How Reboots and Prequels Rob Kids of Inspiration

darth-vader-im-your-father
(Lucasfilm/20th Century Fox)

When it comes to the ongoing debates over reboots, prequels and remakes vs. the originals, I bring the perspective of an educator who incorporates pop culture into the curriculum. And after manifold discussions with my young students, the conclusion I eventually came to was that context and continuity matter in reboots. Tremendously.

Take Star Wars. Which is a new acolyte supposed to watch first, Episode I or Episode IV?  My apologies to the Jar-Jar lovers, but Lucasfilm Logic dictating that we go start with The Phantom Menace really screws the pooch on this one. It takes away the pathos, majesty and mythical importance away from that huge, pivotal moment in The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader reveals he is Luke’s father if you’ve already known the big secret four movies ahead of time. How does this improve the mythos? It doesn’t, and just confuses current and future generations of kids about what the themes are, who the bad guys are and changes the context of how we look at the franchise. The original power and symbolic meaning of that scene in Empire is now gone and will never exist for another kid – unless her parents do the right thing and show her the films in their proper sequence beginning with Episode IV.

Instead of adding something to the established storyline, Star Wars Episodes 1, 2, and 3 took something away. Away went the mystery of the Force by making it biological instead of mystical. It took away the clarity of good versus evil with the invention of new conspiracies to explain the existence of the ones we already knew.

star-wars-trilogy-prequel
(Lucasfilm/20th Century Fox)

I’m an English teacher. When I introduce my Star Wars film appreciation unit to my students, they have a hard time recognizing a consistent theme throughout the franchise or even seeing the simple thematic concepts of the young hero, the captive princess, invading the dark fortress and an underdog rebellion fighting a battle against an overwhelmingly powerful and corrupt establishment.

Why? Because Episodes 1 to 3 are basically an extended “Origin of …” story. These are great entertainment, as long as the origin matches up with the previously established storyline. No connection to the established storyline means no connection to the intended audience. The problem with reaching new audiences in this way is that while the older audience gets the message, the younger one gets the shaft.

Why does this matter?  It matters because there is an entire generation of kids out there who learn from these newer works of pop culture. Reboots and remakes are the modern manifestation of classic works, and therefore the messages they contain should be timeless regardless of the way they are presented.

I want my students to understand the value of timeless characters in literature, characters that have values in the original Star Trek series had those values because they helped communicate a message that should also be likewise timeless. Changing the contextual nature of these characters changes the message of Roddenberry’s utopian view of the future. Think about it this way: what if a remake of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar featured a Brutus whose character valued friendship over his honour? The story is about betraying Caesar, so would we have seen the same story? Over the last four hundred years, Shakespeare’s stories have remained the same for a reason. There have been hundreds of adaptations and remakes of Shakespeare’s works and while the time and setting have been changed numerous times, never have the characters been portrayed differently from what Shakespeare originally intended to communicate. And, in this English teacher’s humble opinion, Star Trek is just as much a meaningful work of literature as anything the Bard might have produced.

star-trek-old-new
(Paramount Pictures)

Next, let’s look at Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek and J.J. Abrams’ reboots. Now the problem here is that you have a whole generation of kids who now discount all of the TOS episodes because of something that’s newer, shinier, louder and faster. Just as with Star Wars, I must beg the question: How does this improve the franchise? Well, at least Abrams paid minor homage to the effort and talent of all those writers who came before him by stating that they still existed, just in another reality. But I think details like that are lost on young viewers, many of whom never even get around to seeing the originals.

Being more action-oriented, the 2009 reboot and its sequel, Into Darkness, aren’t able to generate enough rapport between the audience and the characters. Some fans, usually the older ones, say they still felt the connection but that’s because they’ve already come to love these characters through the original series and movies. There’s no way the reboot films, by themselves without the originals, can establish the same sense of connection and love between these characters and younger audiences that the original series was able to develop with previous generations. Granted, this is also a partly an issue of time since Roddenberry had three seasons whereas Abrams only had a few hours. Regardless, today’s younger audiences ultimately bear the loss. They got treated to some great fight sequences, Uhura in her underwear and the spectacular destruction of the planet Vulcan but not the deeper, more contemplative substance that made the original so great.

star-trek-spock-death
(Paramount Pictures)

While the reboots were entertaining, action-packed thrill-rides with lots of lens flares, it wasn’t the Star Trek that epitomized the futility of global warfare in “A Taste of Armageddon.” Also absent was the social criticism of the type that we saw in “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.” Star Trek was bigger than what the reboot could deliver. The film simply didn’t have the space for the same ideals that were in the original series. This reduced the literary value of the series for the younger generations and the characters lost the dimensionality that were presented in 1966 and shouldn’t be part of the regular continuum for that reason.  I’m not saying it wasn’t fun – but it can’t be in that same continuity of television episodes, books, movies because it doesn’t have the same sense of purpose. The characters are completely different by comparison and in scope. Younger viewers will lose that sense of continuity because the film characters are shallower, mere “study-guide” versions of their predecessors.

