Saturday, February 6, 2010
Never Tell the Villain's Back-Story! Or How George Lucas Really Ruined Star Wars!
I contend the most important character in a story, whether it is a novel or a movie, is the villain. Without a great villain the hero becomes hollow. Without a strong antagonist, even if it is the very environment, a hero's journey is worthless. What would have Star Wars have been without Darth Vader?
Darth Vader was a villain for the ages. A survey once was done to decide the greatest cinematic villains of all time, Darth Vader was number two, Hannibal Lecter was number one. The sweeping black cloak, the eerie respiration, the expressionless face of a demon, and his power over the Force made him one of the greatest fantasy villains ever created. David Prowse created the physical presence while Bob Anderson provided the fencing finesse for The Empire Strikes Back. Of course by the end of the original trilogy we discover that Darth Vader was once Anakin Skywalker and father to Luke, the hero. This is where the back-story should have ended. Anakin's fall, and transformation into Darth Vader should have been left to the speculation of fans.
The draw of money and fan adoration pushed George Lucas to "complete" the story. He wanted to tell the fall of Anakin Skywalker and the rise of Darth Vader. By doing so he destroyed one of the most iconic villains ever created.
Let us set aside my personal assertions that special effects are not needed to make a good movie. Let us instead look at story and reader/viewer expectation.
When the prequels (1999-2005) were released the fans rushed to see how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. What the fans got was a whiny emo boy-band drop out played by Hayden Christensen. Now Kevin Smith, actor and film maker, said that of course someone like the character portrayed would become someone like Darth Vader. That might be so, but that is not what fans wanted to see, that is not the way it should have happened in their opinion. That is the point. Darth Vader was larger than life to the Nth degree, he was ten kinds of cool as a villain. The fans did not want to see a spoiled kid being pissy because he did not get to sit on the Jedi Council. This is the reason why the villain back-story failed. It was not as cool as the villain himself. It did not measure up to reader/viewer expectation.
As a writer I am very conscious of my villains, I do not want them to be so powerful so they overshadow and could crush the hero before the hero is ready to face them. That is why powerful villains have minions. These are the guys the hero goes through before they get to the boss. Frodo had a slew of orcs to get through before he dropped the One Ring into Mount Doom. This is why Darth Vader works; in the original trilogy Luke and crew are plagued by Storm Troopers, snooty Imperial officers, and bad ass bounty hunters. When Vader is on the scene the shite has hit the turbine. Vader rains all kinds of hell down on the rebels. He blows up planets for breakfast, and when Luke foolishly faces him before he is ready, he is crushed; escaping, but not unscathed, mentally or physically.
If I tell the villain's back-story it has to be in direct relation to the story I am telling. It also has to fit with what I have established for the character, staying true to who the villain is. If my villain is a coward and a scoundrel, then he was likely one before. If my villain was a noble knight who fell from grace there MUST be an event as epic as the fall. If there is a back-story it had better be equal to the villain it represents.
With the prequels Lucas and his sycophants forgot story and stuck with formula and special effects. He tried to parallel the two trilogies instead of writing them as their own stories that were connected through family ties. The character of Anakin Skywalker needed to be as dynamic and awe inspiring as the villain in black he would become. Instead we are handed a man-child who somehow earns the love and devotion of a queen? With the personality presented there is nothing to recommend Anakin as a man earning the love of such a woman as Padme' nor the love and respect of a Jedi like Obi-Wan who saw him as a brother.
Anakin should have been a great man, strong emotionally as well as charismatic. Even as a youth these qualities should have been evident. His fears should have been private, his love, not the mewling of a puppy, but bold and confident. His anger, a glimmer of which was seen when he destroyed the Tuskan village in Attack of the Clones, should have shook the heavens and made the gods quell. The Jedi Council should have FEARED the power that Anakin could wield, not just made cautious. Obi-Wan should have noted the darkness growing in his friend. One does not need the Force to see when loved ones are changing or in trouble. So the fact the Sith conveniently clouded the judgment of the Jedi should not have affected Obi-Wan's instincts.
There are a thousand little things that resulted in the failure of the prequels to many fans. The failure of Darth Vader to be fully realized as the hero before the villain can be endlessly nit-picked as well. The reasons can be attributed to poor direction, wooden acting, and the shear task of trying to fill the armor of such an icon. To me the story did not measure up. The actor was not up to the task. By comparison look at Ewan McGregor playing Obi-Wan Kenobi. He had the mannerisms of the Ben Kenobi as portrayed by Sir Alec Guiness. His performance seemed to please most fans, me included. Hayden Christensen worked hard on the physical aspects of Anakin's fighting skill, but he failed to study the mannerisms of Darth Vader provided by David Prowse. Prowse was conscious of the image he was creating and moved and stood in such a way as to present that character. One of the iconic poses of Darth Vader was the thumbs hooked in his belt, or arms akimbo, his head thrown back, held high, imperiously. All Hayden Christensen seemed to be able to do was cross his arms as if shutting himself in, drawing into himself, instead of standing tall and boldly. Prowse made a point of striding, causing the black cloak to billow behind him, forcing subordinates to trot to keep up. Christensen seems to almost meander when he moved, creating little dynamic energy.
I have stated on many occasions that special effects and flash leave me indifferent, it is the story I crave. When the credits rolled on Revenge of the Sith I simply shrugged and walked out, thinking that I had wasted the eight bucks I spent. Not a reaction that an author wants when a reader closes his book, and not a reaction that a director/script writer/producer, wants when the credits roll on his movie.
The author may feel that his creation is his own, his vision the only one that matters, but when such things are given to others, it becomes a shared thing, a living thing. Becoming greater than what the creator intended. It becomes a sacred trust to others rather than a creative diversion to ones' self.