When the current generation of American children looks back on the first decade of the 21st century, it is possible that the three names it will most readily recall will be not Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and George W. Bush but Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, and Luke (or Anakin) Skywalker. Never before have three ongoing series of films -- the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter franchises -- proved so fabulously profitable and internationally popular.
The original Star Wars (1977) grossed $513 million worldwide, and its 1997 re-release earned $460 million. International theatrical rentals of the film swelled the total by an additional $779 million. (Not bad for a film that cost $11 million to produce.) The Fellowship of the Rings (2001) has proved fabulously popular, with worldwide grosses totaling $860 million and worldwide rentals $500 million. The Harry Potter series has produced only slightly less magical returns, with $600 million in worldwide rentals alone for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Nor will the flood of such films subside anytime soon. The VHS and DVD editions of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets have recently been released. The theatrical premiere of The Return of the King (the third part of The Lord of the Rings) is slated for December 2003. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire are due out in 2004 and 2005. The next Star Wars film will be released in 2005, and a third trilogy of Star Wars movies is now in the planning stages.
While each of these series is impressively original, collectively they exhibit enough common features to prompt the question of why a certain film genre, loosely categorized as science fiction/fantasy (purists would scoff at this conflation), has unexpectedly assumed pre-eminence in contemporary culture. The question is no less relevant for viewers, such as myself, who have been disappointed by some of the recent episodes in these series -- The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
The popularity of these films owes much to the immense talent that has made possible their cinematic realization (and, with The Lord of the Rings if not Harry Potter, to the literary genius that gave birth to the novels on which the films are based). Technological advances in special effects and computer-generated imaging have lent a narrative credibility and spectacular quality to these movies that hitherto was unachievable. (By contrast, recall Ralph Bakshi's feeble 1977 animated rendering of The Lord of the Rings). The fact that all three series appeal to a broad audience that includes children and adolescents, as opposed to more "serious" films that market themselves exclusively to "mature" viewers, no doubt helps explain their box office success. But we are left to wonder why these particular films, as opposed to so many other well-crafted, financially successful, and technologically advanced pictures aimed at a general audience -- Ice Age, Stuart Little, Toy Story, Shrek -- have proved so culturally resonant.
One significant feature common to all three series is a dramatically compelling (as opposed to a didactically plodding) struggle between good and evil. The protagonists of these films do battle with a potent, even superhuman incarnation of evil: Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, Voldemort in Harry Potter, Darth Vader in Star Wars. Neatly counterpoised to these demonic figures are characters possessing magical or mystical powers who lead the fight for goodness and justice: Gandalf, Dumbledore, Obi-Wan Kenobi (and Yoda). Between these moral poles stand a set of emblematic heroes -- Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker -- who, though they struggle against evil, nevertheless discover that they are related to or tempted by the evil figure they ostensibly oppose. Their struggle against evil ultimately turns out to be internal as much as it is external. As the literary critic Tom Shippey has pointed out, J.R.R. Tolkien's Rings trilogy makes a strong theological appeal. Like Harry Potter and Star Wars, it offers a mythological explanation of the apparent chaos, pain, disappointment, horror, and violence of the world in terms of a Manichean struggle of cosmic forces.
But if each of these series reiterates a theological narrative rooted in Western European Christian societies, they nonetheless respond to a specifically modern set of social anxieties. Indeed, each expresses a deep discomfort with modernity itself. If the fundamental narrative structure of the films borrows heavily from tradition, the specific forms that both good and evil assume within them are those of the modern world.
This may seem counterintuitive, given that science fiction and fantasy famously provide an escape from the realities of contemporary life. Yet all three series remain thematically rooted in the social problems from which they provide a cinematic holiday. Each represents an imaginary world that is and yet is not our own. Each presents a critical view of our modern world, and each offers a glimpse of a different and preferable modernity. These alternative worlds integrate appealing elements of the premodern past into a vision of the future.
One of the contemporary discontents to which all three series respond is a general boredom with modern bourgeois existence. The escapism of these stories is an antidote to the routine that is the special curse of safe, static middle-class life. The suffocating and vulgarly materialistic world of the Dursleys, the family that initially raises the orphaned Harry Potter; the pettiness and relative inconsequence of life in the Shire, where Frodo Baggins was born; the laborious and task-centered existence of the young Luke Skywalker on his aunt and uncle's dusty provincial farm -- all bespeak the ordinary world of the middle class. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone provides an especially unfavorable view of modern bourgeois life. The Dursley home is what Harry most eagerly wishes to escape: His life is literally cramped, his daily existence reduced to the meager dimensions of a closet-cum-bedroom under the stairs.
It is no accident that all three series initially focus on the fortunes of an adventurous youth. Harry, Luke, and Frodo all secretly hope not to become like their elders. Though by no means revolutionary firebrands, all rebel against the older generation. All share a common desire for freedom, travel, and heroic adventure, a yearning to leave behind the safe but restrictive world in which they were raised.
