George Lucas's Star Wars Trilogies has had insurmountable effects on cinema as an art, the ways movies are marketed, and on the imagination of people of all ages. This is more than a story- -it is a timeless legend that exists in the hearts and the minds of the vast American audience it has touched. Besides the lasting artistic effects Star Wars has had, it is also one of the most inventive marketing masterpieces in American history. The success and implications of Joan Vinge's Return of the Jedi Storybook based on the movie, must predominately be attributed to Lucas and his revolutionary science fiction fantasy, because it is a direct translation of the movie. The Star Wars myth exists independently as a world of its own constructed by Lucas. It is a franchise that is bigger than the movies themselves. The Jedi Storybook is one small piece of this franchise. The success of the Storybook exemplifies that bestsellers are masters at marketing to the mass public and Star Wars is a work of genius in pop culture. To understand the success of the Storybook, Star Wars must be examined as one uniform epic, along with a specific examination of the components of the movie Return of the Jedi and Joan Vinge's translation of it into a children's book. These are the forces that ultimately put the Jedi Storybook on the New York Times fiction bestseller list for nine consecutive weeks.
Although the popularity of the Jedi Storybook cumulates from the Star Wars series, Joan Vinge was also an important ingredient to the success. There were many children's books written after the release of the movie Return of the Jedi, however, Vinge's Storybook was the only one to hold a number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list and to win the North Dakota Flicker Tale Children's Book Award. This undoubtedly has something to do with the quality of the adaptation. Booklist and other book reviews ranked Vinge's Storybook superior to two of its competitors; The Ewoks join the fight by Bonnie Bogart and Return of the Jedi by James Kahn. Furthermore, Randon House also published storybooks as prequels to Vinge's Jedi based on the first two movies of the Star Wars Trilogy and they did not make the bestseller list. Why was Vinge's adaptation so much more popular than the rest? How much of this success can be attributed to Vinge?
Joan Vinge is a science fiction writer and has received three Hugo Awards for her original writings. A writer from Publishers Weekly commented on her style, "Human feeling is at the heart of Vinge's writing (Something About the Author, 219)." Vinge is known for her emphasis on emotions in a genre in which emotions are often absent. This makes her science fiction writings unique. In Return of the Jedi Storybook, this stylistic feature stands out. She often infers the emotions of Lucas's characters. After Leia frees Han from the carbonite Vinge romantically explains Leia's feelings for Hans, "Leia's heart filled with emotion at the sight of her blind lover. She loved him partly because of the way he laughed at danger. But to see him like this, so helpless, made her care for him even more (6)." These emotional inferences helped to set Vinge's Storybook apart from the rest by creating an intimate portrait of these famous characters.
The added romanticism was, however, the only subjective and personal touch felt by Joan Vinge. Most critics attributed the success of the Jedi Storybook to the fact that she sticks closely to the text and has incorporated colorful still photographs taken directly from the movie, whereas Bogart's book has illustrations. She also scores over her competitors for writing the text in an oversimplified way to help children understand the crucial plot elements. Book World states that the Storybook has, "a nicely understated text," and that the problem with Kant's version is that the prose are "overwrought." According to critics, none of these children's books were amazing, however, Vinge wrote the most faithful translation of the movie to a children's storybook. Booklist states, "Neither of these books is completely successful, but they will help to fill the perpetual demand for Star Wars material." Therefore, Vinge's success over competing Jedi books can also be attributed to a demanding market for more of Lucas's Star Wars merchandise. Vinge admitted in an autobiography in Women of Vision that she wrote movie adaptations for the sole purpose of making fast easy money.
Why was Vinge's Return of the Jedi Storybook more popular than the storybooks following A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back? Was it because of Vinge's style? Perhaps, but most likely not. The most likely explanation for this lies in the difference between the movies Return of the Jedi from its precursors. Almost all critics agree that Return of the Jedi was more geared towards children than its prequels. Most critics also believe it is the weakest movie of the series, because it seems more focused on commercial success than episodes four and five. Science Fiction Weekly states, "Although bursting with spectacular effects, The Return of the Jedi is arguably the weakest film in the trilogy. Unlike the first two, this movie radiates an awareness that it's part of a pop culture sensation. There's also an obvious effort to cute it up." Most critics expand on this point by complaining about the Ewoks. Reel Views comments on their presence by defining them as "an unbearably cuddly race that seem handpicked to generate toy sales."
