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Tabula Rasa: On Adaptation and the Solo Kids

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DISCLAIMER: while this post will be discussing major potential plot points in The Force Awakens, I have seen no real spoilers regarding the topic in question and what follows is purely speculative—and will remain equally valid even if the details don’t hold up.

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In a roundtable interview at BookCon last May, Adam Gidwitz, author of the forthcoming young-adult adaptation The Empire Strikes Back: So You Want to Be a Jedi? addressed how his fairy tale-heavy background applied to writing a Star Wars book as follows:

“The main character of every fairy tale is an empty character. They don’t have a lot of personality traits. You know, Cinderella—we know almost nothing about her. And there’s a purpose for that. The purpose is that children can put themselves into [her] shoes…and you can follow in her footsteps. So, Luke, I think, is an empty character. He’s not like Han, with a sharply-defined personality, he’s not like Leia, who’s a real powerful woman. He’s brave, and he’s kind…that’s about it.”

This insight, Gidwitz explained, is what led to his decision to write the book as if the reader themselves is Luke Skywalker—an almost literal insertion of the audience into the story. Naturally, those of us who have been steeped in the Expanded Universe for the last twenty years could cite all sorts of personality details that snuck in at the edges of Luke’s character over the years, but the fact remains that he was conceived as an audience-identification character—and the value of that as the original trilogy unfolds is that his lessons become our lessons.

For my part, maybe because I was already well into adolescence by the time I got into Star Wars, this is why I’ve never really been that interested in him. Because I didn’t grow up pretending I was Luke Skywalker, “brave and kind” weren’t enough to make him compelling to me, and I gravitated toward more (relatively) defined characters like Han and, in particular, Lando. Star Wars is a fairy tale, and it did need that empty slot to, well, function at all, but what draws me to galaxy-shaking, Hero’s Journey, “Chosen One”-style storytelling is the guys at the periphery who don’t have a personal stake in all the genre madness going on but get drawn into it regardless.

And eventually, slowly, I came to realize that this is why I never cared much about the Solo twins either.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved and continue to respect the New Jedi Order series. It remains the closest the EU ever came to its own sequel trilogy, and for all its unevenness (and unfortunate after-effects), it was the closest I ever came to identifying with Jacen and Jaina. Prior to the NJO—and let’s be honest, throughout most of the NJO as well—Jacen and Jaina were “animal lover” and “machine lover”. That was about it.

humanbeing
Much like the Greendale Human Being, Jacen
and Jaina are distinguished primarily by their inoffensive lack of specificity.

The main expression of the twins as audience-identification characters is naturally the Young Jedi Knights series, though I should note that I don’t exactly fault it for that; certainly without YJK they’d have had no pre-NJO personalities whatsoever, and YJK’s role in raising its own generation of EU fans shouldn’t be understated (I should also note that while I’ll be focusing on the twins, the broad strokes of this could apply to Anakin and the Junior Jedi Knights series as well).

The kids didn’t really get their own Hero’s (Heroes’?) Journey until the NJO, of course, but by then they had progressed from truly empty characters to something perhaps more problematic: archetypes. Jacen was the pacifist and Jaina was the warrior, and their NJO arcs were about applying those distillations of their Skywalker legacy to the new paradigm of the Yuuzhan Vong invasion—how much fighting is too much? And what good is pacifism when you’re facing extermination?

All things considered it was an admirable job—again, twenty-year-old me enjoyed it a great deal. But the issue I have with it in retrospect is that Jacen and Jaina never really became people; their archetypes became muddled by years of compromise and loss, but they never really developed human personalities. If Luke in the OT was “brave and kind”, Jaina and Jacen were “brave” and “kind”, respectively—and as the characters reached adulthood, that quickly stopped being enough.

But believe it or not, this isn’t about criticizing them as characters. The EU wouldn’t have been half of what it was without them, and if they prove to be gone forever I’ll be sad about that. But precisely because they never evolved beyond archetypes, I think many people are making a mistake in how narrowly they’re defining whether or not they’re “gone”.

