob Fish of a ration trader. In this self-reliance, along with her apparent age, orphanhood, and survive-the-dystopia circumstances, Rey measures up against recent beloved Young Adult heroes. Katniss, Trice, and Harry/Hermione all come to mind: “chosen ones” of their young generations destined to overthrow evil with good. Each discovers within herself a unique power and a morality exceeding that of most of their peers and elders… Sound familiar? (Many of these heroes are female — it’s no accident that Rey is as well.)

Granted, The Force has always been The Force, a power to be discovered and mastered like the magic of Harry Potter or the inner/outer politics of The Hunger Games. But where original-trilogy Luke and Leia take for granted that this power exists and that lightsabers are passed down within families, Rey believes that the Jedi are a myth; that Han Solo is just a rugged symbol of banditry; that “Skywalker” is more construct than human. What’s more, Rey’s awakening to and application of The Force in her battle with Kylo Ren is more emotional and innate than, say, Luke’s whiny training regimens with Obi Wan and Yoda. (I love Luke, but the kid was whiny.) It better recalls Katniss’ brash step out of line to defy The Capitol, or Harry’s first emotional magic outburst at his relatives.

What’s so powerful about these moments in YA lit, and what stirred my soul as I watched TFA, is how they’re positioned as coming-of-age transformations; they aim to take away some of the shame and confusion of growing into an adult person and letting go of the child. J.J. Abrams incorporated emotion into his characters in a way that George Lucas rarely, if ever, did.

The comparison of Leia and Rey as heroines is, I feel, a strong indicator of ways in which TFA reflects today’s cultural values in its storytelling. Where no similar comparison can be made, however, is yet another indicator of YA influence: Finn. Hurrah, a through-and-through Star Wars hero (and love interest) who is black! I am exceedingly fond of Oscar Isaac, a Guatemalan American, and how he rounds out the new hero trio, but my goodness does John Boyega steal the show.

Just days ago, #Hermione sat atop the trending topics list because a black actress was cast to play the Harry Potter heroine in a stage performance. J.K. Rowling, patron saint of everything that she is, firmly shut down questions of impropriety by noting that Hermione’s skin color was never specified. So it is in much of YA lit — what they do, who they love, etc. define a character much more than does their appearance.

The casting of a black actor to play a Stormtrooper would have been beautifully bold on Abrams’ part; he went much further, creating with Boyega a decidedly youthful and incredibly human addition to the Star Wars canon.

Finn is hilarious. He is also heartbreaking. In these and other features, he could be pulled straight from the heroes’ ranks of my favorite YA novels. We forgive him his secret-keeping about his past, because we see his youth and innocence in every joke and human error he commits. His is a redemption story so perfectly crafted that it doesn’t seem cheesy when he feels bonded to Rey basically as soon as they meet. That’s what teenagers feel!

In his choice to tell the story of a Stormtrooper, Abrams uses Finn to build up Rey, much as the supporting cast of The Hunger Games, Divergent, and others contribute to the development of their heroines. Finn’s ability to communicate and confirm the evils and inhuman practices of the the First Order/Imperial Army only amplifies the morality and heroism of Rey and The Rebellion. (Of all the new characters, I am most intrigued by Finn and what will come of him in the future installments… he was a pretty good babysitter for Rey’s Lightsaber, no?)

Much has been made over the ways in which TFA, helmed by a team of Star Wars nerds, pays tribute to George Lucas’ original masterpieces. I wholeheartedly agree with those assessments; the connections and allusions to Episodes 4, 5, and 6 were among my favorite parts of the TFA viewing experience. But I also believe that in significant ways, the story told in TFA, and the way it is told, depart from the Wild West tales of ANH, TESB, and ROTJ. I’d put forth that these departures are awesome, move the series in the direction of inclusion, and reflect a nod to the voracious appetite that exists for Young Adult storytelling in 2015.

May the Force be with us as we await 2017.