Another reason the Jedi Storybook was more popular than the ones before it is because of the momentum built from the first two films. Return of the Jedi was the number one grossing film in 1983. It was highly anticipated by faithful fans generated by the first two movies. The Montreal Film Journal concludes their review by stating that it "was a worthy conclusion to the most influential trilogy ever made." Lucas built so much enthusiasm going into the conclusion of the trilogy that movie and book sales reached a peak. Return of the Jedi was riding the wave that begun with the release of A New Hope, which introduced a whole new visual world to its audiences.
It seems Vinge had some influence over the success of her Storybook. However, the qualities of her writing that put her book on top were her strict alliance with the film, and the fact that she appeared to be in tune with her young audience, both of which Lucas generated. Vinge was successful at writing a text appropriate for grades 3-5. This is an area where her competitors failed. Lucas was well aware of the fact a demand in the market had been increased, and he aimed his final movie towards a younger generation with the introduction of the furry Ewoks and an obvious aim at crowd pleasure instead of innovation. Washington Post comments, "While Jedi appears to go overboard with monsters in its kick-off episode, it later proves to be a cautious, solicitous crowd pleaser, keenly aware of the value of protecting an investment in audience trust and good will."
George Lucas has a unique talent comparable with entertainment giants such as Walt Disney. Book World states, "Lucas, like Disney before him believes in "basic American values," like hard work and happy endings. And they both believe in extending these values beyond their films into the world they create around them." The article continues by reporting, "Lucas' peculiar talent is that he recognizes bits of popular culture that many of us respond to at some basic level, and he can integrate these things as elements of a film in a way that makes them seem fresh and new." George Lucas 's creation has extended beyond the story; he has brought his characters to life in our hearts, minds, and in merchandise. The scope of the world in a "galaxy far far away" that he has created lives forever, similar to Disney classics such as Cinderella, Aladdin, Lion King, etc. These stories have touched their audiences' hearts in a special way and invigorated the imagination.
The magic Lucas created along with the legend of Star Wars extends beyond ticket and movie sales. Lucas has marketed books, video games, stuffed animals, action figures, action toys, costumes, food products, etc. He has found a way for his Star Wars fantasy to creep into effect in our everyday life. It is a definitive part of our culture. What child of the 80s did not own an Ewok stuffed animal? Even if they had never seen the film! Star Wars is a culture of its own, and because Lucas has waited a decade to create his second trilogy, a new generation will become hooked on this legend. Horn Book comments on the magic of Star Wars with specific reference to the Jedi Storybook, "The magic doesn't lie in mechanisms, it lies in living with the characters in effect, dreaming about them as children traditionally have lived with characters not only in serial fiction but in bedtime stories repeated night after night." This is the specific function of the Storybook in Lucas's huge creation; just one part of an entire franchise.
Horn Book also says, "Return of the Jedi has no author, the implied author is Lucas, but the book is not so much an individual product of the human imagination as it is an object to be merchandised." It is obvious that Vinge was just a small influence in the Storybook's success. To understand why it was so successful and its implications to the time period, it is necessary to examine the elements of the Star Wars legend itself. This is also where we will find the answer to what this implies about bestsellers. Obviously a bestseller is something marketable to a huge mass of society, something that shares common interests, beliefs, and enjoyment between a large proportion of a culture. What are these unique characteristics? How do they operate in Star Wars?
Robert Ebert answers these questions well in his review of the Star Wars Trilogy when it was rereleased in theatres after being digitally remastered (another brilliant way to make extra millions of dollars!), "George Lucas' space epic has colonized our imaginations, and it is hard to stand back and see it simply as a motion picture because it has so completely become part of our memoirs. It's as goofy as a children's tale, as shallow as an old Saturday afternoon serial, as corny as Kansas in August--and a masterpiece." He continues by saying, "it linked space opera and soap opera, fairy tales and legend, and packaged them as a wild visual ride." It is a deceptively simple but powerful story in which goodness triumphs over evil. It is these dichotomies that exist within the story, that make it so marketable and important to different target audiences for different reasons.
Star Wars appeals to people of all age groups for two reasons. First of all, because of the simplicity of the plot. Because the story is simple, adventurous, and imaginative, it captures the young and creative imagination of a child. With the variety of aliens and exotic adventures the Star Wars crew invokes upon, children become consumed by the excitement the legend offers. This is why the Jedi Storybook is so popular. Children can re-experience this adventure over and over again, by looking at big photographs of their beloved characters and reading along with a simple plot summary. However, simultaneously there are greater themes that encompass this childlike adventure to satisfy the tastes of the intellectuals. The San Francisco Examiner compares the story of Darth Vader to the fall of Satan in John Milton's Paradise Lost. This is one of the most profound epic poems ever written in English history. Furthermore, there are several interesting spiritual aspects in the Star Wars legend. The redemption of Darth Vader reflects Christian beliefs and the invention of a Jedi resembles Zen Buddhism. There is something for everyone in this story. Appealing to a multitude of audiences is a difficult feat. It is comparable to the Harry Potter books and movies that are currently making a splash at the box office and bookstores. This is an important characteristic of bestsellers and a wonderful marketing strategy.
