The Star Wars Heresies: Interpreting the Themes, Symbols and Philosophies of Episodes I, II and III

swheresiesTHE STAR WARS HERESIES by Paul F. McDonald accomplished two nigh impossible things for me.

First, Mr. McDonald demonstrated that despite my inability to enjoy these movies, there are a great deal of intelligent and interesting things going on within them. This is a book that calls out and pulls together an impressive number of disparate philosophical ideas, mythological imagery and important dialogue from the trilogy of STAR WARS prequels, and then manages to tie a neat bow on them. It does so in a way that I found extremely interesting, informative, and satisfying.

With the help of various Taoist, Buddhist, Christian and mytho-historical scholars — both actual and armchair — McFarland & Company’s release of THE STAR WARS HERESIES creates its own Tao of STAR WARS in an easily digestible tone and in just slightly less than 200 pages. Naturally, I found some of the connections tenuous enough I wouldn’t have emphasized them. And maybe once or twice McDonald saw things that I honestly don’t believe are there. But that’s the nature of this kind of beast, and McDonald’s enjoyment of both the subject matter and his quest to dig into it cover a multitude of sins. Unfortunately, it doesn’t cover all of them.

The second almost impossible thing McDonald did is pull together the frayed threads of prequel narrative and weave them together into a tapestry that is not only cohesive, but also fairly compelling. Those of you who, like me, found the prequels almost incomprehensible from a “why are these things happening?” standpoint may find that statement literally incredible. You may wonder how McDonald pulled it off.

Easy: He cheated.

McDonald approached the borderline nonsensical and inane plot of the prequels the same way he approached the sometimes nonsensical and often apparently inane philosophy of STAR WARS: He scoured a great many nooks and crannies to pull together something that made sense. Unwilling (or unable) to rely solely on the films to accomplish this, the author brings in deleted scenes, audio commentaries, quotes from interviews, the movies’ paperback novelizations and even nearly unrelated cartoon shows. He makes it abundantly clear that there was, at some point, a cogent plot in the prequels. Sadly, he is unwilling to admit that it got lost along the way to theatrical release.

And I, at least, consider that cheating. It’s the one sin of HERESIES that cannot be forgiven. HERESIES insists the movies are, on their own merits, coherent, well-plotted and “good.” Further, HERESIES makes it clear that if the reader doesn’t like the prequel trilogy, or feels the plot is confusing, or that the acting is wooden and stilted, then it is simply because the reader isn’t smart enough to get what George Lucas the auteur was doing.

That is some pretentious nonsense right there — and unfortunately, an argument poisoned with its own counterargument. If all the stuff that makes the movies hang together is found on the cutting-room floor, in novelizations, animated series or 400-year-old romantic poems, then I’m not entirely sure how it is that the movies hang together.

And I say this is from a guy who really, really appreciates pretentious and scholarly approaches to pop culture. I might look you in the eye and compare 1980’s FLASH GORDON film to BEOWULF. I might be deadly serious. And I might do a great job of making the argument. But I would never, under any circumstances, try and convince you that FLASH is objectively good. That’s called intellectual honesty, folks; HERESIES is missing that key ingredient.

If you can put that aside, though, you will really appreciated the scholarly end of things. There are fascinating insights culled from a wide variety of sources. I’m no slouch in the armchair end of mythology or philosophy, but there were moments McDonald genuinely surprised and delighted me. I would give a gushing and glowing review to that part of the book and happily hand copies out like candy at Halloween.

Against all odds, he convinced me that I had given the intellectual side of the prequels short shrift. He breathed new life into my interest in that galaxy far, far away. But HERESIES strangled that new life in the crib when it failed to accept and acknowledge that appreciating these fresh insights means I’m forced to slog through impenetrable plotting, bad dialogue and amateurish performances. Instead of convincing me to rewatch the prequels with a new eye for what I’d missed, the book instead redoubled my resolve to never bother with them again. That feels like a greater failure than if the book had simply failed to convince me I’d missed anything in the first place.

I’m not harshing on anybody who loved the prequels, by the way. I love FLASH GORDON and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, and I don’t give a damn who knows it or what you think of it. Watchable bad movies are still watchable and, therefore, lovable, even if the mileage on what keeps them watchable varies. If you somehow manage to consider the prequels watchable, then may Lucas bless your intestinal fortitude.

So, those among you who loved THE PHANTOM MENACE, ATTACK OF THE CLONES and REVENGE OF THE SITH, and are looking for a work to give you a great deal of insight into the philosophical and mythological underpinnings of Lucas’s magnum opus, you are going to love this book. I could not recommend it more to you.

If you disliked the prequels, but believe that there were a lot of interesting things going on in the story’s unplumbed depths, Mr. McDonald will happily plumb them for you and drag those things to the surface in an enjoyable way. However, he also will pretend that he didn’t have to cobble together his own bathysphere and diving helmet to do so. And that sorta puts a kink in his breathing tube. —Joshua Unruh

Buy it at Amazon.

