TFN Interview: SW And History Co-Editor Janice Liedl
Posted By Eric on November 26, 2012
Janice Liedl is an associate professor of history at Laurentian University, a longtime Star Wars fan, and one of the co-editors of the new book Star Wars and History. In addition to my review, I interviewed Liedl about her personal fandom and the process of putting the book together. This interview was lightly edited for clarity purposes.
What is your earliest Star Wars memory?
My earliest Star Wars memory is holding the novelization of Star Wars in my hands. It was a couple of weeks before the movie came out. A friend had gotten it and said, “You gotta see this new book, it’s gonna be a movie.” And I was hooked from day one, reading the descriptions. So as soon as the first movie came out, I was there in the theater that week.
Do you think reading Star Wars before watching it changed the way you viewed the saga?
It probably did. I’m still attached to the first copy of the novelization I own; I still have it to this very day. Just seeing the stories onscreen and reading it at the same time makes the world seem bigger and more enticing as far as I was concerned.
Are you active in Star Wars fandom? Do you go to the fan sites and the forums?
I do go to the fan sites and the forums. Way back in the day, I used to be pretty active in the fandom, way back when we did things like fanzines and going to conferences. I did that back in the day as well. I had the whole fandom experience.
Did you line up for Episode V and VI?
I lined up. In fact, when Episode VI came along, I was part of an entire convention, MediaWest*Con. We went to see that in the release week. Imagine a movie theater filled with hundreds of excited Star Wars fans ready to see it for the first time.
Did you do that for Episode I-III as well?
For the Prequels, I had little kids, so I didn’t do the long line-ups, but I was there the first day to make sure I saw them right away.
What is your favorite historical allusion or parallel in Star Wars?
I think it would have to be the historical parallels that you have with Princess Leia and the resistance fighters. Right from the moment in A New Hope when she’s grabbing Han and saying “Into the garbage chute, flyboy,” you knew you had some pretty awesome people. She’s so much like these resistance fighters in World War II that when I got to co-write [“Part of the Rebel Alliance and a Traitor”: Women in War and Resistance], I was thrilled.
The Star Wars movies are sometimes criticized for not featuring enough strong women. What do you think of that criticism?
I think that criticism is really off-base. Certainly you could have more women characters; you could always have that. But some of the great women characters of all time have come out of the Star Wars saga. We’ve got Princess Leia, obviously, and she’s just so interesting and exciting, but in the Prequels, with Padmé, in The Clone Wars, with Ahsoka –– even some of the other characters who are there for a relatively small amount of time in the films or across the EU. It’s just a world full of interesting men and women.
You mentioned the EU. I think Mara Jade is a good example of a strong female character, and her adventures open up a whole new world of experiences. Have you read any of the books featuring Mara?
I read a lot of the stories of Mara Jade going right back to her creation. I remember reading those in the EU and following up with all of the more recent stories. Now we’ve got the next generation in the EU with Jaina and her adventures. So yes, I’ve been a big fan.
When did you start looking at Star Wars from an academic perspective?
This came about in 2010. I had been involved with the “Pop Culture and History” series previously, doing volumes that dealt with Harry Potter and Twilight, and the series editor, Nancy Reagin, knew I was a Star Wars fan. We were brought in because George Lucas actually saw some of these books out there and he wanted to know why there wasn’t a Star Wars and History book. Obviously I was more than ready to dive right on in and help. It began in the summer of 2010 with George Lucas wanting to see this happen.
How many essay submissions did you receive?
We went through a long, involved process because everybody who was involved had to be approved by George Lucas. He wanted to look over and see their historical scholarship. Every subject, every chapter also had to go through George Lucas’s approval as well. He read all the final chapters and made recommendations, suggestions, and changes. We had a lot of people apply. For some chapters and topics, we had a dozen or more on tap. For some of them, we knew that there were specific experts that we wanted to get onboard.
How involved was George Lucas and what kinds of advice or information did he give you?
He was very specific. When we suggested a table of contents –– some possible topics –– he didn’t just say “this, not that.” For example, I had suggested a chapter that might look at the parallels in military buildup at the start of the 20th century –– the era of the dreadnought –– and compare that to the Death Star. He wrote back and said that, no, the Death Star is the atomic bomb. So that really changed the way we worked. Then we reached out and found an expert in Cold War history to write a wonderful chapter looking at the way in which Star Wars evokes the atomic bomb and was also a part of Cold War history itself.
So you had ideas for some of the chapters, and then based on your conversations with Lucas, you sought out additional material to form the narrative?
Yes, and when historians would have a question, he was very good about answering it. We could pass a question on to George Lucas and he would respond. Bill Astore, who wrote the chapter “Why Rebels Triumph,” was able to get some questions answered about the Vietnam War parallels that Lucas had in mind. That enabled him to write, I think, a much more significant chapter with real arguments about the parallels in the Vietnam War with the Rebellion.
What did you learn about the research that George Lucas did in the 1970s to make the movies more historically resonant?
We know that he was very interested in the ways in which democracy turns to tyranny ¬–– that tyrants rise from within. He talked about how he saw, over and over again in history, many of these same parallels: rebellions rising up against powerful states, charismatic leaders being corrupted by their power. He said that, with the theme of dictatorship, he thought, obviously, of Caesar, but also Napoleon and Hitler. So we were able to turn to the historians and say, “Look at this, but also add that.” Lucas really wanted to emphasize that he saw history having a lot of these things happening over and over again.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned about Star Wars while you were putting this book together?
