Lucas on a Leash: Thoughts on Film Directors' Rights

Pictures Inspired by Films and the Silmarillion

Who's the Devil? A scene from Shyamalan's latest film.
Who's the Devil? A scene from Shyamalan's latest film.
But he looks to cute to be Darth Vader!
But he looks to cute to be Darth Vader!
The madness and rage that is Feanor.
The madness and rage that is Feanor.
The vaunted silmarils.
The vaunted silmarils.

The latest film by M. Night Shyamalan, Devil, failed to receive the acclaim that marked his earlier works, notably Sixth Sense and Signs. Founded on the premise of five people trapped in an elevator where one of them is the devil, the movie garnered an impressive 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes – and this is impressive when comparing Devil’s score to other recent Shyamalan film scores and the scores of other contemporary horror movies. Based on a story by Shyamalan, the film is not directed by him but it is marked by a Number 1 in the Night Chronicles sequence at the beginning of the film, thus paving the way for follow ups. Fortunately, this film fared better than his other summer film The Last Airbender, a film alleged to be the first of a trilogy. Considering the way The Last Airbender failed to meet critics’ and moviegoers’ expectations and the fallout at the box office, time will tell if the follow ups come to fruition.

With many noting Shyamalan’s dismal movies of late, recent queries have arisen again concerning the possible follow up to another early, more successful film of Shyamalan’s: Unbreakable. Since this movie’s production, this story of a security guard learning that he’s a genuine superhero has gained more of a cult following. Shyamalan reports that of all the questions he’s asked, the one most asked by people is will there be a sequel to Unbreakable. Bruce Willis, the protagonists in this film, and Samuel Jackson, his foil, have both shown interest in returning for a sequel. Much to the disappointment of fans and the actors, Shyamalan admitted that there wouldn’t be a sequel to this film. Instead, he intends to hijack one of the plots he imagined for the sequel to Unbreakable and use it instead for his Night Chronicles 3.

To many already disgusted by Shyamalan’s fall from brilliance, this marks just another moment in which Shyamalan will do as he thinks best, the rest of the public be damned. From a career standpoint, it would seem wisest to make a sequel to a film that many seem to be clamoring for instead of going in another direction. If the sequel were done well and continued the kind of brilliance found in the first story, it might mark the end of what some articles are calling Shyamalan’s “career slump.” Yet Shyamalan has already proven that he won’t give in to public demands, as seen in the controversy surrounding his casting choices for The Last Airbender. Despite allegations that the casting choices, which favored lighter skinned actors, was racist, Shyamalan refused to sway in his decisions unlike Disney in some of the choices surrounding The Frog Princess.

Yet Shyamalan isn’t the only director who has become culturally synonymous with disappointment. Still an even bigger disappointment is George Lucas’s first three episodes in the Star Wars universe, beginning with Phantom Menace. So crushing was the disappointment following the film’s production that Peter Jackson noted this specific instance as a reason for why he is not directing The Hobbit, set to come out in 2012. But failure aside, the disappointing back story is not the only place where Lucas evinces unconcern for public opinion about his work. More disappointment followed when he made the decision to release the updated version of his original Star Wars trilogy on DVD – and make that the only version available for that format. For many who preferred to watch the original story sans remembrances of the horror that is Episodes 1 through 3, it is impossible to escape starting at Hayden Christenson’s face at the end of Episode 6. As Luke looks at his redeemed father, it’s hard not to focus on the realization that Luke’s new “dad” looks much younger and smarmier than him. Of course, Lucas goes his own way, seemingly heedless of the significance that once was placed on Star Wars.

The Madness that is Creationism (but not that Creationism)

This frustration leads to an interesting hypothetical question: what rights should directors have over their projects? The obvious answer might be as much rights as they want. Artists do need their freedom, as the saying goes. For that matter, in the business of creating, there is the assumption that the one doing the creating is a bit mad and functions beyond the realm of normal humans. A branch of therapy exists just for writers, for instance. And so, if the artist is told to work within the confines of public expectations, this assumedly destroys the creative process. In which case, it would seem that the public should have no say in the creative process or what control the creator has over his story. But it’s hard to come to that answer when Jar Jar Binks is stepping through the Star Wars universe. Some might also say that about the Ewoks, but Jar Jar Binks is still worse.

