Last month, Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve caused quite a stir in the Star Wars community. Talking with FANDOM about his upcoming film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic Dune, Villeneuve described his vision for the project: “The ambition is to do the Star Wars movie I never saw,” he said. “In a way, it’s Star Wars for adults.” Naturally, this offhand comment sent fans into an uproar. With the phrase “Star Wars for adults,” Villeneuve is very clearly asserting that Star Wars itself is “for kids.”

To which I reply: You’re damn right Star Wars is for kids! And that’s precisely what makes it so beloved and so culturally resonant.      

Star Wars TV series

Dune vs. Star Wars

But first, a caveat: I don’t think Villeneuve really meant to disparage Star Wars, per se – he points out in the very same interview that Dune and Star Wars share a similar mythology and similar details, so his concern about separating his adaptation of Dune from the more conventionally known sci-fi universe of Star Wars seems to be mainly fueled by a creative desire to produce something artistically distinct.

For my own part, I’m fine with the distinction: I, erm, completely loathed Dune. It was the book that turned me off from sci-fi books for years after I finally, finally turned the last page of that first installment and breathed a sigh of relief. Sure, Dune is one of the bestselling science fiction novels of all time, but I found it to be as dry as the sands of – excuse me while I look up the name of the desert planet that is not Tatooine or Jakku – Arrakis.

I don’t mean to disparage fans of the Dune saga, since it’s obviously appreciated by many, but for me, it lacked heart. Star Wars, as much as it also traffics in intergalactic spice trades and political upheavals and violent uprisings, is not really about all that. It’s about finding friendship in unlikely places, having courage in the face of unspeakable odds, and standing up for one’s beliefs. And yes, it’s about escaping to a world where the bad guys are literally dressed head-to-toe in black, where robots are our buddies, and where Ewoks, Porgs, and even Gungans stretch the whimsical limits of our imaginations.

Star Wars The Last Jedi images

But what about escapism?

As children’s author Madeleine L’Engle once said: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” Or in Yoda’s words, after a mere youngling helps Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi locate a missing planet: “Truly wonderful the mind of a child is.” Sometimes, a simplified – but unexpectedly wise – child’s-eye view of the universe is precisely what we need.

Children’s stories that are consumed by adults are often dismissed as works of “escapism.” This term is tossed around as a tried and true insult and is applied to something that ostensibly has no real value or worth. Escapist fiction, like all kinds of children’s entertainment (which included, until recent decades, comic books), is considered a drug-like substitute for stories that more directly reflect the world we live in. Escapism is looked upon as a detriment to the human experience, distracting us from “the real world” in order to light up the brain’s reward circuits with empty pleasures.

But escapism gets a bad rap. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but “the real world” can be pretty terrible – so, at worst, escapist fantasy brings people some much-needed happiness for a bit. But like all works of fiction, escapist fiction also does so much more. As Neil Gaiman explains in his collection of essays, The View From the Cheap Seats:

“If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As J.R.R. Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.”

Like the term “guilty pleasure,” the concept of “escapism” is a fallacy. The stories we spend time with do have inherent value. Whether you’re gaining strength from a fearless, Huttslaying princess, learning forgiveness from a newly minted Jedi Knight, or simply cuddling with a life-sized Porg plushie, the joy you get from Star Wars is real – “escapist” or not.

Star Wars as a moral fantasy

George Lucas has made it pretty clear that Star Wars was geared towards children from the beginning. Let’s review the story: Farm kid wants to join space college like all his cool friends. But his aunt and uncle make him do chores! Kid meets crazy old wizard who confirms he’s meant for something more. Aunt and uncle die, kid is sad but realizes he can now fulfill his destiny. Kid teams up with a sidekick who needs to learn to be less selfish. They rescue a princess who doesn’t need much rescuing, since she’s a smart and capable young woman and not a damsel in distress. They join a group of rebels who are fighting against an evil empire. Kid uses his special power to destroy the big, scary superweapon. Etcetera.

I won’t go through every film, but you get the idea: Star Wars plays around in the sandbox of mythical narratives (most famously, the Hero’s Journey) that are universally recognizable and appealing to all ages. The Star Wars stories are very, very different from, say, a movie about slavery in the American South or a television show about a cancer-stricken, meth-cooking chemistry teacher. Star Wars is unabashedly moralistic, teaching us that evil must be fought, that the vulnerable must be defended, that love is stronger than hate – and it presents these ideals without irony or grey-scaled caveats. “Adult” fiction often unflinchingly describes the way the world is, but children’s stories describe the way the world should be.

The most widely esteemed Star Wars content currently airs on Disney XD, a channel geared towards kids between the ages of 6 and 14. Star Wars Rebels – like The Clone Wars before it – is an animated children’s show which presents tidy moral lessons (in the case of Clone Wars, these mantras are literally spelled out on-screen) in 22-minute increments. I can’t speak for the 6 – 14 demographic, since I don’t have many friends in that age range. But I know plenty of Star Wars fans above the age of 25 (myself included) who absolutely adore Rebels. Whether we watch it despite the fact that it’s written for children or because of it, we still know exactly what we’re in for – and it ain’t The Punisher.

For example, November’s mid-season finale ended with Ghost captain Hera Syndulla taken into custody by the Empire. Adult viewers know she’s going to be fine, and it’s not just because she has already cropped up unharmed in chronologically later stories. We know Hera is going to make it out of this quandary because Star Wars Rebels is a kids’ show, and if you’re looking forward to witnessing the Empire yank out a character’s fingernails as a method of torture, you’re probably on the wrong channel. And in the wrong saga.

We’re not watching Rebels in order to be exposed to brutal coercion tactics enacted by dictatorial regimes. The setting is merely a springboard for exploring themes of found families (the Ghost crew, the original trilogy trio), dedication to a cause larger than oneself (“Godspeed, Rebels!”), and the importance of hope in dark times. These notions may seem cheesy when held up next to the harsh realities of our world, but that’s why we need children’s stories – especially fantasy stories – to remind us of the ideals long forgotten by jaded adults.

Star Wars definitely embodies a more simplistic morality. Children will have their whole lives to figure out where they stand on corporate tax cuts, subsidized housing projects, and sexual liberation, but their moral consciences must first be shaped from nothing, and they can learn to exercise this burgeoning moral conscience in a safe and simpler space – in a galaxy far, far away.

Going back to basics can be important for adults, too, as we are confronted with moral lessons we have lost sight of while wading in the weeds of IRL politics. When old Ben Kenobi is confronted by his old nemesis Maul in the Rebels episode “Twin Suns,” their final battle is unexpectedly short, and it culminates with Ben cradling Maul’s dying body and treating him with surprisingly tender respect. “Twin Suns” is not supposed to be a practical guide to the intergalactic criminal justice system; rather, it presents a larger – and smaller – lesson about the virtue of forgiveness, and the crippling bitterness caused by constant hatred and spite.

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