The second reason why Star Wars and the Harry Potter books appeal to children and adults is because they invoke the child inside the adult. There is a childlike imagination inside every grown-up and these stories are masters at stimulating them. A writer from Science Fiction Weekly wrote, "I thought I was grown up and mature, but the Trilogy still has the power to grab my emotions and shake them like an old bucket of paint." Although the Jedi Storybook was aimed at children, it is doubtful that children are the only buyers of this book. Because the Storybook was only printed for one year starting a month after the release of the movie, it makes this book a Star Wars collectible and a piece of history. It is probable that even adult fans purchased this storybook to add to their Star Wars collection.
Another important area of analysis is the way in which the Star Wars Trilogy revolutionized the entire movie industry. Ebert compares the Trilogy to movies such as Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane, because all of these films were the cornerstones of their time with advanced technology and innovative storytelling. Ebert says, "Star Wars effectively brought to an end the golden era of early-1970s personal filmmaking and focused the industry on big-budget special effects blockbusters, blasting off a trend we are still living through." In essence, Star Wars has defined the bestseller and the blockbuster.
This also exemplifies what the Star Wars phenomenon means to its time period and how it fits in the historical context. The technology it presented broke new barriers and showed its audience something unique; something that had never been seen before. It was a prelude to the technological explosion our culture was about to embark on, and in fact, is currently still experiencing. Another cultural function more related to the story and theme is expressed by the Washington Post, "Lucas filmed a science-fiction fantasy that helped close the psychological wounds left by the war in Vietnam." It did this through its deep spiritual depths and its black and white story of good and evil, in which good is the glorious victor.
Star Wars has many characteristics important and similar to those of other bestellers. It contains all the main ingredients such as romance, drama, escape fantasy similar to that in the James Bond stories, and imagination. However, this story has much more. Because of the reverse order in which Lucas presented the legend, it gives it a more ancient appeal. This elevates Star Wars from a good story to a timeless legend. Unlike most of the other bestsellers, which will fade away with the fading times, Star Wars will live forever. Ebert makes this point by comparing Star Wars to the Odyssey, Don Quixote, David Copperfield, and Huckeberry Fin, because, "they are all the same: a brave but flawed hero, a quest, colorful people and places, sidekicks, the discovery of life's underlying truths." He continues by saying, "If I were asked to say with certainty which movies will still be widely known a century or two from now, I would list 2001, The Wizard of Oz, Keaton and Chaplan, Astaire and Rogers, and probably Casa Blanca?and Star Wars for sure."
The Jedi Storybook owes its fame to the Star Wars franchise, the marketability towards children and adults, the timing and the order in the sequence in which it occurrs, the fact that Lucas targeted the Jedi movie more towards children, and the markets hungry appetite for any Star Wars paraphernalia it can get its hands on. Bestsellers are a product of the marketing. The ability of the book to meet the demands of the current society is just as important as the art itself. The Jedi Storybook is a part of Lucas and his marketing genius. Critics unanimously agree that Star Wars as an epic deserves to be immortalized in our pop culture. This is the ultimate bestseller.
In conclusion, Return of the Jedi Storybook is a unique bestseller because it is an adaptation from a movie. There is a different task involved in translating a movie into a book versus a book into a movie. When translating a book into a movie, the image has not been physically defined yet. But when turning a movie into a book, it has. With a movie as beloved and acclaimed as Return of the Jedi, there is no doubt the public would be upset to see anything tampered with. Therefore, Joan Vinge's success is defined by the directness of her translation. Again, this points to the fact that fans adore the Star Wars epic the way that it is.
Booklist. Vol. 80 September 1, 1983, p. 78.
Bookworld. Washington Post, June 26, 1983, Vol. 13, p. 11.
Chicago Suntimes. June 28,1999 (online)
Collier, Anne. Something About the Author. Autobiography Series, vol. 36 & 113.
Dupont, Denise. Women of Vision, 1988, 109-127.
Horn Book. Volume 58, August 1983, pp. 398-399.
Montreal Film Journal (online)
Reel Views. http://movie-reviews.colussus.net/movies/s/sw3.html
Science Fiction Weekly (online)
Vinge, Joan D. Return of the Jedi Storybook based on the movie.
Washington Post. May 22, 1983 (online)