George Lucas found himself in some hot water recently when he described the purchase of his Star Wars franchise by Disney as being perpetrated by “white slavers.” The insensitivity of Lucas’ comment was obvious, but perhaps even more glaring than that was his overwhelming ignorance. Slavers usually didn’t hand over a $4 billion payout to their victims, but Lucas wouldn’t be aware of his metaphor’s weakness, out-of-touch as he has become. Bitter over the positive press and attention Disney’s new chapter in his former saga has received, Lucas has no one to blame but himself for handing over the rights. And yet, might there actually be some validity to the fear of exploitation once a creator’s essence is removed from the product?
The whole uproar does raise interesting questions about the nature of storytelling and authorship. Who truly possesses ownership of a story? Is it the creator, the rights-holder, or perhaps even the audience? Just when one of these three seems like the simple and sure answer, a logical argument can be made just as quickly for either of the others.
Lucas sold the rights to his tale, so it is at least legally clear who owns the franchise. Nevertheless, an almost suffocating question remains as to whether an idea can be sold. The transfer of tangible items in Lucas’ sale, the rights to produce merchandise and so on, isn’t that difficult to wrap one’s mind around. Far more difficult, however, is the forced corporality of selling an idea. The characters and universe of Star Wars were born from Lucas’ mind, so they are perhaps as much a part of his psyche as anything else. While Disney can logically buy the rights to use these figments of Lucas’ imagination, one wonders whether true ownership has been transferred at all.
The even greater issue at hand is the process that occurs the instant a story is received by the public. When the audience falls in love with the characters and universe of a story, some sense of ownership is transferred away from the author by way of emotional and monetary investment. At the very least, the audience seems to be owed some degree of perceived ownership through their patronage. In the case of a long-running franchise like Star Wars that has embedded itself in American culture and cinema, the argument is even stronger. While the source of the story exists in the creator’s mind, the seeds of it have taken root in countless people over the past four decades. Now almost everyone has a piece of it in them.
Thus far, Disney has managed to earn the support and loyalty of the people with its treatment of the franchise. The only one who feels slighted is Lucas, bitter at Disney for diverging from his vision of the story. But if Disney fails to meet expectations with future installments, I believe it should receive even more backlash than Lucas got over the years. For all the many missteps and groan-inducing flaws Lucas introduced to the franchise, the public had to at least concede that the story was his to ruin. As the creator, Lucas’ mind was the wellspring of the whole universe, and so ultimately, like it or not, his word was law. Disney’s ownership and creation-by-committee approach to future content lacks the benefit of the doubt that the public usually gives to original creators.
In the same breath as his cringe-worthy slaver comment, Lucas compared Star Wars to his child. In that part of the metaphor, he isn’t far off the mark. The emotional attachment a creator feels toward their intellectual property is in many ways similar to the connection between a parent and their child. The two relationships are joined in the shared and unique pride of having created something from yourself where once there was nothing. It is this emotional connection that leads the public to give original creators more leeway to make mistakes. However emotionally invested we may get in the product or however ingrained it may become in our culture, we are instinctively called to a sort of deference toward the person who brought it into being. The audience are emotional shareholders, but the creator holds the controlling interest. The legal rights included in that interest can be bought and sold, but the emotional authority does not transfer with it, and Disney would do well to remember that the audience now holds a controlling emotional interest in the franchise.
When the people chosen to handle and advance the story are fans just like any other member of the public, it becomes far more difficult to accept their changes as canon. You could ask any number of screenwriters what their treatment of the next chapter in the saga would be and you would get an equally diverse array of answers. The only vision that could be in some way “true” is Lucas’. Like a Part IV to The Godfather without Coppola and Puzo or a Rocky installment without the influence of Sylvester Stallone, future installments of Star Wars, however critically acclaimed and well-received they may be, will be somehow lesser than what came before. The ingredients of the story remain, but its beating heart and the energy of its genesis will be missing.
The truth of the matter is that we seldom remember expansions to a story that do not come from the original creator. Like the attempts to rewrite King Lear with a happy ending or the forgotten sequel to The Odyssey not written by Homer, we seem predisposed to reject parts of a story that do not fully mesh with the fabric of original installments. Creators’ stories take root in all of us and it is ultimately up to the discretion of subsequent generations to decide how original entries in a story are weighed. When enough time has passed in human history that Star Wars has shifted from a piece of cinema to something of an American myth, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Disney’s subsequent additions to Lucas’ story held in less esteem and affection.
Featured Image by Lucasfilm via AP Photo