As the story of The Force Awakens has (very) slowly begun coming into focus, scuttlebutt over Rey’s parentage (everyone’s, really, but Rey’s in particular) is naturally heating up. Beyond the simple matter of whether she’s a SkySolo, one specific thread of that conversation has been “is she Jaina?” In my experience, this usually takes one of two forms: “I really hope her name is Jaina!” and “EU fans are going to be so pissed when her real name isn’t Jaina!”

What I’m here to say is, if she is Han and Leia’s daughter (and man, I cannot stress that “if” hard enough), with or without the name, this character is Jaina. Good mechanic? We know that much for certain. Force-sensitive? In this scenario, that’s pretty much a given (I’d love to be wrong, but that’s another article). And like Gidwitz said, that’s about it.

Pictured: three variations on the same concept.
Pictured: three variations on the same concept.

Even better, she’d be Jaina with a touch of Ania Solo for good measure—because that’s how adaptation works. You take the most interesting bits and shape them into something that works for your medium. It’s also, in case you’ve forgotten, exactly what we were told from the very beginning they’d be doing with old EU stuff.

I promise you, no major Expanded Universe character will ever be dropped wholesale into a Star Wars film without some tweaking and streamlining. But to set your bar at 100% fidelity to something that was conceived for drastically different reasons than a major motion picture is silly. For the sake of argument, let’s say their plan for the sequels had been to adapt the Thrawn trilogy—as we’ve learned from numerous big-budget franchises over the last fifteen years, no book can be adapted flawlessly into a movie, even if you split the book in half and make six hours’ worth of material. Something would have been cut or moved, and tab A would’ve ended up in slot F instead of slot A. Maybe Borsk Fey’lya would’ve been made a Sullustan because they couldn’t get the CGI fur to look right. Maybe Pellaeon would be black. Movies Are Not Books, and shit like that happens all the time for one reason or another.

Let me spell that out another way: even if Lucasfilm had set out to make a direct adaptation of the EU for the sequel trilogy, said adaptation would still have been a new continuity. That’s how adaptation works.

So given that we’re not getting a direct adaptation, I neither want nor expect Rey to literally be Jaina. I want her to be Jaina 2.0—better, faster, stronger, and most importantly, recognizably human. In my book, that’s a win.

9 thoughts to “Tabula Rasa: On Adaptation and the Solo Kids”

  1. A question – if Rey is the new main character – the new Luke – why should we think she won’t be more of a blank slate character?

    1. That’s actually a great question—I gave some thought to that, and looking at the prequel trilogy, I couldn’t see Anakin as a blank character in that Luke/Cinderella vein. He had too many specific personality quirks that were necessitated by what the story was going to be. When I say that SW needed an empty character, I mean it needed it to invest people in such a fantastical universe to begin with. That mission’s over—we’re invested. =)

      Now, I suppose Rey could have been constructed that way, given that getting people to buy in to the ST is still something of a challenge, but it doesn’t seem like that to me.

      1. One thing to remember is that they’re always trying to rope in new fans, a new generation. It’s not just that they want us – they want the kids… so she’s going to have to appeal to kids.

        You know, whine a lot and stuff.

  2. Goddamnit Coop. I was all ready to throw things at you 1/3 of the way through the article and then you made me not hate you for this by mentioning Ania.

  3. Eric: Perhaps Finn we’ll be the blank slate character in this new trilogy. I’m sure most of the audience will share the confusion he displays throughout the trailers, as they all adjust to this “new” Star Wars uncovers.

    And I was about to argue that I made connections with Anakin and Jacen Solo in the New Jedi Order, but as I continued reading I realized I just enjoyed the sacrifices they made. Anakin sacrificing his life and Jacen suffering at the hands of his enemies were more plot devices then character development moments. So in the end I agreed with your assessment – the characters were somewhat flat and not memorable for me. The plot elements and set pieces obviously stuck with me longer.

  4. Well I certainly disagree with the assessment that Luke never acquired a third personality trait after brave and kind in the original trilogy. Let alone the Solo twins after thousands of pages of publication.

    And no, making her Han and Leia’s daughter does not make her Jaina. YES, adaptation does not mean 100% fidelity. But don’t you think it’s going a bit far the other way to claim that anything short of the Empire disappearing into thin air and Han and Leia never having any offspring at all constitutes reasonably adapting the Thrawn trilogy?

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