Darth Vader made a lot of bad choices

That’s me trying to explain the Star Wars storyline to my first-grader, who’s never seen the movies but is curious about them.

He’s heard other kids talking about Star Wars at school, so he checked out a book from the library introducing the series to beginner readers. He’s mostly interested in light sabers and Yoda levitating objects, but he has a lot of questions, and I don’t always know how to answer them.

By way of background, and at the risk of offending fans out there, I have to tell you that for my money, the Star Wars series is the most overrated franchise in Hollywood history.

The plot at the heart of Star Wars is timeless: we want to fight evil, but it turns out that the evil we fear and loathe lurks within our own family, even within ourselves. Not surprisingly, the movie that reveals this shocking fact (The Empire Strikes Back) is the only good one of the six.

Setting this story a long time ago in a galaxy far away is fine–who doesn’t like spaceships and strange worlds? And maybe the central conflict could be made accessible for kids, although I don’t know how, since free will and danger within your own family are heavy concepts. But George Lucas opted to make his movies kid-friendly by playing for laughs, and the comic characters detract from the story. Don’t get me started on the racial/ethnic stereotyping. The dialogue is also dreadful. The Phantom Menace was so bad that I refused to spend money on the final two movies. I felt great about that decision after catching bits and pieces of them on tv years later.

Reading what I’ve written so far, I realize that I sound like a movie snob. The truth is I love silly slapstick humor, and I like psychological stories in a sci-fi setting (Battlestar Galactica, some of the Star Trek series). I just don’t like those elements mixed into one movie by a mediocre director who doesn’t know how to tell a story.

On top of that, our family doesn’t watch many movies, or much television generally. My kids see a full-length movie about once every couple of months. If they’re going to watch one, I want it to be quality and pitched to their level, like Finding Nemo, Cars or Ratatouille. This summer my six-year-old watched The Princess Bride at day camp and loved it. I plan to rent that sometime so we can watch it together.

I realize that little boys will be interested in gun play and superheroes, and at one level that’s all the Star Wars movies are. I am determined not to be “that mom” who freaks out about pretend fighting and shooting that is developmentally appropriate. Still, there are lots of movies I’d want to show my children before we waste time on the Star Wars series.

So, my son brings home a Star Wars book for early readers, and now he and his little brother, not quite 4, have 101 questions. The book goes over the basics about the force, and how people can learn to use the force. Yoda can move things–really big things. The light sabers are cool. So far, so good.

The questions about the characters are harder to answer at their level. I try to keep things simple. These fighters are called Jedi. That one was Anakin’s teacher. Their light sabers are different colors. But when my son points at a picture of Darth Vader and says, “He’s bad,” I don’t want to leave it at that. Don’t they always say in discipline books, “Describe the problem instead of labeling the person”? So, I try things like, “He made a lot of bad choices. He wasn’t born bad, but he made a lot of bad choices.” Yes, he was burned when he fell on the lava rock. Yes, Luke is Anakin’s son. (Way to ruin the best plot twist in the best Star Wars movie, early reading book!)

So far they haven’t asked much about the queen, and I don’t know how I am going to explain that one. Dying of a broken heart because the love of your life went over to the dark side seems pretty far beyond what they can grasp. Nor do I want to introduce fears about mothers dying because they got really sad.  

Any suggestions about age-appropriate ways to talk about violence and evil would be welcome in this thread.

On a final (and probably futile) note, you’re wasting your time if you try to convince me that the Star Wars movies are great and Lucas is a genius.

  • Excuuuse me? Overrated?

    Hell, I saw the movies as a teen, and then signed right up to fight the real “Evil Empire” in Eastern Europe as a Cryptologic Technician (Maintenance). I even got to work a bit on the real Star Wars stuff.

    I grew up reading my dad’s Navy “Proceedings” magazines in the 1970’s, and the Star Wars franchise simply reinforced my deepest paranoid fantasies about a world of absolute black and white, good and evil.

    Fortunately, life led me astray, and now I can see areas of gray.

    I applaud your efforts to try and show both faces of Darth Vader.

    I try to teach Havah that EVERYONE is made in the creator’s image, and that the hardest part of dealing with mean people is trying to see some good in them. For example, even the meanest, nastiest person alive still has worth, even if that worth is only serving as a bad example (i.e. George Bush, Sarah Palin, Donald Rumsfeld, et al).

    That’s my two cent’s worth.

  • I'm with you.

    I don’t know why anyone bothered after the first and second (or, are they technically the third and fourth?) Star Wars movies.  I fell asleep in a movie theater for the first time in my life trying to suffer through Jar-Jar Binks.

    I also have two young boys, and my younger in particular has long been drawn to/fascinated by – in this order – 1) Battles 2) “Shooters” (toddlerese in our house for guns) and 3) Bakugon, which manages to combine both numbers one and two in a freaky, Pokemon-like way that I can’t even pretend to understand.

    We’ve always framed protagonists and antagonists in stories when it comes up in the classic “good guy/bad guy” story-telling tradition (forgive the gender specificity, but my boys talk exclusively in terms of male existence).  Good guys have a problem or something they want to do.  Bad guys cause the problem or try to stop the good guy from accomplishing his goal.  We can then talk about the “bad choices” the bad guy makes, or why he might be a bad guy (my favorite was when the four-year old supposed that Chick in Cars might have had a tummy ache and that’s why he was so mean to Lightening McQueen), or how the story would be different if the bad guy did things differently.  So far, those discussions seem to keep the kids focusing more on motives than on the questionable content that they see even in movies that should be completely innocuous for young school age kids based on their ratings and marketing.

    All of that said, my five-year old sat next to me this evening and drew a very elaborate picture of one Power Ranger – a show/movie he’s never even seen but has heard about plenty from peers – killing some sort of enemy.  Nice.

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