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Comment by Daniel Swensen
2014-01-06 11:43:01

Interesting review, Joshua. I haven’t read this book, but it sounds to me like another example of Star Wars fan “ownership” — fans feeling that the prequels, and Star Wars at large, belongs to them, and that when they’re presented with a product that they don’t care for, it’s their obligation or urge to somehow “fix,” justify, or otherwise resolve the cognitive dissonance of a major Star Wars product that they didn’t enjoy. Dozens if not hundreds of Youtube videos are devoted to the notion. Even the novelizations tried to tinker out some of the problems with the prequels.

For my part, I like Star Wars, but I didn’t really enjoy the prequels. Ironically, due to being such a huge Star Wars fan, it took me many viewings to figure that out. The originals were formative and incendiary to my imagination, but the new films left me cold and bewildered, and after far too much nitpicking, arguing, and misguided defending, I’ve decided to leave it at that.

What it comes down to for me is that the originals, while epic in scope and feel, had the feeling of a sparse and open universe, full of mystery, and that fired my imagination. The prequels felt like the Galaxy was a tiny neighborhood where everyone constantly kept running into each other, and so much detail was packed into every frame that all sense of mystery was lost. The prequels filled in all the cracks, and it turns out that it was the cracks I enjoyed most, because it allowed me to fill them in with my own imagination.

It probably sounds pompous, but I do feel kind of bad for people who are still, over a decade on now, trying to “fix” their bad experience with the prequels. Star Wars is so much more than movies for so many people. I feel fortunate that I can just take the bits I like, and leave the rest… just like your salad bar.

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Comment by Joshua Unruh
2014-01-06 12:16:36

Mr. McDonald makes a great point that filling in the cracks was actually meant to be thematically appropriate to the prequels. And from his argument, I can see it. Unfortunately, yes, it killed much of what I loved from the originals. Would it have left as bad a taste if the writing had been up to snuff? Who can tell.

I can totally see the feeling bad for people. That’s an aspect I hadn’t thought of for this book. So much smart, interesting work goes into this analysis that if it’s all about just making the prequels better in his head, it makes me despair for him just a bit.

Comment by Eddie
2014-02-09 23:38:48

Daniel-san, unlike you, I *have* read “The Star Wars Heresies”, and the idea that this book was written out of some weirdly entitled notion of “fan ownership” doesn’t match up one bit with what I read. In fact, I actually laughed out loud reading that assumption of yours, because reading TSWH, I felt like it was written to *deflate* fan “ownership”–particularly the idea among some SW fans that they, and not Lucas, the creator of all of this, knew better what SW is, was, or should be…which is nonsensical. Right there in the title of the book is the word “INTERPRETING”, which connotes that this is one man’s (the author’s) subjective read on the SW Prequels…not some dogmatic attempt to ram a viewpoint down anybody’s throat. “Interpreting” also seems to negate the ideas of “fixing” or “justifying”, so perhaps you should read the book before drawing more baseless conclusions?

And yes, Daniel-san–it sounds, and actually *is*, HORRIBLY pompous to “feel bad for people…who are still trying to ‘fix’ their bad experience with the prequels”. How do you know that people had a “bad experience” to “fix”?? It seems that you’re projecting your own “bad experience” onto other people. Personally, I had an awesome experience with all of the Prequels (as I did with the OT from ages 4-10 during 1977-1983), and have never, for one moment in my life, felt the need to “nitpick”, “argue”, or “defend” to myself or anybody else my fun experience with those three movies. What is there to defend? It’s art. It’s subjective. Some will love it, some will hate it, many won’t care. I actually feel bad for YOU that you’ve wasted so many years in a state of turmoil about the Star Wars Prequels, so unless you change your mind, I guess we’ll just agree to feel really bad for each other! Boo-hoo!!

Comment by Daniel Burton
2014-01-10 13:58:06

This….is awesome. I almost–ALMOST–want to go read the book just to see the perspective. But I just don’t have the energy to, as you put it, fix my prequel experience. I’ve had to just write it off, bury it in the midst of the rest of the canon, and try to move on.

Great write up.

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Comment by Joshua Unruh
2014-01-10 14:24:40

Thank you so much! I appreciate the kind words very much. I’m very proud of this review. Nailing why this book resonated with me and pissed me off at the same time was complicated, but I think I captured it.

Comment by Paul F. McDonald
2014-02-09 21:32:24

Solid write-up, indeed. Thanks. However, if I may chime in on the comments, this had nothing to do with “fixing” the prequels. In point of fact, I think I made quite a few pejorative comments in the book about the need to “fix” things. That’s the sort of thinking that turns one into Vader. The real spirit of this book I believe I noted in the introduction –

“The Associate Professor of Fine Arts at NYU, Dr. Joan Breton Connelly makes a telling observation regarding this process: ‘And what’s fun for me personally is when I get to a point where I say, ‘Did George Lucas mean for this connection to be made or am I making it, am I participating as part of the poet, the creator, in making connections?’
“So yes, while a lot of the connections drawn here are undeniably intentional, some of it obviously reflects my own unique sensibilities and imagination. The tradition of identifying patterns that may or may not exist in a work of art is as old as criticism itself. But I also really want to stress Dr. Connelly’s use of the word fun.
“Make no mistake, play has always been synonymous with Star Wars. In point of fact, I had four action figures in my hand before I’d even seen A New Hope.
So amidst all the mythological analysis and literary quotes, I ask the reader to always remember that this is supposed to be fun. Perhaps pretentious fun, but fun nonetheless.
“As a child, I used to play for hours on the floor with action figures and playsets, and this book is essentially the same thing given a different inflection. Instead of dressing up like Han Solo and running around the neighborhood with my toy blaster, I play with words and ideas and patterns of analysis. But every paragraph of The Star Wars Heresies is some form of equally engrossing play. Much of it was written in the same spirit as a little kid waving a toy lightsaber in the air while jumping up and down on their bed, and can be read in much the same way.”


