Recently I read an interesting discussion between two of my peers about Return of the Jedi, and Darth Vader/Anakin’s “redemption.” One of my peers mentioned that he just felt like it wasn’t a true redemption story because Anakin is essentially a genocidal maniac on a galactic scale. And really, the question was, “Are Anakin’s actions enough to merit redemption?”
I don’t want to answer this question, however, because really there is quite a bit of personal taste involved in that. Instead, I want to talk a bit about the difference between a “redemption” story and an “atonement” story. Both of those terms have been slung around quite a bit in regards to the Star Wars movies, and they actually are not quite the same thing. Frankly, I believe Star Wars is both, but not quite by initial design. Real quick, I should mention that I gobbled up comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell when I was at a young age, followed that thread through screenwriting school, and get all hot and bothered over characterization and structure in writing. So this is mostly going to be a structure nerd’s look at the original trilogy and prequels.
A lot of people do not bite the “classic story structure apple” like I have. Some really think there should not BE any structure in stories. For me, it was merely a question of utility, more tools in the belt for when I write myself into a corner. And over time, I have really found that a few specific teachers of structure seem to just really reflect my own personal taste in story telling ideology. When a character seems oddly misplaced to me in a movie, I can tend to figure out why based on some of the theories developed by certain teachers of the last 60 years. For those that care, I’m a Campbell, Voegler, and Truby guy. And technically I would lump Community creator Dan Harmon in with those guys as well. He’s made some great posts on the internet about the monomyth that I would classify as well thought out as those other renowned teachers. No idea who or what I’m talking about? Okay. No problem. Time to move on to what you came here for.
Okay, so what is the big difference between these two sentences:
“Anakin redeems himself at the end of Return of the Jedi.”
“Anakin atones at the end of Return of the Jedi.”
Redemption is really easy to define to most people without getting into the nitty gritty, so let me start there. Someone earns forgiveness in the eyes of someone else. Let’s pause here for a second and think about that sentence:
“Someone earns forgiveness in the eyes of someone else.”
Who actually performs the main action here? Is it the person being forgiven or is the person doing the forgiving? In Star Wars you could argue that out of the 6 movies, Anakin is our protagonist (our hero) for just as long as Luke is. However, during the final act (so far) of the story, who actually has more action beats? Who is driving? Who initiates change? Is it solely Anakin’s action that redeems himself? Is it Luke showing his father sacrifice?
One real important thing to point out is that in a redemption story, there really are two main ingredients: the person who has to do some sort of action to show he has changed and wants redemption, and then the person who forgives them. That person, by the way, can be the only person in the entire galaxy who forgives that person. If the story is told right, it actually benefits from that.
So is Star Wars a redemptive story? For me, the redemptive story of Anakin actually has most of it’s story beats in Luke. In Empire Strikes Back, when Luke discovers (spoiler) the truth about Darth Vader, he would rather jump down a gaping hole to his death than deal with it. We get “NO! THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE!” It horrifies him, in a very operatic sense. And that guy is able to put everything on the line in Return of the Jedi to show his father that all his father needs to do is change his path, and he will be forgiven. Now, some people can throw a bunch of religious metaphor in there, and I think that’s great! Go to town! But holistically, just looking at structure, I see Luke as the person who plays the larger role in the “redemption story.” If this is a redemption story, than this is the story of the ONE GUY who was able to cause a change in the worst genocidal maniac in the universe, and forgive him.
To me, Star Wars is more about an almost operatic display of “atonement,” however. I think it’s the attention to “atonement” more than anything else that makes Star Wars have such broad appeal, and I personally look at Star Wars as the birth of the “blockbuster genre”– and I owe that to its ability to be so unique, so full of dynamic spectacle (and merchandising), while still being masterful in its display of “atonement.”
So what is atonement?
Atonement technically (for us in the modern world) means “reparation for a wrong or injury.” So isn’t it the same thing as redemption? Well, here’s where things get a little trippy and crazy. I’m sorry in advance, there’s no way for me to talk about this without getting very “worldly” here. This is where the Joseph Campbell comparative mythology studies come into play (and believe me, if Making Star Wars wants a deluxe article on Joseph Campbell’s impact on Star Wars, I can pour that out of me with a smile).
