Now that we are in our house and everything from storage has been unpacked, we have been reunited with our DVD collection. This means that last week’s Movie Night brought a genuinely thrilling event for our family: my daughter watched Star Wars for the first time.
This was a long-anticipated event for daughter and father (and, to a lesser degree, mother). If you haven’t read about my Star Wars story time with her, click here. In short, I’ve told her the plots of the three original films in little chunks for bedtime. She knows the story and characters in the ways that children remember stories: vaguely correct themes punctuated by brief incidents of unbelievably accurate detail. (“One robot got lost so Luke took his floating car into the sand mountains to look for him.”) The prospect of watching a “Star Wars movie” was immensely exciting to her, particularly if it had Princess Leia in it.
The initial battle scenes on the Corellian corvette blockade runner (yes, I’m that dorky, you scruffy-looking nerf-herder) had her asking, “What is happening?” and “What are they doing?” But the confusion ended the moment the airlock door blew open and my daughter threw her arms up and hissed with excitement and awe: “Darth Vader!” She cowered back into the sofa while R2-D2 was stalked by the Jawas, and she threw her hands up over her eyes when Luke was attacked by the Sand People. She gazed with admiration at the Mos Eisley street scenes (Lucas’ revisionist edits are impressive in those moments), and she cheered with the Millenium Falcon escaped Tatooine. “Chewbacca is a big dog,” she explained to her mother. The trash compactor scene again had her covering her eyes in fear, and she laughed with us as C-3PO mistook their relieved shouts for death screams.
At moments throughout the movie, she would turn to me and say, “Remember this part? You told me about this!” Perhaps the best moment in the whole experience came when she whispered to me, “When you told me this story, Princess Leia looked different.” <pause> “I mean, in my mind. She looked more like Snow White.”
I worried, back when I was recounting the tale to her, that watching the film might squash the imaginative processes of her mind. People argue that movies don’t leave as much to the imagination, not like books and the spoken word do. I think that’s true for adults; I’m not so sure with kids. Their brains seem to be taking in so much new, unprocessed and unfiltered data that their imaginations never stop working, even when we give them the pictures and structures to order them. Adults think, “This is what Princess Leia looks like.” Kids mash it up and even slightly question it when they actually see her on the screen.
Tonight’s Movie Night is, of course, The Empire Strikes Back. I can’t wait for her to see Yoda on the screen. She knows what he looks like because she found an old Yoda action figure of mine. She’s heard my approximation of his speech. But I’m eager to see the ways that her imagination takes him in, partly because he’s such a kid-friendly part of the Star Wars universe. Also because, well, Yoda was my favorite when I was a kid. My own imagination was filled with stories and ideas about Yoda. Watching her experience these stories for the first time invites me into my own childhood recollections, but also reminds me not to hold on to them so tightly. (Again, see my analysis as to why people my age hate – hate – the Star Wars prequels.) Stories shape us and form who we are, but we do not own them; they are not ours to keep. They belong to families, communities, cultures; they slip out of our hands and take on larger significance and meanings as new people encounter and live them. They are, quite literally, alive in their capacity to grow and change and adapt and touch each individual in different ways.
I love watching my child imagine the stories I tell her: Star Wars, Grimm’s fairy tales, someday it will be Lord of the Rings. Or the way she engages the stories of the Bible, or the stories I tell her of when I was a kid. All these things are alive in her in new ways, ways I can’t see or predict, but that bring me back to the mystery of discovery that is narrative. It’s exciting to watch and to know that I have years ahead of her hearing, discovering, and reinterpreting my stories back to me.