The Force Awakens: Intertextual =/= Winkingly Referential

WARNING: This post was written keeping in mind that not everyone has seen the movie. However, the discussion does include references to information that is contained in the IMDB synopsis. It also includes comparisons between generalized character descriptions for the main characters in both A New Hope and The Force Awakens. Nothing specific to the plot is discussed in this post itself. 

Since the release of The Force Awakens, haters have been hating. A generalized series of different posts include more or less the same arguments. These arguments state, in varying ways, that The Force Awakens is nothing more than another remake taking everything from A New Hope and just tweaking it a little bit. There’s nothing original. In fact, the reliance on the source material is so huge as to be distracting. In addition, this is just another cop out in a long series of Hollywood cop outs running from originality and therefore leading to meaningless, derivative movies.**

If you subscribe to this approach to TFA, I give you warning. The following will be the Festivus of Posts, in which I air my grievances regarding the Derivative Argument. There is a difference between being derivative and being intertextual. I argue that TFA is a study in intertextuality.

After posting one of these articles on my Facebook, several of my friends and I got into rousing conversations. We all supported TFA as a great movie within a genre. In fact, one of my “I totally agree with you and here’s why” posts to my friend went something like this only much more sweary and much less grammatically functional: (Note: no FB posts pre-coffee.)

1) To match a cultural icon with changing times makes sense. To “reboot” with something that changes the original enough to match what audiences want and can now ask for? I don’t see that as a bad thing (Ghostbusters, TFA, etc.)

2) Shakespeare was derivative. He just tended to do a better job than the originals. And lord knows, he wasn’t anything better than what we look down on as low culture now.

3) The are two different types of reboots that I think the articles are skimming over. I think one type is what we see with TFA or Ghostbusters: the reboot expands on the original in a new way. Yes, it’s either the same “characters” or something fairly close to the original, but it opens the world up to a new viewership.

The other is really a straight up reboot that more or less keeps the general characters the same with new actors, doesn’t expand on the original material, and leaves the world as closed off as before. As all of them are termed “derivative” or “reboot” and lumped together, they are all looked at the same way. That then closes off people for whatever reason – general obstinacy what have you – to the idea that something related to a previous franchise will be automatically bad and uncreative.

This led me to thinking: Why aren’t these the discussions happening? That led me to, “But really, what are my friends and I trying to say?” Because I think this “reboot with the same” and “reboot to change a course” are different things and that is where the relevance lies.

Me being me, I had to research. During the course of that research, I came across the term “intertextuality.” Perhaps not knowing this term comes from my being a literature in the late 1990’s. After all, that was a particularly long time ago at this point. Perhaps it is because we alluded to the term instead of stating it outright. However, the term “intertextual” explains exactly why I find TFA to be sophisticated and not redundantly derivative.

Works that engage the audience intertexually are based on a primary, well-known piece and use that well-known narrative to further themselves. One of the issues commenters have had with TFA is that it relies heavily on A New Hope for emotional contact. Without including spoilers, the Vox piece linked above argues that several scenes so closely mirror A New Hope as to have no emotional impact for the viewer on their own. Although this is a viable criticism, I think that viewing TFA as meaning to incorporate A New Hope through an intertextual lens shows it to be sophisticated, not lazy.

Bear with me a moment since this is sort of a “heavy lit crit” thing. Written by Tracey Lemaster and available through the University of Wisconsin- Madison, “What Is ‘Intertextuality?” gives an excellent definition of the term and why it is important. The two main points applicable to TFA are the function of destabilization and the effect of reinterpreting both works.

In short non-lit language this means that the referential nature of TFA is meaningful precisely because it breaks down A New Hope and precisely because you need both of the works in comparison and contrast to understand each better. A quick example would be comparing West Side Story to Romeo and Juliet. Despite the referential nature of West Side Story, it cannot be viewed as solely derivative. It requires the cultural contextual touchstone of Romeo and Juliet for its power. In other words, because everyone knows Romeo and Juliet, the forbidden romance between Maria and Tony has a deeper meaning. Not only is it a reinterpretation, but it gives a new meaning to, or “destabilizes,” the original.

Getting more technical and specific, destabilizing and reinterpreting A New Hope as the referential text through The Force Awakens means that it is not a derivative work or a simple, unimaginative “reboot.” It specifically and meaningfully uses comparisons to A New Hope in much the same way that West Side Story used Romeo and Juliet.

Lemaster defines these terms perfectly. According to “What Is ‘Intertextuality’?”, destabilization intends to “shake up our understanding of, the original text being referenced or a scene or idea in the primary book. The original text may be a “story” that most feel very familiar with, but its use or reframing by the primary book changes our feelings or reveals something new about this original story.”

In terms of TFA, this means that the continual references to A New Hope are meaningful as opposed to lazy. Even people who have never seen A New Hope know many of the details. They know the characters. They know the lonely boy on a desert planet found by an older warrior. They know that R2D2 carries the message that Leia needs Obi-Wan to help her since he’s her only hope. However, when Abrams uses these touchstones in The Force Awakens, they give us entirely different messages.

Comparing Rey to Luke as the orphan on a desert planet automatically sets her up as the heroine of the tale. Despite the marketing, the story is not Finn’s story. Rey is our hero. Therefore, this comparison automatically takes apart the original movie, destabilizing it, and gives a reinterpretation. Where the original hero was a man, we now have a woman. Where everyone remembers early-IV-Whiny-Luke, everyone sees Rey as independent, self-sufficient, and decidedly UNwhiny.