To examine this question, I shall now turn to a trusted source: The Silmarillion. And while this next part might seem to segway, it in fact has more application than one might expect. The Silmarilion was written by Tolkien and features the mythology behind Lord of the Rings. In this grand mythology, we meet Feanor. Feanor has an amazing talent for craftsmanship. It is Feanor who crafts the great Silmarils, the vaunted gems that become a motive that moves the actions of his people. The jewels are inspired by the light of the most holy Trees found in the Blessed Realm and are wrought by Feanor with “all his lore, and his power, and his subtle skill” (67).

While Feanor is noted as excelling in his craftsmanship, he is also noted as being someone who is incredibly proud, jealous of his rights, and of fiery spirit. Tolkien tells us that though Feanor and his brother Fingolfin were high princes, “they grew proud and jealous each of his rights and his possessions” (69). Yet while this description has the ominous undertones of doom, it is the way Feanor changes upon the creation of his Silmarils. Described thus, “For Feanor began to love the Silmarils with a greedy love, and grudged the sight of them to all save to his father and his seven sons; he seldom remembered now that the light within them was not his own,” the internal problem besetting Feanor can then become something that can be applied to the madness of creating (a term I would like to point out is in something of a debate as there is evidence suggesting that creativity and madness don’t always go hand in hand).

As you can imagine, Feanor’s attitude concerning the Silmarils mixed with his overweening pride create the recipe for doom. Not long after the Silmarils are made, they are stolen by the evil Melkor. Following this, Feanor and his sons take a rash oath to “pursue with vengeance and hatred to the ends of the World Vala, Demon, Elf or Man as yet unborn, or any creature, great or small, good or evil, that time should bring forth unto the end of days, whoso should hold or take or keep a Silmaril from their possession” (83). Now take a moment to note the problem with the oath as demonstrated with the language. No group, whatever their identity, is spared from being seen as an enemy if they take a Silmaril. The unnerving part about the oath is that in making it, Feanor and his household declare that the Silmarils will be of more importance than the identity of the others who oppose them or even where they fall on the spectrum of good and evil. Even good people, should they go against this oath, face the risk of being hurt or killed if they are in the wrong. Upon making this oath, it is recognized by others who are wiser that the making of such an oath is one that falls on the path of sorrow.

Consequently, when the Silmarils are finally recovered, two members of the household of Feanor – Maedhros and Maglor – try to uphold their oath and send a message to those who regained the Silmarils, the Eldar (elves who are kind of like a lower form of angels). The response, however, is negative. Because “of their many and merciless deeds” (253), Eonwe, the messenger, declares that the oath has become null and void and that the Silmarils should return to the people from whence it came. Yet Maedhros and Maglor are at that point where “they prepared, though now with weariness and loathing, to attempt in despair the fulfillment of their oath; for they would have given battle for the Silmarils, were they withheld, even against the victorious host of Valinor, even though they stood alone against the world” (252, emphasis mine). Again, one can see the nature of the oath at work and how it sets the household of Feanor against everyone. Following the council of Eonwe, they resolve to take their Silmarils back anyway – and this even at the cost of slaying the guards of the Silmarils.

Ironically, when they do come into possession of the two Silmarils, they discover they cannot hold the vaunted jewels without experiencing intense, searing pain. This detail is not without importance. For when the Silmarils were first made, “Varda hallowed the Silmarils, so that thereafter no mortal flesh, nor hands unclean, nor anything of evil will might touch them, but it was scorched and withered” (67). That the members of Feanor’s own household cannot hold them is not a trivial detail. In the story, Tolkien writes, “And it is told of Maglor that he could not endure the pain with which the Silmaril tormented him; and he cast it at last into the Sea and thereafter he wandered ever upon the shores, singing in pain and regret besides the waves” (254).

