Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Literary Theory

Strangely often I find myself arguing with people about The Last Jedi. They say it’s no good, one of the worst Star Wars movies put to film; I say it’s great. This debate comes up with friends from work, classmates from undergrad, and even people I’m just meeting in grad school. It’s following me everywhere I go—or maybe I just like to argue. In either case, it’s on my mind a lot.

That’s why when the video below was recommended to me, it immediately intrigued me. And having watched it a couple times now, I think it articulated thoughts and arguments I had yet been able to capture.

If you hate good video essays or you don’t have twelve minutes to spare, I’ll summarize the video for you.

The narrator describes the previous video he made in which he defended The Last Jedi for its competent filmmaking—its ability to provide a strong, coherent narrative (a surprisingly difficult feat). He says, however, that he received a surprising amount of backlash after the video was published by fans who, while they agree that the movie checked off those storytelling-boxes, still held radically different opinions of the movie, who thought that the movie was “not well executed.”

This sort of discrepancy and ambiguity leads the narrator to turn to the field of literary theory and the concept of reader-response.

In short, reader-response theory is the idea that readers bring their own thoughts to bear upon the text. Stanley Fish developed and popularized this idea, claiming that readers subconsciously fill in the blanks inherent in any work and thereby synthesize its meaning.

In 1984 Janice Radway wrote a book called Reading the Romance which helped elucidate this phenomenon. She studied the reading habits of 42 lower-middle class women who primarily read romance novels. She found that these women would usually “read rapidly, often skipping to the end, pay no attention to literary style… identify strongly with characters (especially heroines), and care most about story and plot line.” Beyond this, they had very prescriptive criteria for enjoying a book, like no violent heroes or the absence of ambiguous endings.

Radway’s findings help demonstrate the existence of “interpretive communities,” communities with their own criteria for consuming media and defining what is good.

This is especially true for the Star Wars community. The Star Wars community and fans have their own criteria for what makes a good movie. And that criteria is not “good moviemaking” in the classical sense but respect for the franchise.

On that front, The Last Jedi fails miserably. And it does so deliberately. The movie deliberately subverts escapism, and instead opts for disappointment, failure, loss, child slavery, murder, and more disappointment. While I would argue all day that these are features that elevate the movie, there can be no denying that they do not exist in that typical canon of criteria for the Star Wars community.

Star Wars Last Jedi - Throne Room Fight

As much as it pains me to accept others’ opinions (like seriously hurts me physically), we have to acknowledge that different people want different things—and that’s OK. We have to acknowledge that people value things disproportionately. For some, the dozen minutes of screen time devoted to Canto Bight is enough to ruin the movie. I have to realize, as much as I love the throne room fight or Luke drenching himself in blue milk—and as much as I think those scenes redeem a thousand flaws—that other people are looking for other things.

This is not a post about me realizing that other people can have their opinions—your opinions are wrong if they’re not right (read: not mine)—but is about realizing that for some, Star Wars is about the mythos and the escapism and the simplicity of the world. While I will contend with anyone who chooses to engage that this latest installment most fully captures the theme of the series as established in A New Hope, I am content to admit that following the effective rules of storytelling and moviemaking is not what many are looking for—some people just want Star Wars.

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