May the Force Be With Them

Why does Star Wars still take over the minds of small boys?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away—circa 2006, at our old house in D.C.—my husband and I let our little boys watch Star Wars. Eli was almost 6 and had just broken his leg. We were housebound, antsy, and despairing. In a moment of weakness, we turned on Star Wars. We figured, like most indulgences, that the movie would thrill and then pass.

Wrong. Our younger son, Simon, who was not quite 3, couldn’t sleep that night or for many nights over the months that followed. He was obsessed. He talked about the movie to any relative, friend, or baby sitter who would listen and plenty of shopkeepers who wouldn’t. He relived the trash-compactor scene. He worried over Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Jedi sternness and Darth Vader’s glittering malevolence. He sniffed out plot twists in the rest of the endless six-movie saga (who knows how) and tried desperately to work out why Darth Vader could be Anakin Skywalker and Luke’s father—and could also cut off Luke’s hand. Here’s a little girl sweetly summarizing the Star Wars plot. Simon wasn’t sweet. He was feverish. He was short-circuiting. Thanks to our two hours of stupid indulgence, Paul and I concluded, his neurons were melting.

In the annals of the mommy confessional, the ante is ever being upped for what counts as a real lapse in parenting. Perhaps an almost-3-year-old’s single viewing of a 1977 fantasy film barely qualifies. But it’s become our family’s classic tale of second-child sin—committed, regretted, and, we hope, recovered from. In the first of three episodes (unlike George Lucas, I know to stop with one trilogy), our younger son falls from grace, exposed to something he shouldn’t have seen, because of his older sibling. In the second, the brain poison takes hold. And in the third, the child grows up enough to conquer the experience, or at least make sense of it.

During Episode 1, in the throes of Simon’s initial fixation, I happened to be interviewing child psychologist Edward Zigler. In the middle of a conversation on an entirely unrelated topic, I veered off into my family’s Star Wars woes. I was confessing to Dr. Zigler, but in that rueful way that’s really a bid for absolution. Instead, on the other end of the line, I heard only silence. And then he said quietly that indeed I had erred and that Simon probably shouldn’t watch any more movies with violence or even suspense, for, well, years. Here’s a 2007 study from Seattle Children’s Hospital that links violent screen images to aggressive behavior in boys (not girls) ages 2 through 5.

My husband, Paul, had already settled on Zigler’s medicine. We banished Luke and Obi-Wan for Dora and Bob the Builder. But we couldn’t wring the Star Wars characters out of our children’s lives. Long after the actual memory of the film faded, Eli and Simon talked and played in George Lucas’ world. When we refused to buy them toy light sabers, their baby sitter rolled up newspapers into sturdy cones. The kids crayoned them green, purple, and yellow and bashed each other over the head, not quite Jedi-like. With their friends, they dissected the business of Jabba the Hutt and the furriness of Ewoks, never mind that they appear in later movies that my kids have never seen. Driving a carpool a couple of months ago, I listened while someone else’s 6-year-old held forth about the intricacies of the plot in the prequel films in more detail than he could have described his home. My kids fell silent out of awe. Then our current baby sitter took pity on them and gave them a Star Wars Fandex. Eli read the whole thing, card by card, and Simon somehow absorbed by osmosis facts such as Emperor Palpatine’s other name (Darth Sidious).

How does the Lucas-world accomplish this mind control? My kids have other loyalties. They swear by various superheroes, will listen over and over again to Greek myths, can tell you the story of David and Goliath, and love The Hobbit. But nothing, nothing, exerts the irresistible pull of the Star Wars galaxy. Maybe it’s the combination of simplicity and multilayered detail, good vs. evil in a world of interdependent yet rival creatures. Maybe it all comes down to Darth Vader, with his fearsome helmet and the voice of James Earl Jones. Or maybe the magic element is the open void of outer space as a backdrop.

My own theory has two more mundane components: overwhelming length and co-branding. However dragged out and tedious it may seem to me, the adult, the recent prequels add to the epic’s allure by building up more layers of plot permutation. I’m not sure the internal logic of Lucas’ universe holds up, but it sure does have a lot of moving parts. And many of them, like Anakin going rogue and turning into Vader, are cunningly designed to lodge in the heads of small boys. Simon’s teacher recently banned Star Wars talk, except at recess, because debates over plot points had gotten too vociferous. Outside of school, kids are surrounded by the films’ relentless marketing: birthday party plates, cups, candles, Lego ships, a recent cartoon series. Our kids covet the paraphernalia partly because their friends are flaunting it.

Which brings me to Episode 3 of our family saga: The Second Viewing. After three years of lobbying, Paul and I decided that Simon could handle watching the first Star Wars movie again. (My kids speak Lucas and call the 1977 original the fourth in the series.) Simon is twice the age he was during that ill-fated first encounter, and as he and Eli have pointed out many times, they’re now practically the only kids they know who haven’t seen at least the earlier-made trilogy. We promised we’d get it from Netflix after Simon’s 6th birthday. Last week, the magic disc arrived. Paul and I decided on a Saturday-morning showing. That way, Simon would have the whole day to decompress.

The boys swallowed their breakfast in hunks and wrapped themselves in an orange blanket on the living room sofa. Paul popped in the movie. I went out for a run. When I got back, Eli’s friend Dylan came over. We entered just before the trash-compactor scene. Eli nodded hi to Dylan. Simon sat, rapt, eyes fixed to the screen. I checked to make sure he was blinking. While Luke dove into the trash, a small periscopelike creature popped up and looked around.

“Hey, it’s got an eye,” Paul said appreciatively.
“That’s a dianoga,” Dylan said.
“A what?”
“A dianoga. It turns whatever color it eats.”

Eli, Dylan, and Simon, to be fair, also cared about the movie’s more profound themes. Bear with me for some plot review here: At the movie’s climax, Obi-Wan duels with Darth Vader, buying time for Luke, Leia, and Han Solo to make it to their getaway ship. Obi-Wan says to Vader, in that dear Alec Guinness British accent, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”* He sees Luke, Leia, and Han appear and then holds his light saber before his forehead, namaste-like. Vader strikes. Obi-Wan disappears, leaving behind his ratty old cloak. Luke calls out in horror as he and his pals make it to the deck of their ship—which actually is pretty close to the fight.

Simon, in the heat of the moment: “Why did Obi-Wan die?”
Eli: “He could have kept on fighting. He could have gotten away.”
Dylan: “He couldn’t have gotten off the Death Star.”
Simon: “But he could have killed Darth Vader!”
Dylan: “Then Palpatine would have killed him. Palpatine and Vader together are more powerful.”

The boys had to explain to me who Palpatine is (a Vader ally). In the days since, we’ve returned often to this question of Obi-Wan’s self-sacrifice. Paul offered a meta interpretation: In myths, old wise men have to make way for their young protégés. Gandalf leaves Bilbo for a while, I pointed out. Dumbledore leaves Harry. (Poor Simon: He knows the whole Harry Potter plot before he has turned a single page or seen any of the movies. But that’s a problem for another day.)

Simon didn’t entirely accept this explanation. He wanted Obi-Wan to have died because he didn’t have a choice. But he definitely got the idea that Luke is an apprentice training to be a Jedi knight—he taught me the term for Luke’s in-between awkward status: padawan. “Like a squire,” Simon put it. I think maybe he’s now a padawan, too. He’s talking about Star Wars more than ever this week, but he’s not losing sleep over it. So what do you think, should we brave The Empire Strikes Back?

Correction, April 7, 2009: This article originally misquoted Obi-Wan Kenobi as saying, “I will come back more powerful …” (Return to the corrected sentence.)

This piece also appears in Double X.