The Last Jedi, the long-awaited eighth installment of the Star Wars saga arrived at theaters this past month, presenting fans and general audiences with a whole new story set in the delightful universe George Lucas created so many years ago. The Star Wars films are known for being classic stories of good against evil. However, the marketing for this particular film centered on an oddity: it capitalizes on the lines between good and evil becoming blurred in this story.
The concept of good and evil in stories is an important one, yet we rarely see it considered. We all have an idea of the characters we root for and the characters we hate on, or good guys and bad guys. But what differentiates them? How do authors create a standard within their stories?
In this discussion, we must remember that the author is the creator of the world of his or her book. The writer creates a structure of morality and hopefully sticks to it consistently. So how do these structures appear?
First, as in the original Star Wars films, there is a very clear-cut distinction between good and evil. Quite literally, there is a Light Side and a Dark Side. A similar structure can be found in fantasy epics such as The Lord of the Rings as well. We clearly see that the bad guys want to take over the world, while the good guys want to save the world and do the right, the virtuous thing. It’s also evident in most superhero films; you recognize the bad as the generally unattractive characters, spouting monologues about world domination and how they’re going to destroy the hero.
This type of strict moral structure works perfectly for speculative literature and other epics of good against evil. It can make a powerful symbolic statement about the world that we live in. Nevertheless, one must remember that even within the camp of the good guys, people make mistakes. Boromir tries to take the ring from Frodo. Lando betrays Han and Leia. Good guys are humans too (or if they’re not humans, they’re fallen beings regardless) and make mistakes.
A story can have a moral structure in the other extreme, which is, no moral structure whatsoever because it simply is not that form of story. Many point out some of Christopher Nolan’s films as being models of this structure (or lack of it). Inception and Interstellar, for example, lack a grand fight of good against evil. Rather, they are the quests of individuals against their environment and even against themselves in order to find meaning and healing. Sometimes the nature of a story does not require that the author define morality.
We can note that sometimes this lack of moral consideration can be for all the wrong reasons. We live in a postmodern culture which disregards all notions of what’s right and wrong, and many contemporary stories include protagonists who do morally questionable things. One must use discretion to recognize the difference between leaving morality out (like Nolan) versus using lack of morality as a postmodern statement.
The real world is a complicated place where morality is hard to systematize, so discussing the area between those two extremes is hard. What, exactly, is moral ambiguity, greyness, and blurring of the lines?
We might see a character who fluctuates between two sides due to motives and desire, such as Loki from the Marvel films. We could find a character faced with a tough decision which has no clear-cut answer. We may also see characters from opposing sides teaming up. There are so many definitions of moral ambiguity.
I walked into The Last Jedi somewhat worried about the whole moral greyness thing. Were they going to present a dynamic story of temptation and doubt which ultimately becomes resolved, or were they really going to betray the values of Star Wars and create postmodern nonsense?
Coming out, I realized it was neither. It was exactly what we’d seen before. Just as Vader tempted Luke to join the Dark Side, Kylo Ren asked Rey to join him. Just as Luke had compassion for his father, Rey wanted to save Kylo. Luke’s internal conflict in this film wasn’t as much about light versus dark, but about the misunderstandings and guilt in his life.
The lines blurring was only evident in Kylo, who wants them to blur. “Let the past die,” he tells Rey, referring to all those distinctions. Nevertheless, the film ends with the lines between the light and the dark firmly set in stone, showing that even in moral ambiguity there are standards of right and wrong.
This topic is important for us as Christian storytellers, because we have a responsibility to portray truth in our stories, especially about righteousness and sin. It’s hard when we want to tell realistic stories, and realistically, the world isn’t as simple as a light side and a dark side. How do we do it?
To some extent, I don’t know. It depends on the circumstance, but ultimately, I believe it’s about the consequences. Good is rewarded, and evil is punished.
Again, it’s not always that simple in the real world, but it’s a good starting place for telling stories that show the real world as it is.