Why Harlan Ellison Hated Star Wars (and let’s pick that apart)

When I was a kid, I read everything H.G. Wells put on paper. I loved the way his mind worked, the moods and ideas. He didn’t always hit the mark, but it was white-hot when he did! I went through a Hemingway phase in college and read all that he wrote. Maybe we’ll chat about that another day. I’m making my way through another writer now, which will be quite the feat if I manage it given how much the dude worked over his extensive career in fantasy, science fiction, film critique and essays.

I know, guys. I get it. If you’ve been around here a few times at Grailrunner, you’re maybe tired of hearing about Harlan Ellison. Be cool – genius was talking and we need to listen. He said something in one I’m reading now that we need to talk about.

Anyway, here’s this one you should pick up if you’re a child of the 70’s or 80’s (or want to understand your parents better):

Let’s say you remember what it was like to see Gremlins for the first time (and to peek through your fingers), or to stand in line to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture when it finally opened (and you left with a disappointed frown on your face). Let’s say you recall pointing your finger like a blaster barrel at passing cars on your way to see Star Wars for the bajillionth time saying “Pew Pew”. And some of the drivers got it, and pretended to be shot.

Yeah. Awesome, right? If this isn’t ringing bells for you, stick with me here. I’ll get to you.

Anyway, this book collects many of Harlan’s film reviews across multiple decades, so the material is dated and grumpy and sometimes talks about films you can barely find even on Amazon. I especially appreciated the late 70’s and 80’s reviews, just to hear a different take on what I lived through. Some of his opinions are noise, some are brilliant. He’ll turn you on to some amazing finds which you’ll never have heard of. But one particular rant he made stuck with me. That’s why I’m here with you now. Let’s talk about this.

I knew from old Starlog magazines when I was little that Harlan Ellison hated Star Wars. I just never really knew why. Here’s a guy whom I consider one of the finest writers in the English language, any genre, and he despised a transformative, breakthrough, blinding light of genius like the original Star Wars: A New Hope. What gives?!

Here’s how he opens a segment he calls “Luke Skywalker Is A Nerd And Darth Vader Sucks Runny Eggs”:

Badmouthing Star Wars these days is considered a felony; on a level with spitting on the American flag, denigrating Motherhood, admitting you hate apple pie, or trying to dope Seattle Slew.”

Then he proceeds to do so. He mocks the “return of entertainment” being crowed by critics of this amazing film. After a bit of philosophizing about the role of science fiction, to ask and answer “What If” questions, of the importance in the genre of staying internally consistent with an internal logic that can’t be irrational or nonsensical since you’re asking the reader to suspend disbelief, he says this:

“But Hollywood doesn’t understand that. They make films – like Star Wars – that are nothing but The Prisoner Of Zenda or some halfwit wild west adventure in outer space.”

Ugh, he sounds like a grumpy old man who forgets how much he rejoiced at the escapism of Thief Of Baghdad and Buck Rogers movies. A bit contradictory, the old master, given how wistful he got reminiscing about his Saturdays dreaming in Ohio movie theaters, swashbuckling. But let’s leave off the fact that Ellison loved escapism when it had a slightly naughty factor and he was experiencing it, but that he rarely if ever WROTE escapism. That’s not my point here.

Ellison gave these examples of science fiction movies done right: Charly, 1984, The Shape Of Things To Come, Wild In The Streets, The Conversation, and A Boy And His Dog (of course). His point with A New Hope was that it wasn’t a “people story”, that it was all glitz and style and effects with cardboard characters:

“For all of its length, for all of its astonishing technical expertise, its headlong plunge and its stunning effects, at no time can one discern the passage of a thought. It is all bread and circuses. The human heart is never touched, the lives unexamined, the characters are comic strip stereotypes.”

So there we have it. One of the premier fantasists and science fiction writers of all time, poking at the notion of these characters in A New Hope being thin, unexamined, of the film saying nothing about the human condition. All glitz, no soul. That was his problem. Now, I’m the guy who laughed and almost cried when Darth Vader tossed the Emperor in the pit to save his son two movies later, so I entirely disagree. But let’s pull the thread a bit and see how George Lucas would respond. There’s an important tension here, which is my point in fact.

If you don’t have this one, go get it. I’ll wait for you, just get it coming in the mail and come back here. Done?

In this brilliant collection of quotes and background material, George Lucas says, “I knew from the beginning that I was not doing science fiction. I was doing space opera, a fantasy film, a mythological piece, a fairy tale. I really thought I needed to establish from the start that this was a completely made up world so that I could do anything I wanted.” That was the whole point of the famous tagline: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

And here we have the tension I was talking about. One more quote from Lucas, and it will nail this home:

“I had a longtime interest in fairy tales and mythology, that sort of thing. I had decided that there was no modern mythology. The western was the last American mythological genre, and there had not been anything since then. I wanted to take all the old myths and put them into a new format that young people could relate to. Mythology always exists in unusual, unknown environments, so I chose space. I liked Flash Gordon as a kid, the Republic serials. It was the only sort of action-adventure thing that I came across as a kid that I could remember. So I got interested in that. I went and actually talked to the people that owned the rights to it. They said they weren’t interested. And I thought, I really don’t need Flash Gordon to do what I want to do.”

