It was May 19, 1999. The air smelled of butter . The marquis glittered with thousands of speckled lights designed to bring you back in time. In this case, not to the 1920's when the Ziegfeld Theater was at its height, but the late 1970's when a seven year old kid was first introduced to Han, Luke, and Leia. In that line, excitement fizzed, it popped, and some people practically goobered. This was Star Wars. This was a chance to go back to our childhood, an opportunity experience something new, and to meet new friends. There was even a cultural connection that transcended nerdiness and nostalgia that transcended the space opera. The originals had become part of our culture in adopted language, phrases, and iconic images.
That was why I chose the Ziegfeld Theater. I wanted to choose someplace historic. Someplace celebratory. Someplace incredibly New York. Several blocks away, my first play would open in an Off-Off Broadway house, but this was worth an opening night. I put aside my pen and purchased my ticket and picked a seat. The floor was clean, no sticky pull here, and the chandeliers glowed like a constellation of stars not seen from our orbit. Then I heard a voice, no not James Earl Jones, or Anthony Daniels, but a concessions girl. She was sequined like something from out of a movie. She carried a small try full of drinks and popcorn, candies, and other goodies. Her hair was done up period style, and you could almost imagine her shouting, "Cigarettes! Popcorn!" like a character in an old black and white movie. I raised my hand and asked about a soda. It was Star Wars after all. I was at the Ziegfeld after all. She calmly smiled and said, "That'll be two dollars." Two dollars? It was the first time I heard my father's voice in my head. "Two dollars," he complained, "I can buy two liters for seventy-nine cents!"
In the end, I couldn't do it. Out loud, I declined much more politely and she left. Soon after, the movie began. Even if you're not a Star Wars fan or a nerd, you've probably heard about what a disappointment that film was. I knew coming in that the movie could conjure the magic my seven year old self felt. Even if it was just as good, I wasn't a kid anymore. Plus, the movie had all the disadvantage of having not only to compete with the original, but its hype, and the experience of thousands of hours of play with my friends. What movie could climb that peak? Still, the movie had a terrible flaw one that has served as a lesson to all my future writings for NPR, the stage, and in print. There was no dirt on the spaceships. In their lust for special effects and CGI, the film makers crafted a world that was too perfect. It was not real anymore. It was not lived in. This was the failure of the Phantom Menace. It was special effects and action over everything. They had good actors, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGreggor, Kierra Knightly, etc. It wasn't a dearth of talent that killed the movie. It was the story.
Character must come first. Plot must come second. The special effects, the action, the escapes, and the impossible must live nestled within that. If you don't care for the characters you won't care for the story. If you don't live in that world you won't care what happens to it. Ray Bradbury once said that you have to activate at least three of the five senses in your first paragraph to grab your reader's attention. I think this is true, but if you grab their attention, you better make a grab for their sensibility and heart too.
You need to remember that special effects are not the story. The beautiful faces and trappings of setting are not the story. Even the lurching, choreographed action is not the story. The story is the glue that ties together the moments and its core ideas and philosophies. It is the reason we respond to the beauty and power of a your prose or that flickering celluloid. It's the reason we think about a book and discuss it afterwards.
I don't think that's a moral fit only for science fiction writers. I think there needs to be dirt on the space ship in mystery, romance, and literary fiction too. A great mystery can make you think, but if you lose the character and the story in place of the puzzle... well, no one will care about the solution. Likewise, a romance without characters you care about isn't romance. It's porn. Maybe that's harsh, but I think even it's true. Even the lightest of escapism or the most absurd humor needs to be grounded in humanity. In any case, as the new Star Wars awaits, the inner child in me readies himself. I just hope that its skeleton is the writer's tale, a director's story, and the actors portrayal. If so, who knows... maybe this time I'll spring for the soda and enjoy the fizz of the tale.
Andrew Hiller is writer, reporter, and commentator who has worked with NPR, the Washington Post, and VOR. His latest fantasy novel, A Halo of Mushrooms, is a story filled with wonder, wisdom, and dessert.