This idea of the Star Wars prequels being soulless, mechanical, uninspired messes that forever tarnished the legacy of George Lucas’ original trilogy has become so prevalent among fandom that most people just take it as fact. An extremely vocal area of fandom has decreed them objectively bad films, and most people have basically complied without question. Under this reasoning, there is no point in attempting to examine them any more deeply or to even determine the exact reasons why one might have trouble accepting their contributions to Star Wars canon in the first place; again, they simply suck. Case closed.
Which is what makes Paul F. McDonald’s The Star Wars Heresies: Interpreting the Themes, Symbols and Philosophies of Episodes I, II and III feel so revolutionary. Disregarding popular opinion–as Mark Twain once wrote, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).”–McDonald boldly charges forth with his thesis that not only are these extremely good, even masterful films, but that much of what makes them great actually went over the heads of many viewers–both professional critics and average audience members alike–often due to their refusal to engage with them on anything more than a surface level of their B-movie space opera trappings, one of McDonald’s most audacious and intriguing arguments being that the reason so many fans cried afoul that the prequels “ruined their childhoods” (the more uncouth among them said “raped”) was that, in a manner of speaking, the films were designed to do so, or at least to deliberately subvert the more simplistic, mostly black-and-white universe of the original trilogy. People weren’t prepared for an Old Republic and Jedi Knighthood that largely, unknowingly destroyed themselves, their internal rot being exacerbated and helped along by but not fully derived from a Sith Lord’s machinations. In direct opposition to the Rebels vs. Empire of the original films, it becomes awfully complicated knowing who to root for when one sees proto-stormtroopers fighting alongside Yoda.
And while many people pay lip service to the Joseph Campbellian overtones in Lucas’ writing, McDonald convincingly argues that these links aren’t just set dressing but intrinsic to the makeup of the entire saga, as well as crucial to fully understanding the prequels and their narrative purpose. Handling each film one at a time, and lucidly walking the reader through each character arc one by one, he constructs a rock-solid reading of the films, drawing on his own vast knowledge of various world mythologies, Eastern philosophies, fairy tales, the Arthurian Legend, and more, revealing a saga worked out with such meticulous thematic, symbolic, and mythological consistency, presenting his argument with such clarity, and making so much sense in the process, that one almost forgets, while reading, that the films he’s discussing are such hotly contested ones.
McDonald tackles all of the prequels’ most controversial subjects, from Anakin and Padme’s romance–which might at times seem stilted compared to the sort of screen romances we are used to but which, as he demonstrates, is extremely representative of the classic courtly romance tradition from which it derives–to Jar Jar Binks, whose–to many–irritating qualities are in keeping with the mythological role of the Fool and/or Trickster, to–perhaps best of all–the midichlorians, which he believes are likely the most misunderstood aspect of the entire saga. What makes his midichlorian defense so blazingly brilliant is how he proves that all of the evidence is right there in the film itself, if one pays close attention to the script’s exact wording, and furthermore, how he then goes on to show how a proper reading of the midichlorians’ literal and symbolic significance is crucial to understanding not only how the Force functions both literally and symbolically, but arguably how the entire Star Wars saga works. Many interpret the blending of science and mysticism to somehow strip the Force of its wonder, when it actually can make it more awe-inspiring, if looked at the right way.
And although primarily a book about the prequels, McDonald doesn’t view these films in a vacuum but will often discuss the deliberate parallels between both trilogies, as well as view each character arc in the context of the entire series. Additionally, his exploration of the links between the assorted themes and symbols within the prequels themselves is impeccable:
Early on [in Episode I], Anakin remarks that his worth as a slave is dependent on his ability to “fix anything,” an attitude that will ultimately push him into trying to fix the entire galaxy. He confidently tells Qui-Gon that “no one can kill a Jedi,” only to eventually hunt them down himself. He dreams of freeing slaves, but years later he becomes another one himself to the Sith. He promises Padme that the japor snippet he carved for her will bring “good fortune,” even as she clutches it in death. Perhaps most importantly, his mother Shmi tells him he must ‘learn to let go,’ a lesson he doesn’t grasp until the end of his tragic life.
The saga of Anakin Skywalker is, first and foremost, a classical tragedy, and McDonald analyzes it as such, examining how Lucas begins his story as a Hero’s Journey, albeit a hero who will eventually fall into the depths of villainy and the roots of whose undoing are apparent from the start in as simple a thing as his inability to not look back, but at the same time a villain the roots of whose ultimate reformation are also laid the very moment he turns to the Dark Side seemingly for good. Meanwhile, he also shows how metaphorically, Anakin and the entire Republic at large are going through the same process over the course of the Star Wars saga, the micro a reflection of the macro, and vice versa. As in the “rotten…state of” Denmark of Shakepeare’s Hamlet, corruption at the heart of the “kingdom”‘s rulers has both literally and figuratively rippled outwards, affecting everyone. The Republic had lost its way long before Palpatine took advantage of its weakness, as had the Jedi themselves.
Scholarly sound and just plain immensely entertaining to read, The Star Wars Heresies might be the greatest defense the prequels have ever received as works of art, as well as George Lucas as an artist. I have seen no anti-prequels argument composed with anything approaching the same level of intelligence, wit, generosity, knowledge of the entire Star Wars film series as it actually is and not as it’s often perceived to be, patience in handling the opposing viewpoint, and awareness that at the end of the day, Star Wars is meant to be enjoyed. McDonald’s enthusiasm for the series exudes off the page, and is truly refreshing, given modern online fandom’s penchant for the pessimistic and the combative.
I could even imagine this book, if not fully converting the more open-minded among the naysayers, at least inspiring them to reevaluate their opinion or conceding that there might indeed be more to the prequels than they initially admitted or realized. For any “heretical” fan who loves the prequels but either has had trouble articulating why or lacks the patience or breadth of knowledge to convincingly go toe-to-toe with the majority of knee-jerk fandom opinion, look no further than this book, a phenomenal, expertly researched work of film and literary criticism from someone who truly, passionately cares about and whose whole life has been influenced by Lucas’ galaxy far, far away.
[P.S. Full disclosure: Paul’s been a friend of mine for years, but I’d feel the same way about this book if I happened to just pick it up on the shelf. It’s honestly that brilliant.]