I think the most surprising parallel for me was probably that Lucas was inspired by the Mexican Revolution. It wasn’t just the way in which the revolutionaries rose up and the powerful role of some women in there; it was even where he took princess Leia’s hairstyle from. Some of the women who were associated with the revolution, they’d put their hair up in buns on either side of the head. He not only took some of the storylines, but he took the look.
Are you still able to just enjoy the movies as movies after spending so much time examining them in a scholarly way?
Oh, yes. I love the movies. I have many copies because I started owning them on VHS, and I still have my old VHS tapes as well as now my fancy new Blu-rays. When the music starts up, I just kick back and smile. I can’t help it.
Do the Star Wars movies make a good teaching resource?
Oh, yeah. Right now I’m teaching a lot of topics in the 17th and 18th centuries and I’m able to tell my students, “Hey, if you’re interested in more on the history of the East India Company, why not take a look at the chapter that we have [in Star Wars and History] on how trade and corporations in Star Wars relate to the history that we have in your textbook.” It’s really illuminating how many of these scenes in history you can make a little more understandable for the uninitiated with the Star Wars parallels.
How do your students react when you use Star Wars to teach them history?
I think at first they’re a little leery. They want to make sure I’m not tricking them into anything. But when I tell them, “No, I’m serious, I’ve been following these parallels now for a couple years,” they seem pretty pleased. It’s a nice idea when you can apply your historical knowledge to a broader world, even if it is sometimes a galaxy far, far away.
How did the politics of the late 1990s and the early 2000s affect the Prequel Trilogy?
I think that the big effect was the increasing rise of corporations and that’s why we’re really lucky to have such a great chapter on the history of corporations. But also I think [Lucas] was drawn to the role of cities and the whole way in which societies could reinvent themselves around all of this. There’s so much wheeling and dealing in these very impersonal contexts that we saw in the 1990s and early 2000s, and he was employing some of those same elements right there.
How do you see the politics in the two trilogies differing from or mirroring each other?
They kind of relate in bookends. In both, there are elements of civil war, but in the Prequels, you’re rooting for the central power, the Republic, to stay against the Confederacy, and then it turns around, and in the civil war where it’s against the Empire, you’re rooting for the Alliance. It’s about being able to see that sometimes, you take a different side depending on where they stand. That’s a really great contrast.
Were you surprised that, as America now takes on the role of being the “empire” and fighting insurgency, Lucas was able to move the story 180 degrees but still retain the same themes?
I was pretty impressed by that. I think it takes somebody who’s sophisticated but also really thoughtful, who realizes that it’s a short step from good intentions to a bad end. The conclusion to Bill Astore’s chapter [“Why Rebels Triumph”] talks about the role in which the American military finds itself today and how that has some very close parallels, even down to the language people use, with some of the world of Star Wars. Those parallels might be a good warning that we need to think about how we look at other people and ourselves.
What basic lessons can Star Wars teach us about society and human affairs?
I think that it’s easy to become complacent and to stop inspecting what you’re doing and why. The Jedi became very comfortable in the Star Wars universe. We saw in the Prequels how this great power, this great moral force, could be completely caught unaware. It was just the world changing around them while they didn’t think much about it. The same thing goes for us. We, in history, live in a world that’s constantly changing, and yet we kind of react to it the way it was a generation ago. Until we catch up or we’re able to think about it, we’re often doing the wrong thing.
When you talked to Lucas, did you get the sense that he wanted to use these movies to educate people?
I think education has been a big priority of his for a long time. When we got the call to be involved and we started the conversations, it was through the educational foundation, which has recently been in the news with the Disney deal. That’s where he saw this book and other works fitting in –– that Star Wars could be part of an educational force in our society to make people think, by taking something that you might consider simple entertainment and making them think about their society and culture.
Given that the forthcoming Sequel Trilogy will take place after the fall of the Galactic Empire, what historical and political themes are you going to be looking for in these films?
I’m going to look for the difference between an ideal –– what the Alliance thinks it’s going to make when it recreates the Republic –– and the very different reality that results. I think we’ll see some of that reacting to the previous generation’s problems: people treating the world and the generation after the triumph over Palpatine as if they’re still fighting a war against the Empire. Some of the seeds of conflict and drama will be based on how they’re not ready for the problems and, probably, the return of the Dark Side in unexpected ways.
What makes Star Wars and History a good book for all Star Wars fans, not just history buffs?
If you want to get an idea of how George Lucas built his worlds and the cultures in the Star Wars galaxy –– what inspirations he was drawing from –– and where he might go, because remember, he told us time and again that he saw history operating in cycles. These things happen over and over again, so I think you’re going to see some of these same themes coming back in new, exciting, and unexpected ways.
It seems like the Sequel Trilogy and the rumored Episodes X-XII will give you the opportunity to produce a second volume of this book.
I’m kind of hoping they’ll let us strike back, yes!
I'd like to thank Professor Liedl for taking the time to talk to me. I highly recommend picking up Star Wars and History (you can get it here on Amazon). You can check out my review of the book here.