Where Ellison saw thin, cardboard characters with no depth, Lucas saw intentional personifications of mythic archetypes. Myths have power because of how personally we relate to something common to us all, something we understand biologically and not with our minds.

Go get this one too, one of mine.

I dig deep into this notion of the crucial difference between intricate, fleshed-out characters as we’ve come to expect from our fiction, and that of mythic archetypes who must be judged by a very different and heartfelt standard. When Ellison sees a Darth Vader as a juvenile cartoon of evil, Lucas saw the embodiment of frightful wickedness, a figure of the dark to which anyone of any upbringing or culture could immediately relate and fear.

So here’s what we do with this. Anyone taking a crack at this writer gig has this choice. Be precious and surgical with your characterization and give your peeps layers of complexity, which is expected and will likely be well-received. We want our people interesting and new, to have difficult and relatable problems that tell us something. It’s cool, and that’s a choice. Yet you could also pursue a timelessness, crafting a story with mythic power and larger-than-life embodiments of archetypes. Seems necessary to me, that someone is doing this.

Or, of course. The third option. Strike the balance and do both.

Thanks for your time, guys. I need to get back to these Ellison movie reviews. He’s pissed about the scene in Temple Of Doom when the raft goes over the cliff and stays upright to land Indy, Willie, and Short Round safely on the water.

To be honest, I remember that bothering me too…

4 thoughts on “Why Harlan Ellison Hated Star Wars (and let’s pick that apart)

  1. A fair presentation of Harlan’s point of view. I adored him as I have few strangers. One of the great lessons I learned from reading Harlan and Pauline Kael’s criticism is that I can enjoy reading them and still disagree with them almost completely, most of the time. I’ve read their books over and over, gotten so much from their observations and analysis, and yet our tastes are very different. It’s something we’ve lost in our current state, where ‘movie criticism’ is mostly a recap of the plot and a thumbs up/thumbs down final word–see this, or do not see this. We’re the poorer for that zero-sum game.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s really cool for you to point that out, about disagreeing and that being okay. I think Ellison was wrong about practically everything he said in all those newspaper reviews collected in “The Golden Teat” and books like it. But he was fascinating even so.


  2. I thought Ellison’s opening salvo depicting his childhood perspicacity in wanting to see the Fleischer Hoppity movie fairly good, in spite of constant digression– but his uneconomical and disjointed style makes me not put him into Kael’s company as a critic. Kael’s a better writer, at least in this realm.

    Besides: I can’t get past his early, direct trashing of Robocop early on (is he kidding??) and his indirect trashing of the remakes of The Big Clock and Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House — Ellison doesn’t name them, but he’s talking about No Way Out and The Money Pit respectively, of course, deeming them “unnecessary” and saying the same thing about Bill Murray’s unsuccesful The Razor’s Edge remake.

    That last movie may not exactly work: but unnecessary? No Way Out is now regarded a classic, and The Money Pit boasts some fine moments, especially by its cast (also, it was before Hank’s obvious genius in Big, and hints at what’s to come).

    I once again approach Harlan Ellison Is Watching with trepidation, not quite eager to look at his longer reviews of several ’60s movies in there I haven’t seen, then. I disagree with lots of Pauline Kael opinions as well (she also trashed Star Wars upon release, but not as muscularly) but I don’t think she’ll ruin a movie I’ve not yet got to. Or maybe I’m better at skipping over those, since her volumes are well-organized for that.

    So, look, this sincere article about Ellison’s big Star Wars problem you’ve written is most useful: you’ve probably nailed it regarding what I now suspect detractors I know, regarding that phenomenal moment in film and world popular cultural history that Star Wars was and is, actually have so much against it. They have blinkers on regarding the universal power of myth, just for one thing, or are highly selective about it — particularly when it pertains to something of such very large financial success.

    The go-to used, ultimately, is “the masses are asses” argument, which basically is Ellison’s primary gripe, isn’t it? — at least as it pertains to western, and most especially American, audiences… et cetera. They don’t address the planetary success of the franchise, I notice: that’d really hurt their argument. Hollywood/America/the Anglosphere is just merely fooling everyone, once again, is what the fall-back line ultimately becomes. We’re most of us just not as properly and culturally educated as we should be, is the claim, ergo: Star Wars succeeding as it does. It’s an elitist decree, and your article addresses it head on in polite manner, and bravo to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for that. I appreciate your thoughts on this. Ellison really was one of the greats when it comes to speculative fiction, I just wish he hadn’t been quite so bitchy about things he didn’t personally like.


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