If you haven’t been living under a rock and have spent at least an hour online in total per week, minimum, in the last ten years, then you have some cultural familiarity at least with both George R. R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ and George Lucas’s ‘Star Wars’. You also, quite likely, are even now tempted to put fingers to keyboard/phone screen and correct me here: “Actually, Josh, it’s DISNEY’S Star Wars!” I prefer to note the original creators of such cultural lodestones when introducing them as the topic of discussion, thank you.
However, now you mention it, let’s go ahead and get Disney and HBO in here. [Swings lasso overhead, throws it offscreen to drag the Mouse and HBO execs over] These two have a lot to answer for, afterall, andit woul e lovely to think all the problems in the canon of each fiction realm could be laid at their feet. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case; Messrs Lucas and Martin also have some explaining to do. We’ll begin with a tale from long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away….
Episode None: Genesis
When Star Wars first hit the nerve center of American popular culture, it did so by way of speaking first and foremost to a subset of consumers. The original trilogy seemed to provide a home for the American geek, the sci-fi/fantasy fans who, already looked down upon by mainstream society at the time, finally had another huge commercial success to point to as evidence that their tastes had validity in an open consumer market (the previous ones being Gene Roddenbury’s Star Trek and Gary Gaigax’s Dungeons and Dragons).
A fandom was born, and a fierce one at that. Speaking to almost universal themes, the Star Wars films struck a chord so potent that people from all walks of life found themselves not only enchanted with ‘The Wars’ themselves, but more open to genre material and entertainments generally. They didn’t often analyze too deeply, looking to the archetype of ‘The Hero’s Journey’ or the underlying structure of Arthurian legends (both of which Lucas has confessed to having implemented) that propelled the lore, usually opting instead to focus on the trumpet-volume ‘good vs. evil’ dichotomy presented in the Light Side vs. the Dark Side.
It would take time for people to become familiar with ‘The Wars’ shades of gray.
In Aprll of 1980, George Lucas extended an invitation to the broader storytelling community when he partnered with Del Rey Publishing to give the green light to the publication of “The Empire Strikes Back”, written by Donald F. Glut. This would pave the way for the Expanded Universe novels and comics, Lucas-approved materials that built upon the scaffolding of lore set up by the iconic filmmaker.
The setup for this was simple- authors would submit their stories to Lucas, who would give the story the yea or nay. If he approved, the manuscript moved on to in-house editors at Del Rey. Working hand-in-hand then with Lucasfilm consultants, the editors would adjust the tales until they fit with all the other auxiliary and original mythos.
Tellingly, George Lucas requested only 3% of the net royalties from sales of these books, and contractually demanded these monies be taken from Del Rey’s cut, not the authors’. This was a storyteller whose devotion was to the art, not to his bank account. As we all know, though, this wouldn’t hold true forever.
Regret, or Greed?
In the late 1990’s, Lucas stunned the world by announcing that loyal and potential newfound fans of his enduring Star Wars series would finally be treated to what came before Episode IV: A New Hope. A prequel trilogy, Episodes I, II and III, would at long last reveal to audiences what made Darth Vader who and what he was, and demonstrate how the once-prevalent Jedi became such a rare sight in this far, far away galaxy.
Lucas told many outlets at the time that he had always regretted not telling those stores before, but many questioned his authenticity. Given how brutally ‘The Phantom Menace’ was panned by long-time, diehard fans upon its release, it came as no surprise that theories abounded that Lucas had simply gotten greedy, and wanted to revitalize his revenue stream with the prequel films.
The production of the Cartoon Network Original ‘Clone Wars’ shorts brought this question into view again, but given how artistically well-done they were, I personally prefer to be optimistic about them. The CGI series, introduced in 2008, however, made me wonder all over again.
In 2003, Bioware and LucasArts dipped into the Expanded Universe with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Set thousands of years before the formation of the Galactic Empire, KOTOR brought a whole new level of awesome to the fandom. Predominantly constructed narrative by Drew Karpyshyn, we were once again shown how immersive and thought-provoking the lore could be in the hands of a talented storyteller.
Spawning a sequel and its own comics and novels, KOTOR seemed set to be a flagship for the LucasArts and Star Wars brand. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t come to pass in quite the way fans had hoped it would.
In 2012, after many years of successfully stewarding the franchise, George Lucas, ready to retire, agreed to sell LucasArts and the Star Wars brand to Disney for $4 billion, half in cash and half in Disney stock. No more would Lord Vader be bending the knee to a wrinkled, wraith-like old Dark Side sorcerer; he would now have to scrape and beg before the House of Mouse. And since the sale, Disney has done everything in its considerable and ever-expanding power to maximize the profit line of the Star Wars brand.
Critical literary analyses of the films Disney has pushed out bearing the Star Wars name have revealed some troubling observations. Character development seems to have taken a back seat; flash and pomp have replaced solid storytelling technique; and perhaps most damning, and sort of on the side of the films in main, nobody seems very concerned that the ‘Expanded Universe’ was relabeled ‘Legends’, and every contract with those contributing authors renegotiated to heavily favor Disney.