If we track the history of storytelling back to its roots, or maybe even a bit before the roots, really we see a lot of mythology around the world that all seems to do the same thing. Really, our ancestors in the earliest eras of storytelling all seemed to “create” the idea of a story out of some pretty identical and essential ingredients:
A character has flaws. They seek a physical goal of some kind. They have to adapt their personal flaws to achieve this goal. And they thus return home having changed.
Notice I do not say “they get the goal.” That doesn’t always happen. Sometimes it’s about the road taken. Also notice I do not say “they defeat their flaws.” THAT is the crux of atonement.
In the mythological sense, when people started telling stories simply out of a desire to figure out how mankind ticks, oftentimes the view of mankind is that we all have some sort of moral (hurting others) and psychological flaw (hurting ourselves). And thus the real goal of these characters would be “atoning with the acknowledgment of needing personal growth or being a mortal person.” Journeying into their own faults to tackle them head on, because, well, the goal requires it. For example, you never hear a story about a guy who is bad at math having to beat an English test.
It’s always important that a character has to face (not necessarily change) their own inward demons in order to achieve their goal. This is why in even action films, you still ideally have someone like John McClane from Die Hard dealing with a rocky marriage and being a lackluster husband… as opposed to just dealing with some terrorists and glass on the floor. In story structure, there are a lot of different names for this, but I like to think of it this way: In the timeline of a story, the person is a master of their own comfort zone. They go to unfamiliar territory, which also lands them in a situation where they have to deal with unfamiliar territory internally. And afterwards they emerge changed in some respect. That, to me, is a story at its most simplest qualifications. Everything else can mostly be creative license, unique, and completely customized.
When a person has to deal with those inward flaws, they are atoning with their own self-awareness and growing, even if they just embrace their flaws. It is allowable in our own sensibilities for a character to go after a goal, deal with something internal, come to a new realization about themselves, and then return from their adventure WITHOUT whatever they first set out for. That can happen. In fact, it happens in real life all the time, in your OWN adventures. People can walk away from that story feeling that it was relatable and somehow still worthwhile. However, you are far less likely to walk away from this story feeling just as fulfilled: A person goes and DOES get their goal, but never actually changes, adapts, or learns anything.
Because of that, stories actually have more to do with kind of a Carl Jung-ified version of “atonement.” The definition has been muddled to serve modern people. Really, it’s kind of like this:
Modern definition of atonement: “reparation for a wrong or injury.”
Classical definition of atonement (which services writing stories more): “Facing an internal flaw.”
In the ancient most distilled version of atonement, the “wrong or injury” of the human race (literally EVERY person) is not having the ability to naturally be self-actualized and deal with their own internal flaws at face value until a trauma happens. We “atone” with ourselves by just facing that.
Wooh. Okay. So Return of the Jedi? Remember that film? Let’s get back to it.
So atonement is based on a character dealing in one way or another with their flaws. So what are Vader’s flaws?
I believe if we have to distill all 6 movies of Anakin down to one essential flaw, it is his lack of faith in the universe. That guy has no father. He has a mother who he was unable to save. Just when he is about to get a wife, he gets nightmares about her dying. Rather than trust in the ways of the Jedi, Anakin is lured by temptations about power and immortality. In the same way that someone gambles out of desperation, Anakin begins making horrible decisions in a real attempt to eventually just be “above it all”– almost like omnipotent– where he has enough power in the galaxy where he can overthrow his new master, the Emperor, and finally protect his family and those he cares about.
Anakin’s real atonement is finally being shocked into looking at his flaws (above) and realizing this is the wrong path. It takes his son showing complete willpower and faith in HIM, Anakin, to make him suddenly relinquish his leash on this path he set out on.
So while Anakin’s story may be one of redemption (or more probably a story about his redemption in the eyes of his son), it definitely is a story of atonement.
I personally believe that Star Wars in 1977, outlined as different stories, is one of our species best attempts at distilling a story of “atonement” into its most palpable and broadest pieces of media. It reaches kids, women, men, all ethnicities, as a story of atonement with its most mythological and original ingredients. From that tree I believe you can easily branch it out into a story of redemption. But at its most singular celled level, it is a story about humankind being able to identify their own internal struggles and atone with the “veil” of our own behavior.