The fact that such narratives strike a responsive chord among parents as well as their children suggests that the lure of adolescent rebellion against bourgeois life may be as strong -- or stronger -- for middle-aged, middle-class adults whose hopes of realizing their youthful romantic aspirations are rapidly fading. If The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter reject the modern bourgeois order, each also implicitly rejects the notion that each generation should emulate and carry on the traditions of their elders. As such, all three exemplify the spirit of romantic rebellion against the modern bourgeois order -- a rebellion that is itself fundamentally modern and bourgeois. Each generation thinks of itself as progressive and its parents as conservative or reactionary. Yet the traditions of the older generation are in no way deeply rooted in the past, emerging instead from a relatively recent rejection of the norms of a not-so-distant generation.
This cycle of generational revolt is complicated by the curious fact that the heroes of these romances ultimately stumble on a secret inheritance at odds with their staid middle-class lives. Each learns that his true parents are nothing like the people who actually raised him. Luke makes the fateful discovery that his father was a Jedi knight. Harry finds his real parents were wizards. Frodo takes after his errant, widely traveled, and eccentric uncle Bilbo, who bequeaths to him the very ancient Ring of Power. All these romantic heroes rebel against their given social role and paternal expectations in the name of a hitherto concealed "true" identity rooted in an obscure and mysterious past. To become a wizard, a Jedi, or the Ring bearer is to claim an ancient title and anachronistic position impossible to reconcile with the narrow social possibilities and historical limitations of life in Little Whinging, the Shire, or a rural community on the outskirts of a galactic empire.
Were the heroes of these films to leave their tedious lives for a world utterly alien from the mundane ones they had known, these stories would offer pure escapism. Instead, each encounters a hellish version of the modern world he has fled. In the first Star Wars trilogy, Luke battles an empire propped up by a vast, robot-like army of imperial storm troopers and equipped with the most deadly weapon of mass destruction, the Death Star. Joining a loose confederation of rebels, he helps spearhead a war of independence against a regime that is soulless, tyrannical, hegemonic, and technologically based. Given that George Lucas' original trilogy was produced during the final years of the Cold War, it is not hard to identify his Empire with what Ronald Reagan famously described as "the Evil Empire." (That critics of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative derisively dubbed that program "Star Wars" further melded the series with historical reality.) Despite costumes freely adapted from the Flash Gordon serials and titles borrowed from Roman antiquity, the Empire represents a fusion of fascist and communist elements.
Luke and the other freedom fighters who oppose this totalitarian menace are characterized by their relative independence (suggested by Han Solo's very name), their voluntary and negotiable participation in the great struggle, and their comparatively decentralized forms of resistance and military organization. Perhaps the most interesting thematic development of the second trilogy (now two-thirds complete) is the revelation that the Empire emerged historically out of an apparently free and republican federation of planets. While reiterating in simplified form the transformation of republican into imperial Rome, the overall arc of the Lucas films hints that the totalitarian Empire issued from the ostensibly democratic and free Federation. And whereas the first trilogy celebrated the exploits of independent smugglers (Han and Chewbacca) who join up to fight an oppressive Empire that controls galactic trade, the second trilogy begins with the revelation that an evil Trade Federation, sanctioned by the Republic, secretly plots to take over the independent planet of Naboo. Surely the doubts about the collusive relationship between big business and big government, and the growing concern with the attendant loss of freedom in the Republic, reflect the changed post�Cold War environment of the 1990s: The only hegemon remaining is not the Evil Empire of the Soviets (much less the ever more transparent ghost of Nazi Germany) but the last great superpower: America.
Lucas claims to have laid out the overall arc of his story long before the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Even so, there is an unexpectedly subversive strain in the Star Wars saga that has become more pronounced as the long narrative has unfolded. The whole series turns, after all, on the fact that the great hero of the Federation, the Jedi Anakin Skywalker, goes over to the "dark side." In the process, he literally loses his individual human features and becomes something halfway between man and machine, trapped within the inhuman armor and featureless technological mask of Darth Vader. That the defenders of individual freedom and democratic liberty might paradoxically come to resemble the totalitarian enemy they once opposed is darkly suggested by the final scene of the first Star Wars film. Lucas' concluding shot of Han, Luke, and Chewbacca triumphantly advancing toward the dais on which stands Princess Leia recalls a famous scene from the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will: Leni Riefenstahl's high-angled shot of Hitler and two top aides (including Goebbels) walking in measured fashion between the vast crowds at the 1934 Nuremberg rallies. The grim suggestion of the Star Wars films, borne out by the more spectacular but dramatically less compelling second series, is that the regime that once represented freedom and democracy has itself become corrupt, centralized, soulless, intrusive, despotic, and imperial.
Frodo's quest in The Lord of the Rings brings him face to face with a similarly terrifying image of modern political life. As Shippey has noted, notwithstanding Tolkien's denial that his trilogy was an allegory of the political events of 1939�45, both Isengard and Mordor, the realms of the Tolkien villains Saruman and Sauron, exhibit many features of 20th-century totalitarian states. (To be fair, they also exemplify characteristics of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Turkish powers of World War I.) Once enemies, Saruman and Sauron have become allies, though their alliance is built on the mutual recognition that the weaker must ultimately serve the stronger. Their dark kingdoms lack all individual liberties. They rule vast worker-states devoted to conquest and marked by compulsory military service and forced labor. Their orc armies consist of deformed and inhuman masses lacking relations, beliefs, traditions, and interests outside the direct control of the state. In a scene vividly captured in one of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, Saruman breeds a new species of orc, the Uruk-Hai. Such eugenically designed creatures literally owe their existence to the regime's dark powers.