11:30 am EST, December 15, 2015

The awakening: How ‘The Force Awakens’ is bringing fans back to ‘Star Wars’

By Michal Schick | Edited by Karen Rought

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is more than just a movie. For many, it’s a way back to an almost-forgotten love.

A prequel of sorts

I was 12 years old when my father told me the story of Star Wars over the dinner table one Friday night. It was 1999, and the galaxy far, far, away was about to change forever.

That night, my mind was opened to a world of talking machines, to old men who died in appalling grace. That night, I learned how to destroy worlds, how to declare your love, how to understand mysterious fathers.

That night, I awoke to Star Wars for the first time.

What followed was a period of intense, overwhelming love — it was childish, and it was true. I remember my legs dangling from the couch as my eyes raced to read the opening crawl spooling off a VHS tape. I remember crying for brief, brave X-Wing pilots, and wondering why Han had to be such an idiot.

I also remember when my love for Star Wars fell asleep, as the credits rolled on Revenge of the Sith. I walked stiffly out of the theater, feeling empty. Feeling tired.

“Well, that’s it,” I thought. “Star Wars is over.”

Dark times

As it turns out, I am not the only one who felt this way. Many fans have experienced a waning in their attachment to Star Wars in recent years.

“I thought the property was dead,” admits John Rocha, who fell in love with Star Wars in the ’70s. Like many (many) fans, Rocha’s journey away from the property began with George Lucas’ Prequel Trilogy.

“The magnitude of the letdown I felt after the last installment cannot be quantified,” he recalls. “It offended me on so many levels.”

Greg Gershman, who was born three months before the release of A New Hope in 1977, says he can’t remember a time when he didn’t love Star Wars. What he does remember — quite vividly, in fact — is his lowest point as a fan.

“May 19, 1999, at about 10:00 a.m., right after I saw Phantom Menace,” he says. “The crash from expectation to reality was jarring.”

Others held onto hope longer, but had an even more drastic response to the new films. For Matt Hezel, who has been “hooked” on the story since the age of six, it was Episode II that caused the fracture.

Attack of the Clones, he says, was “the complete opposite of everything that I had loved about the Original Trilogy.” Hezel didn’t bother buying a ticket for Revenge of the Sith.

But as in any discussion of the Star Wars canon, it’s worth noting that, for as many fans as they alienated, condemnation of the Prequel Trilogy is far from universal. Many enjoyed them straight off, or came to appreciate them over time. The new films also drew a younger generation to Star Wars, and led many to take their first steps into the larger world offered by the Expanded Universe novels.

Matt Hezel actually turned to the “EU” (a constellation of largely-connected Star Wars books and comics that until recently comprised the galactic canon) because of his frustration with the Prequels. And Faith Parke-Dodge, who grew into her own as a fan during the Prequel era, came to the Expanded Universe from the opposite direction.

“I discovered the EU the summer before 9th grade and became completely obsessed,” she recalls. “I read the Han Solo Trilogy and the X-Wing series that year, probably five times.”

Aside from a deep, meaningful relationship with a series chronicling the adventures of (a dashing and angst-ridden) padawan-aged Obi-Wan Kenobi, I had no involvement with the Expanded Universe. The labyrinthine structure intimidated me, and it seemed strange to continue Luke, Leia and Han’s adventures in text, rather than onscreen.

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But according to Tricia Barr, author of Ultimate Star Wars and FANgirlblog.com, many fans “found their niche in the Expanded Universe.” Barr credits Timothy Zahn’s acclaimed Thrawn Trilogy (which even I had heard of) especially as it acted like a light for many in the “dark times” before the Prequels.

But the EU itself turned out to be something of a double-edged lightsaber (so to speak) for many loyal readers. Even the incredibly passionate Barr experienced diminishing returns in the novels.

“The ongoing Expanded Universe struggled with maintaining the tone of Star Wars,” she says. “I saw huge numbers of longtime adult fans, including many of my friends, drifting away from the franchise.”

Barr took action, founding her blog to create a positive space for discussion and inclusivity in the fandom. But even she herself felt her faith in the Force waver as time went on.

“I was struggling as a Star Wars fan two or three years ago,” she says. “My passion was the books, and the powers that be were disconnected from their female customers.”

Parke-Dodge felt similarly disillusioned. As she grew older, her intense love of the series waned, and she drifted away from the property.

“I was still a [Star Wars] fan, but it was no longer my every waking thought,” she admits. “I was no longer interested in anything new because I felt like this world I had lived in was being destroyed… so I just stopped immersing myself.”

Next: All is not lost

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