As if it needed the help, Star Wars: The Force Awakens galvanised the film franchise as a pop culture and a financial phenomenon. While the prequels didn’t damage the comfort blanket of the original trilogy as such, they hadn’t necessarily added to them hugely either. The buzz around The Force Awakens suggested something quite different. Something new but also reminiscent. Something better than we had seen in decades. The anticipation for Episode VII was rewarded and deserved, delivering a rejuvenated existing fanbase and mobilising a whole new generation of devotees. But why? What is it about Star Wars above all else that’s so compelling? Why does every magazine from Good Housekeeping to WIRED put the films’ glitterati on their front covers? In his new book, The World According to Star Wars, Cass R. Sunstein aims to answer all those questions, including on which order you should watch the growing number of episodes.
A media lecturer of mine once advised against overly picking apart the entertainment you love most, because it may lose all its magic. You might not like what you see from behind the curtain. Thankfully, The World According to Star Wars only seems to intensify the fascination. Looking at Star Wars both from the outside in and vice versa, we get the full picture on why it works so well.
To understand the cultural explosion, we first have to know where it all began. Sunstein doesn’t skimp on the details when it comes to the films’ origins. He delves into the world of how George Lucas went about creating the characters, writing the fairytales that became the enduring saga and, importantly, he looks at all the stuff Lucas threw in the bin. Knowing what was left out is just as crucial as the pieces that made it to the screen. Despite his contagious adoration for Star Wars, Sunstein also doesn’t pretend that anyone thought A New Hope had any, well, hope of succeeding the way it did. “There was a general feeling on set that we were making a complete turkey,” Anthony Daniels had said. And yet, as the author titles the second chapter, it was an expected flop that became the defining work of our time.
The surprise blockbuster success doesn't get left to a sense of non-scientific destiny. Sunstein ditches the easy shoulder shrug to dip into the science of what makes one creative venture soar while another never gets its wings. This is one of many chapters where the book goes beyond the realm of Star Wars to consider the wider world. It could be that A New Hope was the perfect film, but it could also be that the echo chamber of people singing its praises encouraged more people to pay for a ticket, tempting them to fall in love with it too. It may be that it was just incredibly well-timed and the content managed to take the global pulse of that moment. Every avenue is explored and backed up with research into how audiences behave. Much like falling in love with another human being, giving our hearts to Star Wars was apparently just as much about a lucky moment as it was a clamorous connection.
The author employs the same style to explore the other themes within Star Wars. He considers what the films tell us about the relationships between fathers and sons by linking it all up to his own family relationships; thinking too about what it means for daughters now that Rey is the new Luke Skywalker. We ponder the concepts of freewill, gender equality and free speech, wondering where real life law and politics cross over into the fantasy. Where they infiltrate the story, he takes it to that nerdy “What if?” place. It’s almost impossible not to add your own thoughts along the way. Most fascinating personally was the chapter on rebellion and fallen empires. The attraction of the Star Wars resistance isn’t all about a swaggering punky ethic, though it certainly helps. Here Sunstein gives a full rundown of why actual empires fall and the genuine influence people power has. It's never been contested that Star Wars is packed with politics, but breaking down the social science background makes understanding why it’s so successful that much easier and more satisfying.
Knowing that Cass Sunstein is both a White House legal advisor and a Harvard Professor of Law might suggest an inaccessible book lacking in fun and loaded with legalese. It is neither of those things. While he does use some academic research to back up what he proposes, he doesn’t do so by sacrificing the entertainment factor. Where things get complicated, it's neatly broken down into bitesize chunks. Where he discusses his own family in particular there is incredible warmth and affection. If you’re going to write a book about why you love Star Wars so much and dedicate it to your young son - albeit a book that also makes it interesting for those unfortunate souls who don’t subscribe to the fairytale - you can’t really do that well without letting your emotions nestle alongside the data.
The only downside to The World According to Star Wars, if you can even call it such a thing, is that it packs in so much engrossing information it can sometimes be difficult to absorb it all if you attempt to fly through too quickly. Each chapter is essentially a relatable essay on different Star Wars topics. You’ll get the most benefit when you take a break between each one to contemplate the questions and answers offered. It certainly feels like a book you can return to time and again to refresh you memory or merely to bask in the shared love of the film series that transcended the screen and became part of our identities. On reaching the end I felt an insatiable desire to start all over again. Much like dissecting what makes a joke funny can render it humourless once you’ve isolated the mechanics, understanding what makes Star Wars pull at our heartstrings could potentially kill its joy. There’s none of that here. Fact and affection marry together perfectly.
The World According to Star Wars is available in hardback, Kindle and audio formats from here.