The video games of the brand have similarly suffered, though in their case the situation was far more obvious and entirely birthed by publisher and Disney greed feeding off of one another. I refer here to Battlefront’s egregious ‘Loot Box’ system, a blatant cash-grab effort fueled by rampant money-grubbing at the expense of fans and gamers.
Star Wars fans have seen themselves largely split into several camps now, with namecalling being the chief method of communicating between them. Socio-political ideologies drive the loudest, shrillest of the dialogues between them, and those left in the middle ground quietly endeavor to still enjoy the lore, but feel trapped and unable to discuss topics within the franchise without loudmouths trying to piggyback ‘points’ off of them, as if this were all some kind of game.
And Now, Over to Martin, and Westeros….
Long before producing even the first novel of the Song of Ice and Fire series, George R.R. Martin built himself a solid reputation in the short story arena. Working in horror, sci-fi and fantasy, he crafted tales that were grisly and engaging, showcasing a steel nerve for dealing with unpleasant and disturbing material. It wasn’t until 1996 that ‘A Game of Thrones’ even saw the light of day.
And here we are, 23 years later, with half of the Internet claiming their undying love for the mis-named television adaptation of the series of novels that followed and is, as yet, unfinished.
Seeing the runaway commercial success of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’, Syfy glommed onto Martin, adapting his ‘Nightflyers’ for television and streaming. Nobody wants to leave money on the table, after all; not even George R.R. Martin.
Craftmaster Turned Coinchaser
Martin’s narrative technique is inarguably superb, and has been for a long time. For decades, he was an ‘also-ran’ to genre mainstays like Tolkien, Jordan, McCafferey and Anthony, though. Even Stephen R. Donaldson, whose work I love but who is much-maligned by modern fantasy crowds, enjoyed greater general notoriety by the time ‘A Feast of Crows’ released.
The first folks clamoring to see HBO’s adaptation of Martin’s fantasy epic were, undoubtedly, his devoted readers. Anxious to see how the layered, symbolic pose of Martin would be relayed to a mass audience, they held their collective breath. When season 1 was over, they were largely satisfied that a genuine effort had been put forth, but thought it was just off the mark.
But the show had drawn an enormous audience of its own, and those devotees to the source material didn’t quite so much matter to the execs at HBO. Faith to text be damned, they had a profit-maker on their hands here, and those book nerds could shut up! Mind you, I don’t think all of the execs had this perspective, but I’m not naïve enough to think it was entirely absent from the boardroom.
At first, Martin reached out to fans, apologizing for the flaws and shortcomings of the show. He promised to try and be more active in his role as a consultant for the second season, should HBO give it the go-ahead, and from all reports, he did indeed hold true to his word. But it wouldn’t be long-lived. With the showrunners at HBO taking much more noticeable liberties with the source material starting in season 3 (where I myself stopped watching in frustration) and Martin seeming to be spending more time at conventions than at work on the novels, the question of whether or not he was now content to rake in the big bucks and fame, leaving those who had already supported his narrative efforts in the lurch, loomed large.
Any time a much-loved novel, short story or comic book gets a television or film adaptation, there is inevitably going to be a creation of tribes among the broader fanbase. Seldom does this show more prominently these days than it does for the Song of Ice and Fire.
‘Canon books only’ vies against ‘Show only’ vies against ‘Use both’, with little sign of letting up even now that the show is reaching its conclusion. As I write this, “Winds of Winter” remains unpublished, and “A Dream of Spring” seems unlikely to release before Martin is planted in the ground and his eulogy sung. Talks already abound regarding spin-offs or expansions of other ASOIAF books like ‘The Hedge Knight’. And we have a collision course ahead of us all as the HBO showrunners are said to be getting a try at the future of Star Wars.
I guess the big question for folks in the ‘Canon book lore first’ camp, like myself, is this: will we see the novelized conclusion, as originally intended? Or has their creator given up in favor of chasing coin, rather than championing the written word?
Flames in the Fandoms
Both source materials, Star Wars and A Song of Ice and Fire, have vast, sprawling networks of fans and enthusiasts. Some pockets in each are branded ‘toxic’ or ‘ideologically tyrannical’, bringing the entire air of enjoyment down as people gripe and bitch and lambaste one another. Georges Lucas and Martin cannot, I think, have imagined that their works would become so potent, or such a source of divisiveness. Yet they have done both, providing a source of entertainment, enjoyment, and for the narratively analytical and/or philosophical, a wealth of fertile soil from which to engage in discussion and theorizing.
Looking at all of the hellfire hurled back and forth between critics and commentators and fans, it’s almost enough to make me wonder the following: Do people realize how much they’ve come to exemplify the very ‘Ice/Fire’, ‘Light/Dark’, ‘Us/Them’ pattern of destruction and imbalance that the core, original tales could be said to have been trying to warn us about through myth and lore?
But maybe I’m reading too much into these things. Maybe not. However it turns out, I hope you, like I, will just keep reading.