Dipping into the Common Inkwell of Mythology

Getting back to the public frustration that is Lucas and Shyamalan, it is interesting to consider their rights after examining Feanor and his beloved Silmarils. In the story of Feanor, one begins to understand that creating a work of genius does not mean owning that work. In fact, Feanor uses another, sacred work from which to derive his own work. His inspiration was never from himself but from another, more sacred source. When this sacred source is destroyed, he is charged to release the Silmarils for the good of the public – and he refuses. Yet what does this fantasy story have to connect to Lucas and Shyamalan? Simply, it’s interesting to consider how the genius of their work – the original Star Wars and Unbreakable – are borrowings from mythology and the ideas of the collective, as can be seen in the archetypes Joseph Campbell presents in A Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Regardless of where individuals fall on the spectrum of their relationship to mythology, a sense of sacred comes into play when mythological elements are utilized effectively. Think of the appeal of films like Lord of the Rings, Donnie Darko, the Matrix and even the original Star Wars. Part of the appeal is the way they employ myth to connect people to a deeper meaning of life. Luke’s training in the Degas Bah system transcends the monotony of soldier preparing to fight in a meaningless war. Neo’s beginning to believe and assume his role also connects to the larger mythos, the greater story. And many more examples exist. Yet while such films are wildly popular, it would be erroneous to say that the directors came up with the mythology on their own. Like Feanor, they were inspired by a preexisting mythos that belongs to all, not just them. While the directors might have stumbled upon these vehicles, to act as though they own them would be inaccurate because, in a sense, we all share the trademarks of mythology. That which is truly sacred, if we are to accept Feanor and his story, is something meant for all, not just one.

Envisioning Lucas and Shyamalan to be a kind of Feanor becomes still more telling. For in Lucas’s decision to control, control, control his mythology, one can see Feanor’s greed and attempting to protect the Silmarils for himself. Feanor’s pride of spirit can also be seen in Lucas, who, upon seeing Titanic’s success at the box office, said, “We’re never going to beat that.” Is that all Star Wars is to him? Just a means to beat the competition? As one reviewer notes, perhaps Lucas doesn’t understand his mythology. For that matter, perhaps even Feanor never rightly understood his own work. As for Shyamalan, while he seems committed to telling a story, his obstinance and refusal to cooperate with others can also be like Feanor. Feanor in the story was often noted for his pride and his unwillingness to work with others. His view was right and any other view be damned. Sound familiar? This isn’t to say Shyamalan doesn’t have his reasons for what he does, but one can’t miss the similarity between how Feanor and Shyamalan operate in terms of their work.

Yet if Lucas and Shyamalan refuse to budge, this is only in a sense like Feanor and his refusal to release his own hold over his vaunted work. Of course, while George Lucas continues to milk his cash cow for all its worth and Shyamalan goes in his own direction, just what dire consequences lay in store for them? No, I’m not envisioning their descendants wandering around with burned hands. Yet just as the way Feanor acted had consequences, one can see the possible consequences for Lucas and Shyamalan. For Lucas, who sees only money, the greatest danger is losing entirely the connection to the deeper meaning of the story just as Feanor’s descendents lost their connection to the Silmarils.

Unfortunately, this seems so have already come to pass, for the original tale created a powerful mythology to tell a tale of loss and redemption whereas the newer ones are mere special effects vehicles. For that matter, Star Wars can be viewed as a franchise now more than a story that connects people to a deeper reality, as discussed in a brilliant but disturbing review in the film. In the work of creating something that becomes recognized as genius, isn’t there ever that sense of public marvel not at the genius of the director but at how such genius was pulled off despite the director? In a review of the Phantom Menace, the reviewer describes some of Lucas’s earlier concepts of Star Wars, which are a far cry from what the film ended up as.

For Shyamalan, his unwillingness to consider public desire could lead to others turning finally away from his work, unwilling to meet someone who fails to budge. And this would be much akin to the Valar losing patience with Feanor and his household, finally cutting them off from that very right to their creative outlet. And for that matter, however talented a director is said to be, this is ultimately decided by the reaction of people. Power given by the mass can also be taken away. In some sense, the influence and power Shyamalan’s name once had has already faded. According to one report, a theater, upon hearing of another Shyamalan film, collectively booed. Public interest surrounding the film Devil also betrayed a keener optimism also just because Shyamalan didn’t write and direct it, he just wrote the story it was based on. Sound like Feanor’s household at all?

Now, this story of Feanor and the Silmarils makes it tempting to consider the possibility that director’s have some kind of obligation to consider their public and the public’s part ownership of their artistic property. Just as it is interesting to consider what would have happened if Feanor had given up the Simarils, so is it interesting to consider what if Lucas stopped trying milk his cash cow and if Shyamalan continued the sequel to Unbreakable. Of course, the actual application of infringing on director’s rights would immediately be condemned in a free society. Infringement on art is too reminiscent of entities that oppose intellectual and creative freedom. Still, it would be compelling to consider how the equation would change if the public had more rights over a creative work. But then, maybe I just want the original Star Wars on DVD sans Hayden Christenson and maybe I too just want Shyamalan to create the sequel to the genius that is Unbreakable. But that’s besides the point as far as these directors go, I suppose.

Cataloging the Faults of Episode 1

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