I watched Star Wars for the first time ever the other week. (I know, I don’t know what I used to do on Easter Mondays either.) Thanks to the warp speed at which cultural life now operates, in just 30 years it has attained the status of a classic. Like Shakespeare’s plays, it is simultaneously of its time and beyond it, so firmly is it embedded in popular culture. Watching it, I started thinking about why we go to the bother of engaging with ‘classic’ films, or books, or works of art at all. After all, what is there to discover? Why do people still file past the Mona Lisa at the Louvre when there are thousands of impeccable reproductions available on Google Images?
I’m reminded of the Iranian artist who visited London for the first time in his fifties and reported that he didn’t need a street map, because the streets were so familiar from his television set. Yet it still didn’t deter him from experiencing it at first hand. He certainly can’t have travelled all that way for the weather, so what drew him there? I had a similar feeling when I loaded Star Wars into the DVD player. I felt as if I’d already seen it dozens of times before, and of course in many ways I had: just not all at once. The storyline was as trusty as a Norse saga, the characters had the veneer of Old Masters, the dramatic revelation (SPOILER ALERT!) of Darth Vader being Luke’s father was as familiar and timeless as a grandfather clock.
I used the phrase ‘spoiler alert’ facetiously just then: can there be anybody left who really doesn’t know that detail of the Star Wars story? The ‘spoiler alert’ is a latter-day convention which implies that if you give away the ending of a book or a film, it instantly renders it worthless. I find this a puzzling development, given that people have continued to read and enjoy The Old Curiosity Shop for a century after Oscar Wilde’s jibe about the death of Little Nell. Similarly, I found plenty to enjoy in Star Wars even though well over three-quarters of the story, including the ending, was known to me. Indeed, there are some lines early on in the film, when Luke speaks about his father, which take on an extra resonance once their full implication is revealed.
A lot of the creative writing advice I read focuses on getting ‘the twist’ right: structuring a story so that even the most fiendishly intuitive, or the most jaded, reader is struck dumb by its wondrous improbability. But to me this misses the key point that good literary writing should be more concerned with how people cope with the events that fate throws at them. Ultimately that reveals far more interesting things about human life than any number of M Night Shyalaman-type “twists” (“Oh, you’re ghosts. How terribly fascinating. Darling, you must remind me to stop inviting these insubstantial bores over to dinner.”)
I wrote a story a few years ago about an abortion doctor who discovers that his own daughter is pregnant and wants a termination. A few readers complained that they could ‘see the twist coming’ and I should have disguised it better, or come up with a more thrilling denouement. But the whole point of the story was that the revelation about the daughter was only the beginning of the ending. The real purpose was to explore how the doctor would respond to this awkward dilemma: what it said about his character, and by extension about human nature.
More recently I read William Trevor’s superb short story An Idyll in Winter – I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s about a man succumbing to an all-too-human weakness which leads him to a difficult and painful decision. It could have ended in at least three different ways, all of which would have been consistent with what went before and all of which would have cast the main character in a subtly different light. The measure of Trevor’s genius was that he keeps the reader engaged through what he reveals rather than what he conceals.
In the same way, Star Wars is still enjoyable even if you know it off by heart because the twists emerge within the story rather than swooping in from a hidden corner and smacking the viewer in the face. A classic painting, or a classic story, remains absorbing even when it’s as familiar as your own face in the mirror. It something depends on ‘spoilers’ for its value, it probably deserves to perish.