Without that 1:1 comparison, Rey’s character would not be as meaningful within the context of the Star Wars Universe for reinventing exactly that aspect of the original character that even the diehardiest of fans admits was pretty miserable. Moving further, and without giving any plot points away, Rey is also far less in need of a sidekick to save her. Luke needed to have Han around to save him. Rey neither needs Finn nor wants him to save her.

Continuing to compare characters and their purposes, taking a look at BB-8 and R2D2 gives another point of comparison between the two movies. This point is one that many people have undertaken as being lazy. However, let’s visit this in terms of a destabilization of the original. Everyone is cognizant of the hologram of Leia beseeching the Jedi master, to “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” BB-8 also carries a secret message that includes information leading to the location of a lost Jedi.

At first glance, this seems to set up lazy writing. “Why couldn’t Abrams just find a new method of information delivery? Why use a droid? AGAIN?” Once more, Abrams has destabilized the original by using the touchstone moments to redefine his new presentation and his new focus. Unlike R2D2 who acts a conduit for a woman seeking saving, BB-8 acts as a conduit for providing information leading to a person who does not want to be found. This comparison again reinforces the independent female lead character, Rey.

Intertextuality requires an understanding of how we interpret a work but also requires an analysis of the effect of that interpretation. To once again quote Lemaster, intertextuality “can create a simultaneous re-reading of both the primary book and its intertext. This involves a back-and-forth re- reading of each text based on what their similarities and differences reveal about one another.” Reviewing The Force Awakens, and the criticism thereof, through the intertextual lens, we can see how both works need to be understood simultaneously in order to really understand them individually when we compare them.

For example, we can take the story of Rey being an orphan on a desert planet on its own. We can understand her desire to belong and find family simply through her narrative arc. We can find her strong through her characterization and her really excellent technical skills. All of these are obvious independently within the story.

Adding the mirror of A New Hope to this interpretation gives Rey’s story a greater depth. As stated earlier, we understand Rey’s story differently due to our touchstone understanding of Luke. We see the similarities between the two characters. The differences in Rey highlight those characteristics that are often disliked in Luke. Simultaneously, when “reading” the two stories next to one another, we also have a different understanding of Luke. His desire to leave Tatooine contrasts Rey’s desire to remain on Jakku.

Instead of seeing a whiny youth, we see Luke as someone unsure of his role in the world seeking to find it. Rey’s desire to remain on Jakku, in contrast, shows her as wanting to regain that which she has lost not seek something new. These differences highlight both characters. Reading these narratives next to one another gives greater understanding and reinterpretation of both. Again, rather than Abrams employing lazy writing, I argue here that his writing was incredibly sophisticated and attempted to breathe new life into A New Hope as well as provide us with a new story in The Force Awakens.

A great fuss has kicked up about Rey and Finn and their representation of generally under-represented groups. The intertextual analysis once more gives greater insight into why and how Abrams might have chosen to so closely mirror A New Hope. A New Hope granted us entrance into the expansive world of Star Wars. It gave us heroes and a heroine. It gave us droids and smugglers and The Force.

However, it also gave us a lot of white men and one woman. Many people felt left out of Star Wars. By bringing in a female main character and a person of color as the second in command, Abrams opened up the world of Star Wars to people who had previously not seen themselves. This means that bringing the old storylines and plot devices into The Force Awakens gives depth to those original movies. Abrams did not present this story in a lazy manner. He specifically chose to harken back to the originals because he wanted the outsiders to feel inside.

The intertextual aspect of The Force Awakens means that those viewers being brought into the Star Wars Universe are being brought into THE Star Wars Universe. It is the same one. It is not an all-new, all different one. It has all the hallmarks of Star Wars, but it adds the ability to read more people into the story. The parallels to A New Hope causing consternation are using the original reference material and rewriting that reference material through this usage. Abrams has recreated Star Wars as the Star Wars people always wanted by making Rey similar to Luke, Poe similar to Han, BB-8 similar to R2D2.

** First, I need to make a generalized, non-Star Wars statement regarding derivative works in Hollywood. Creativity in Hollywood has been on the decline for years. Culturally speaking, we look to these media for “new ideas” and often argue that they should do something high and mighty. To that, I would like to note: Hollywood movies are a business. If you are sinking more than $100 million into a project, you aren’t going to just do it “for the sake of art.” We disdain the Bennys of the world, but the reality of art is that creation without monetization won’t happen. Everyone likes money. Go ahead, ask that creative friend of yours to do something for you for free and see what the response is. Yup, thought so.

When you aren’t willing to put the money and effort into something original and risky, then you will lose people and therefore make bad product which then leads to the stereotype of awful. The lower monetary investment for things like cable television shows and streaming originals means that those media can afford the risk. If the show doesn’t work, they can cut their losses and run. Yet, we assume television is a lower cultural form than movies, than theater, and so on and so forth. So, yes, while a large number of the “original” and “creative” movies recently have maybe been dismal, it makes logical sense to stick with what you know in terms of business trying to coexist with art.

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Karen Walsh is a part time, extended contract, first year writing instructor at the University of Hartford. In other words, she's SuperAdjunct, complete with capes and Jedi robe worn during grading. She also works as a contract internal regulatory compliance auditor for banks. In addition, she writes comics and artist reviews at www.cosplayconnectuniversity.com.She works in order to support knitting, comics, tattoo, and museum membership addictions. She has one dog, one husband, and one son who all live with her just outside of Hartford, CT.