Every writer communicates a set of beliefs that s/he believes to be true about the world. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, one of the primary purposes of storytelling is to convey or explore truth. That’s one of the reasons that storytelling has such a powerful impact on culture. As cultures shift, grow, and redefine themselves, they do so on the backs of storytellers and their audiences.
As a storyteller, I have to admit that I didn’t realize this until very recently, and my writing suffered for it. These days, I love breaking down stories to better understand the truth storytellers are attempting to convey. Let’s take a look at The Force Awakens to see what J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt, and George Lucas tell us about truth through their film.
[WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS!]
Truth #1: We desire to escape pain and suffering.
This one’s obvious. Who wants to endure pain and suffering? Nobody. We see this truth from different angles. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo both abandon friends, family, and allies, even in light of impending war. We don’t know the details, but both former heroes are found far from the trenches where they could be of immense help.
Finn also runs. Unlike Poe, who escapes only so that he can get back into the fight, Finn tries to ditch Rey and the others to avoid further confrontation with the First Order. Like Han and Luke, he’s trying to escape.
And this presents us with a deeper truth: we try to escape because we’re afraid. Fear makes us want to flee.
Truth #2: Heroes face their fears, choosing to be selfless instead of selfish.
Would we label Finn a hero if he didn’t volunteer to visit Starkiller Base and look for Rey? Probably not. Heroes are defined by their ability to overcome fear, put their need for security aside, and put someone else’s safety before their own. Finn does that. So does Han. He knows what might happen to him on that walkway, but he goes out to Ren anyway. Luke? We’re still waiting for some resolution there. Will he rise to the occasion?
Rey is a fantastic character because, though we see her experience fear, she consistently rises to the occasion. Despite her own fear of abandonment and her desire to head back to Jakku so that she won’t miss the return of whoever dropped her off there, she pushes forward. Sure, even Rey has her momentary lapses, like after she touches the lightsaber for the first time, but she overcomes those fears, calling on that same saber to fight Kylo Ren later in the film. Likewise, Poe and Leia keep fighting. Leia has every right to rest on her laurels and live a quiet life as a former princess turned war hero, but she doesn’t. She knows the galaxy needs her.
Truth #3: Fear can be used to influence others.
Heroes face their own fears and fight back to protect others. Villains, on the other hand, use fear as a form of protection for themselves. They embody the object of other people’s fears and use it to control them. Kylo Ren doesn’t need a helmet, but he knows it causes others to fear him. Hux uses fear to influence an entire army to destroy planets with millions of inhabitants. The First Order stormtroopers—much like the Empire’s foot soldiers—don full-body armor and helmets, hiding their faces and with a show of force engendering fear amongst their enemies.
Truth #4: We all face an internal struggle between right and wrong.
Kylo Ren laments that the light side still calls to him. In fact, he so badly wants to be evil that he continues to combat the pull of the light side. He wants more power and feels the only way to get it is to stop caring about his family (in fact, I believe the movie subtly hints that he smashed Vader’s helmet into ashes, because even devotion to a Dark Lord of the Sith can’t help him become more powerful).
Choices are at the heart of interesting characters. Will she do the right thing? Will he do the wrong thing? Character arcs are built off small choices that lead to bigger decisions that have greater impact and consequences. Rey chooses to save BB-8 on Jakku, twice. Then, later, she refuses to give up on getting BB-8 to the Resistance base. She has made a promise that she must keep.
The bigger point to be made, though, is that full, relatable characters have the ability to choose between right and wrong, and that struggle is what makes us human (or, as the case may be, sentient).
Truth #5: The supernatural (or “paranormal”) isn’t obvious.
This one fascinates me, and it harkens all the way back to A New Hope. Luke (like Rey) has no idea The Force even exists—and he’s Force sensitive! The “spiritual” dimension isn’t obvious. Characters may encounter things that cause them to “believe,” but even those can be open to interpretation (Han first calls the “The Force a “hokey religion,” and Motti downplay’s Vader’s “faith” when he says, “Your sad devotion to that ancient religion”). The writers appear to be telling us that each person’s “spiritual” or “supernatural” journey (even if s/he chooses not to believe in a spiritual dimension at all) is unique, personal, and ever-changing.
In fact, some in the universe wouldn’t call The Force “spiritual” or “supernatural” at all. George Lucas draws a connection between the “supernatural” and science when the prequels introduce the concept of Midichlorians. But, I digress—I’m getting away from examining The Force Awakens as its own entity. The truth still stands, though. Rey (and to some degree Finn, though he sees Kylo Ren use The Force on Jakku) doesn’t know that The Force exists for sure until she encounters Han, and then Kylo Ren.
Truth #6: Access to spirituality (i.e., the supernatural or paranormal) is exclusive.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing communicated in The Force Awakens (though, it’s fairly consistent throughout the Star Wars universe) is that access to The Force (whether you label it the “spiritual” dimension or the “paranormal” or even “science”) isn’t available to everyone. Nope. Unless you’re born with enough Midichlorians, you’re screwed. Not everyone can be a Jedi. Not everyone can be Sith. If you’re not one of the chosen few, then don’t bother applying at all.
One could make an argument that we’re all born with different talents, strengths, genes, backgrounds, and disabilities. That’s fair. But, if The Force only grants power to those it chooses from birth, that creates a level of exclusivity that’s a little troubling—at least to me.
I’m sure the storytellers are communicating far more truths than I’ve identified here. Can you think of any? Do any of these resonate with you? Would you interpret any of these differently? I’d love to know. If you think of something, comment!