I’ve always loved the Lord Of The Rings films. Having not read any of the books prior to seeing the movies they were my only real exposure to the Tolkien universe, other than seeing the animated film “The Hobbit,” when I was very young, to which my only memory was of being completely, utterly terrified. Since then I have read a number of Tolkien’s books but, ultimately, they all end up playing out as a Peter Jackson film in my head, such was the impact those films had on me. Not that I have a problem with that, The Lord Of The Rings films moved me on so many levels. The art, the cinematography, the storytelling, the music, the wardrobe and weapon-crafting, the lighting, the sound design… there are so many things I appreciate as an artist and fan of the genre in those films.
A couple years ago my family started a tradition of watching The Lord Of The Rings over the Christmas holiday but, this year, we changed it up and started watching the “Star Wars” trilogy instead, in preparation for the new “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” film. Unlike Tolkien’s universe, this was a franchise that had been a part of my life since my very earliest memories. I had always enjoyed the films and had many adventures of my own in my beloved B-Wing fighter (I never did get an X-Wing… not sure why, in hindsight the B-Wing was kind of a beater compared to it) but I never did completely dive into the universe. I’ve never read any of the expanded universe novels, never played any of the video games, and the cringe-worthy efforts that were the prequels, horrid as they may be, didn’t “rape my childhood” as they did for some of my friends. They were simply hard to sit through for, well, lots of reasons.
So this brings me to today, having seen a headline that the first of of the “new and improved!!!” expanded universe Star Wars novels “Aftermath” has finally been released. It got me thinking about the predicament of art in this increasingly commercialized world of ours. You see, prior to Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilms (and, subsequently, every American’s childhood memories since the 80’s) Star Wars was a fantastically huge, lived in universe, fleshed out by scores of authors, artists, fans, etc. Thousands of books, tv shows, films and games continued the stories of our favorite heroes and heroines, along with hundreds of other characters I never even knew existed.
And then, all of a sudden, with a single stroke of a pen, it all disappears.
When Disney purchased the Star Wars franchise they declared EVERYTHING, save for the six films, as no longer “canon.” In other words, they never happened. “Legends” is what I think they are calling it all now, which is, I guess, what you call something when you want it to go away without actually having it go away. But I figure it must make it a bit tough to be a hardcore Star Wars fan, considering everything you have been investing in over the past 20 years has, basically, been kicked to the curb. I understand why. To keep the bazzilion-dollar juggernaught going you can’t have a guy like JJ Abrams shoehorned into stories written by a bunch of no-name authors, right?!?!? So why not just press the galactic reboot button and start over? But think about it, at what point does something stop being art, and LOSE its intrinsic value as art, and start simply being a commodity, to be consumed and refreshed every model year? Are all of those novels, the stories they tell and the characters they brought to life not, at their most basic level, art? At least a little bit? Sure, I imagine some of those stories are pretty bad, maybe even prequel bad, but I bet you would get a completely different perspective from the authors and artists who slaved over creating them. And what about the vision of the artist who created all of this in the first place, George Lucas? Yes, flawed and, ultimately, commercialized as his vision may have been, it was still his vision.
Which brings me back to my holiday tradition, the “other” bazzilion-dollar juggernaught, The Lord Of The Rings. I had recently read an article about the possibility of new movies being made… it’s basically zero. All of the stories and characters by JRR Tolkien are under the incredibly strict control of the Tolkien estate, who has said in no uncertain terms that there will never be another film about Middle Earth. Not that there aren’t more stories to be told, Tolkien’s son, Christopher, has been completing and gently expanding on his fathers universe for many years, but simply that they will never give up the control needed for those movies to be made. Watching the fate of some of my childhoods most beloved franchises my feelings about this have changed, all the way from disappointment to “thank God!” The Tolkien estate has gotten a lot of flack for it’s hard line, accused of hoarding the property and denying children of all ages more memories of Middle Earth. But the more I think about it the more I respect their decision. LOTR and Star Wars really represent two extremes in todays massively commercialized word of “pop-art.” I know, I know, I’m comparing LOTR to Star Wars, and Tolkien himself is probably flipping in his grave right now, but stick with me. Both are the result of a single vision from highly driven artists. Both have incredibly deep, rich universes with beloved characters. Both have many more stories to tell, are hugely successful commercially and, most important, are still relevant to the masses. They both are franchises deeply engrained in the psyche of millions of people worldwide. So while I enjoyed the new Star Wars movie, I’m not entirely sure how I would feel about it if it was replacing everything I had known and loved about a property for the past 20 years. I can appreciate the Tolkien estate’s hesitance to hand over control to an industry that has proven so willing to erase it’s own art simply because they feel it’s exceeded it’s shelf life.
Perhaps this is indicative of a large problem with art in our society in general; there is simply too much of it. Need something on your walls, Ikea has 200 to choose from for $20. Spotify has all the music you could possibly want, for free! Didn’t like this years blockbuster movies? No worries, next year there will be twice as many (most of them reboots of the last reboot you saw, just in case you wanted more of that too). And, really, any old cellphone pic is just an Instagram filter from being “art.” Don’t misunderstand me, I have seen great benefits to having the unprecedented access to “art,” both great and small, that we enjoy in our society today. But could it be that the side effect is to simply make all art ubiquitous? To relegate art to a basic commodity, to be rebooted and refreshed every 10 years? I don’t really know the answer… I just know I’m glad I won’t be seeing LOTR VII: The Return of the Return of the King starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence anytime soon.