With figures for the highly-anticipated latest installment The Force Awakens smashing box office records, Star Wars seems to have brought Science Fiction to the mass market. Having overtaken previous record-holder Avatar, Star Wars has become the highest grossing film in US box office history, making over $700m in the US since its release in December 2015. Many media outlets have highlighted the fact that this figure exceeds the annual GDP of many small countries. Even slighter larger countries, such as the Central African Republic, with a population of more than 4.6 million, have a lower GDP than the latest film. This fact alone is a cause for concern, highlighting the vast economic gulf between the US and small economies across the globe, but this issue has been covered elsewhere and isn't the focus of this blog.
I've been keen to discover what has made Star Wars such a success, as other Space Opera fiction tends to be isolated to the bookshelves and DVD collections of the particularly nerdy (myself included). The Star Wars franchise undoubtedly benefits from a nostalgic audience willing to experience the next installment in a beloved series from their childhood, though this can't be the only key to its success. Ironically the answer may be that Star Wars actually bears little resemblance to Science Fiction.
Star Wars has often been described as a Western set in space and director George Lucas himself has cited his fondness for Westerns as an influence on the films. 'The Telegraph' recently explored Lucas' influences from classic films, and cited a surprising nod to Casablanca in the Mos Eisley spaceport scene. The storyline in the Star Wars trilogy is heavily character-driven and revolves mainly around intergalactic politics. Science fiction elements, such as the space setting, alien races, weapons and transports could be subsituted for less futuristic equivalents and the storyline would remain more or less unchanged. However, these elements add colour and vibrancy to the fictional world, a unique flavour that fans can emulate when they participate in cosplay, writing fanfiction or discussing the finer details of the Star Wars universe.
At heart, Star Wars is an adventure story that happens to be set in space. Perhaps this fact contributes to its enduring success in the mass market. Other series that apparently fit into a particular genre seem to follow the same formula. For example, George R R Martin's A Game of Thrones series has become an internationally popular phenonemon following the broadcast of the TV adapatation. Though set in a fantasy universe, Martin's series is driven mainly by political drama, with the fantasy elements having a limited impact on the storyline. Sexual politics and moral dilemmas are the central focus of the most dramatic storylines of the series, and this is what drives the most passionate audience debate. The White Walkers, and Daenerys' dragons come to mind as core fantasy elements, but these are still at the periphery of the main storyline and these magical creatures are as equally mythical to many characters in the story as they are to the reader. Essentially A Game of Thrones is a medieval political drama dressed up like a fantasy, as Star Wars is a Western adventure in Science Fiction's clothing.
Though there's still an opportunity for A Game of Thrones to change it's tune.
It's official - Martin disclosed in his LiveJournal blog last week that The Winds of Winter will not be published before the next series of Game of Thrones, meaning that the TV series will overtake the storyline of the novels for the first time. The announcement was made regretfully by Martin, though fans seem to have reacted in good faith. There's a good chance that the TV series will proceed very differently from the novels. With the next novel still being penned, and season six of the TV series due for release in April 2016, perhaps there's still time for the fantasy elements to come to the fore, whether in the novel, the TV series, or both. Considering how fans have invested so heavily in the characters' stories and motivations, I think it would be a shame for the series to end of a heavily fantastical note, rather than carry the character-driven story through to the end.
Having waited so long for the next installment to Martin's story, I can hardly believe it's due within the next year. There's one more thing these two cultural phenomena (Star Wars and A Game of Thrones) have in common: Their stories have been long in the making, giving time for the fans to make predictions, weave their own interpretations and side stories, and to get extremely excited for the next installment. Now that's how you capture the imagination of a mass audience.
Listing image: Lucasfilm Ltd.
References & Further Reading
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Lucasfilm Ltd (2015)
- Game Of Thrones TV series, HBO (2011 - 2015)
- Martin, A Song Of Fire And Ice series, Voyager Books (1996 - 2011)