Star Trek was written at a time when America was fascinated with the romance of space exploration. It captured the minds and attentions of an entire generation who began to see the possibility of a utopian future borne out of this sense of exploration. It contributed to a sense of nationwide positivism that the future of the planet was good and that America was going to play a major leadership role in it. Sure – American jingoism at its best, maybe, but it also included ideas of racial diversity and acceptance, the betterment of man and not just his economy, ecological awareness and so forth. These are values that are still current and essential today and contribute to the overall themes of the franchise that gives Star Trek its sense of cultural and literary permanence. By completely overlooking and not including these values in the reboot, you could argue that Star Trek loses its cultural importance.

Now we come to that other great franchise of our times.

the-hobbit-book

I read The Hobbit over a hundred times when I was thirteen. Why? Because I admired Bilbo’s dogged steadfastness and resilience and saw that capability within myself. It’s something for young people to find and be inspired by. When the film was released, I was worried about Jackson maintaining Tolkien’s original characterizations. Sure enough, characters that had been in The Lord of the Rings were to be featured in the movie version of The Hobbit: Galadriel, Saruman and even Legolas were eventually to be in the mix. No inspiration here – just the manufacturing of obvious tells to the LOTR theatrical audience.

In class, one of my students swore to me that she could see Baby Legolas on the Elvenking’s knee in The Hobbit.  After sighing extensively, it took me the better part of an English period to explain to my students that The Hobbit was written as an independent story about thirteen years before The Lord of the Rings books even existed. Jackson had presented The Hobbit as just a prequel to the Lord of the Rings – same music and those characters from LOTR in The Hobbit was a sop to Hollywood investors.

The Hobbit needed to be about Bilbo and the dwarves, a work complete in its own right, not a prequel with manufactured links to a commercially successful film franchise. I’m naïve, I know, but why can’t money be made off maintaining a story’s – and a writer’s – integrity?  Instead of the focus being on the main character’s discovery of his own inner strength, the film became more of a “who’s-who” spectator sport for the kids who have seen LOTR. The fact that this slim novel has been turned into three episodes just seems like an obvious ploy to make its structure similar to the LOTR trilogy à la the Star Wars prequels.

Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing my favourite characters come to life on the big screen. But our kids – my students – deserve to feel like I did when I read Bilbo’s words to Thorin before he died. I want my students to share Bilbo’s jubilation at besting Gollum in the dark cave. When I teach the novel in class, I sometimes read excerpts aloud, trying to provide them with the same type of dramatic intensity I experienced when I read the book. My returning students often tell me that was their favourite part of studying the novel with me. If I can deliver that, in the confines of a classroom, why can’t a multi-million dollar film company?

the-hobbit-hugo-weaving-ian
(Warner Bros.)

One of the reasons why we teach kids literature is due to the enduring characters and their unchanging values contained therein. Kids need fixed points of reference for their moral compasses. Literature provides that venue and as a teacher, it’s my job to be able to hold these unchanged works up in class and say, look: this is what a hero is supposed to be, or this is how you can recognize a villain. These are the values we prize in our society and these models need to be blatant and clearly understood so that later on in life kids are able to remember and apply them and practice their own sense of judgement  as they grow up. A child needs definites in life and in literature. That’s why we don’t change them.

The new generation of reboots, remakes and prequels, however, change elements of the respective originals that made them the genuine classics that they are. And while they manage to entertain, they do not inspire or affect on nearly the same level that the originals do.

Let us consider that notion. Works of literature are supposed to affect the culture around them in a meaningful and significant way. Star Trek inspired me and millions of other people in the world. And Star Wars is my generation’s embodiment of the classic mythological struggle between good and evil. Our kids deserve the same sense of awe and inspiration that we felt when we first saw Vader storm through the airlock at the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope. He was the personification of evil – an evil that would later be given a human face – and we were instantly enthralled.

Reboots, remakes and adaptations need to match the same inherent sense of the source. In fact, that should be the general rule: if the work can’t match or surpass the quality level of the original or the predecessor, then don’t bother. I’m not saying that the new version or extension needs to be the same as the source, just true to its meaning. I’m all for reaching new audiences, but why does it have to be at the expense of what has already been successfully established?

Young people need to see the original, historical meanings in reboots and remakes – context, without which history, literature and art cannot be properly taught. This holds true for great films and TV like Star Wars, Star Trek like or any other seminal piece of pop culture literature like The Hobbit and LOTR. Because of their age, kids are always behind the eight ball when it comes to reboots. It’s hard for them to contextualize the reboots because many have not seen the originals and are missing the context. Most kids don’t have the patience to go back and look up the originals, especially when the originals seem so slow and boring, by comparison, and have dated special effects.

So context, please. Let’s inspire our children. [subscribe2]

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About Captain John K. Kirk

Captain John K. Kirk
John Kirk is an English and History teacher and librarian in Toronto, Canada. In addition to the traditional curriculum, John tries to teach his students to make sense of geek culture. And with the name "J. Kirk," it's hard for him to not inject "Star Trek" into his lessons. Comics, RPGs and the usual fanboy gear make up his classroom resources.