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Comment by Joshua Unruh
2014-02-12 22:01:44

Mr. McDonald, I really appreciate you reading and responding to this review. I could absolutely read that spirit of play and fun into this book. I could tell you were having a blast with it, and I think that infectious spirit (along with my own predilection for finding layers in genre fiction) carried me a long way toward enjoying the book. And I do hope that my enjoyment of many aspects of the book came through the review.

In retrospect, I can even see how that tone of “Come get lost with me in this rush of interesting things I love!” could come across to a reader (such as myself) as “Ignore all that talk about the bad stuff, there are *only* things to love here!” I think that my reading is reasonable since I don’t start from inside your head, but I can also see the potential for miscommunication there.

Thanks for stopping by, sir.

Comment by Dan Zehr
2014-02-09 22:40:55

It’s almost like the book was not read in the matter it was intended. It was a scholarly approach to the prequels, which blends allegory and myth beautifully. Paul isn’t trying to make peace with the prequels. He actually likes them. While there may be many YouTube connoisseurs who feel differently, there are just as many who do enjoy them. For further reference, see box office and DVD sales.

In addition, no one is disputing the bad acting and poor elements of script. The Star Wars Heresies is about peeling the lens back and applying scholarly analysis and discovery.

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Comment by Jonathan L. Bowen
2014-02-11 02:09:29

So let me get this straight… Basically, if someone loves the prequels and defends them against people who in our minds really just “don’t get it” for reasons I cannot fathom, then we are the pathetic ones who are clinging to our love of the saga? Huh?! My girlfriend thinks the prequels are way better movies than the originals and so do many young people today. That’s called opinion. You’re entitled to it. I think all 6 films are part of one story and each great, so I don’t choose favorites. But what I’m baffled about is this whole nonsense about “the prequels” this, “the prequels” that. What is this “the prequels” thing?! I mean if you wanted to say, “The Phantom Menace was a mixed bag, and I’m not alone, since look at the reviews, some people liked it, some were disappointed.” Ok, I’ll give you that, at least, even though the film was a massive success with audiences and people loved it overall. But to say “the prequels” were poor or disappointing or whatever else… You didn’t think that. I’m sorry, but you are wrong. You walked out of that theater after seeing Revenge of the Sith you and you knew it was a great film you just saw. So did Time. So did USA Today. So did almost every critic around! It was hailed as a masterpiece by some critics, one of the best Star Wars films or THE best Star Wars film by many more, and universally praised by fans as the dark film they wanted to see. So don’t tell me 10 years later that you didn’t like it or that it was a poor movie, when you know dang good and well that isn’t true. You are the one who should be defending your completely inaccurate, completely misguided, brainwashed opinion. It’s not an original thought to go along like a sheep with the prequel haters, when in reality these same people all were online after ROTS saying, “This is the film Lucas should have made from the start! That was a great movie.” Then suddenly, you haven’t seen it in 10 years, so you start with this nonsense about “the prequels” sucked? Excuse me?

It’s truly pathetic how the “representative” members of our fan base, because they are so loud and obnoxious, have become little whiner fanboys who have nothing more useful to contribute than, “Well it was all down hill with the Ewoks and we all know Return of the Jedi sucked. Empire was the only good Star Wars movie, but the first one was ok too it just wasn’t as good since Lucas did it. The prequels suck. I’m the biggest Star Wars fan in the world!” NO, you are NOT. Get it out of your mind! If you dislike 4 of the 6 STAR WARS MOVIES, the freakin’ Rain Man could tell you that you’re not a Star Wars fan. A fan is going to be someone who actually LOVES the movies, which doesn’t mean you selectively like a couple of them. That makes you a non-fan, I’m sorry. Get over it.

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Comment by Din
2014-02-11 13:11:27

I watched The Phantom Menace after reading much of your book Paul, and enjoyed it even more. Despite some weak moment, these films are so well done, that even after hundreds of viewing I still find them entertaining and intriguing. Even helpful as myth, guiding me through some of the trials of life with timeless wisdom and high artistic craft.

As Qui-Gon said, “Your focus determines your reality.” Sadly, this guy has to try an attack on you Paul, by saying your wonderful observations are “pretentious nonsense.” Insinuating that you somehow wrote that viewers were not smart enough to get this stuff. You never said that. A ridiculous attempt to put words in your mouth that are simply not there. It’s not nonsense, you’ve point out all the wonderful things about the Prequels, and have shown that the movies are certainly not nonsense.

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