On Feb. 6, Lucasfilm announced another non-Skywalker based Star Wars trilogy was in the works, this time coming from the men who brought "Game of Thrones" to HBO. David Benioff and Dan Weiss are an obvious hire from a logistics perspective, as “Game of Thrones” ends next year. The duo's commitment to creating the immersive world of Westeros via on-location filming, instead of CGI, is something Lucasfilm also prizes. And their work ethic in bringing "Game of Thrones" to the small screen over the last decade is impressive. It seems like a marriage made in nerd fandom heaven. So why has much of the overall reaction so far been disgust?
Benioff and Weiss have a reputation for creating an excellent product, and for luring in massive numbers of viewers. By the end of Season 7 last summer, “Game of Thrones’” ratings stood at 16.5 million according to Nielsen, bested only by broadcast staples “The Big Bang Theory,” “Young Sheldon” and “This Is Us.” These are astounding numbers for cable, let alone pay cable. But Benioff and Weiss also have a reputation for peppering their plots with copious amounts of sex and violence, including gendered violence.
Meanwhile, Star Wars has the long-standing reputation of being a franchise that appeals to all ages, partly because that was the ethos of the original trilogy back in the 1970s. While the prequels were perhaps a little too kid-friendly, Disney (which also has a reputation for never going harder than a gentle PG-13) seems committed to the idea that the rebooted franchise should be one parents can pass on to the next generation.
Benioff and Weiss have a reputation for creating an excellent product, luring in massive numbers of viewers and peppering their plots with sex and violence.
To be fair, much of “Game of Thrones’” turpitude stems from its source material: George R.R. Martin’s fantasy world is one where characters die horribly, especially women. But Benioff and Weiss also seem to have reveled in Martin’s depravity, admitting they “loved” filming subplots like the one where they have character Ramsay Snow gaslight, abuse and torture his bride. They also said they purposefully recast the role of Snow’s bride to a more prominent female character so it “would have greater impact.”
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Then there was the duo’s controversial idea for a show that reimagined the U.S. in an alternate history where the South won the Civil War. Simply put, this is not a team that could be described as family friendly, or for the matter, particularly sympathetic to diversity.
It’s true that A Galaxy Far, Far Away is not a world of optimism and light and George Lucas’ Empire is dark and full of terrors. But the films have generally stayed clear of gory torture or violence. Lucas' original vision was filled with characters who appealed to kids, and who inspired them to be heroes. That’s part of the Star Wars legacy, and one of the reasons that adding diversity to the series with new characters like Rey, Finn and Rose Tico has been viewed as such a step forward. Rey is a heroine who both girls and boys can identify with and Finn and Rose are heroes who happen to be people of color. But for these updates to be able to make an impact, the series needs to keep violence and sex to levels appropriate for a wide-ranging age group.
In a lot of ways, "Game of Thrones" is a show lucky in its timing. It came along just as "The Sopranos" and 2007’s "Mad Men" sparked the rise of what critics today call “prestige TV.” But had Martin's books been adapted five years earlier, in the wake of the "Lord of the Rings" films, they would likely have been forced to fit within a trilogy of movies. The show also benefitted from the nascent social media universe and the still-burgeoning blogging landscape — one that at the time still favored the opinions of white, male tastemakers. Had it come along five years later, the show would likely have run into the "Doctor Strange" problem, with a more diverse group of critics able to point out the show’s whitewashing, racist tropes and casual misogyny.
The Star Wars franchise, meanwhile, has been making a real effort to keep abreast of the changing social values of our society as they have rapidly developed over the last few years, and respond by making their on screen and off screen worlds more diverse. Yes, the directors have all been white men. (Variety did the math and in the more than 40 years of Lucasfilm productions, the percentage of white men helming their films is a damning 96%.)
But the current brain trust is controlled by a woman of color, Kiri Hart, who reports to another woman, Kathleen Kennedy. Meanwhile, the roster of writers and producers is slowly becoming more heterogeneous. This is good news, but it also makes the hiring of a pair of white guys who are not known for ethnic or gendered inclusiveness feel like a step backward.
Is this really what Kennedy and company want to bring to the Star Wars universe? Or is it merely an inability to see past the numbers? After all, despite the uproar over controversial scenes like the rape of Sansa Stark (which occurred in “Game of Thrones” Season 5), the show didn’t lose viewers. In fact, only two episodes later, the show broke its all-time viewership record — a record which stood a whole week until the next episode aired. (The season’s finale, which set yet another viewership record, centered around the public humiliation of another female character.) If anything, “Game of Thrones” has proven that viewers, despite perhaps desiring more diverse and less sexist plots, are all too willing to default to the classic misogynistic fare.
Social media may be protesting, but the numbers — and awards — tell a different story.
I’m not saying Benioff and Weiss aren’t compatible with the world of Star Wars. Maybe a harder, sexier, darker trilogy is what the franchise needs to balance out the force (and Rian Johnson’s trilogy.) Also, as we saw with "Solo: A Star Wars Story," Kathleen Kennedy doesn’t suffer fools who won’t follow direction. If Benioff and Weiss won’t stay within Lucasfilm house codes, they may find themselves out on their ears. After all, Ron Howard is always available to save the day.