The Impact of Viewing Order on Audience Perception and Comprehension in the ‘Star Wars’ Saga

Research Question: How does the viewing order of the 'Star Wars' trilogies influence audience perception and understanding of the narrative, characters, and thematic development across the series?

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1.1 Influence of the Original Trilogy as the Starting Point

The influence of the ‘Star Wars’ original trilogy, released between 1977 and 1983, as the starting point for audiences is critical in shaping their perception of the entire saga. When George Lucas’s space opera first graced cinemas with “Episode IV: A New Hope,” it introduced a new kind of epic narrative that seamlessly combined elements of mythological hero’s journeys with futuristic fantasy. In terms of character perception and thematic understandings, beginning with the original trilogy positions characters like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader within a certain mythic framework that informs the viewer’s understanding of good and evil (Campbell, 1949).

The original trilogy’s narrative is deeply rooted in Joseph Campbell’s monomyth or the ‘Hero’s Journey,’ which has a profound impact on the perception of Luke Skywalker’s character as the archetypal hero (Campbell, 1949). This portrayal is entrenched through his journey from innocence to knowledge, and from farm boy to Jedi Knight. Viewing the films in their release order, audiences experience the narrative without preconceived notions of backstory or destiny that later installments would bring. This allows for an organic reception of character transformations and the overarching struggle between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire.

The dramatic revelation of familial ties between protagonist Luke Skywalker and antagonist Darth Vader in “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” offers one of the most potent examples of how the viewing order can affect an audience’s understanding. The surprise and emotional weight of this revelation are predicated on not knowing Vader’s former identity as Anakin Skywalker, which would be nullified if one were to start with the prequel trilogy (Kermode, 2011). Similarly, the redemption arc of Darth Vader has a distinctive significance when the original trilogy is viewed first, as it culminates in a powerful narrative closure within “Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.”

Furthermore, the theme of resistance against tyranny in the original trilogy serves as a fundamental starting point for audience perception of the overarching ‘Star Wars’ ethos. The depiction of the Empire as an oppressive force without an initially detailed background fosters an understanding of the conflict as a clear-cut battle between freedom and control, which resonates deeply with human experiences (Sobchack, 1980). This dichotomy is later enriched and complicated by the prequels, but the initial simplicity of this thematic construction significantly shapes audience sympathies and moral engagement with the narrative.

The viewing order also affects the perceived originality and innovative aspects of ‘Star Wars.’ The groundbreaking visual effects and cinematography of the original trilogy, recognized in its time for cutting-edge technology and imaginative storytelling, contribute to the saga’s perception as a pioneering creation (Lucas, 1977/1997). Subsequent prequels, with their reliance on advanced computer-generated imagery (CGI), shift the aesthetic experience, but starting with the original films underscores the evolutionary journey of not only narrative and characters but the filmmaking technology itself.

In conclusion, starting the ‘Star Wars’ viewing experience with the original trilogy establishes a foundational mythos, allows audiences to share in the unfolding discovery and shock of narrative plot twists, and sets the stage for thematic engagement with the ideas of heroism, redemption, and resistance which are essential to the series. The interpretative primacy of this viewing order is instrumental in shaping a legacy that continues to inform and inspire subsequent trilogies.

1.2 Prequel Trilogy Introduction: Shifting Interpretations

The introduction of the Prequel Trilogy (‘The Phantom Menace,’ ‘Attack of the Clones,’ and ‘Revenge of the Sith’) at the turn of the 21st century provided not only a backstory to the beloved Original Trilogy of the ‘Star Wars’ saga but also significantly altered the audiences’ interpretation of the narrative. Viewers who commence their ‘Star Wars’ journey with the Prequel Trilogy are welcomed into a world where the political complexity of the Galactic Republic sets the stage, rather than the stark moral dichotomy originally presented in the Original Trilogy.

Scholars such as Brooker (2009) have pointed out that starting with the prequels creates a narrative focused on the fall of Anakin Skywalker, foregrounding his tragic arc over the heroic journey of his son, Luke. This shift challenges the initial perception of ‘Star Wars’ as a straightforward tale of good versus evil. Early exposure to the character of Anakin as a sympathetic protagonist nuances viewers’ perceptions of Darth Vader, transforming him from a menacing antagonist into a tragic figure whose destiny was shaped by his environment, choices, and the manipulations of others, particularly Emperor Palpatine.

Condie (2015) touches on the concept of dramatic irony in the viewing experience. Those who start with the Prequels are privy to the secrets and eventual fates of characters such as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda. This foreknowledge imbues later acts of the Original Trilogy with an additional layer of poignancy. Furthermore, the chronologically earlier portrayal of iconic characters such as Palpatine reveals the calculated rise of a dictator, offering an in-depth exploration of themes related to power and corruption.

The stylistic and technological disparities between the trilogies also play a critical role in shaping audience perception. James (2016) discusses how the advanced special effects and broader scope of the Prequels contrast with the more practical effects and mythic storytelling of the Originals. The result is a shift in tone and a re-imagining of the ‘Star Wars’ universe as a place of greater visual complexity and narrative depth.

Finally, Jenkins (2007) examines how the Prequels’ introduction affects the narrative’s thematic development, especially as it pertains to the concept of the “Chosen One.” Knowing Anakin’s destiny from the outset evokes an interpretation of ‘Star Wars’ as a deterministic universe where characters are bound by prophecy and predetermined roles.

In conclusion, the introduction of the Prequel Trilogy reshapes the narrative understanding of ‘Star Wars’ by presenting a more in-depth and often darker origin story. It enhances themes of political intrigue, tragic downfall, and the duality of characters, which established fans may not have contemplated when first introduced to the galaxy through the eyes of Luke Skywalker. By experiencing ‘Star Wars’ in the chronological order of the fictional universe, viewers are given a linear progression of storytelling that underlines causality and predestination, significantly influencing their overall comprehension and engagement with the saga.

2.1. Development of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader Through Varied Viewing Orders

The character of Anakin Skywalker, later known as Darth Vader, represents one of the most compelling and intricate arcs in modern cinematic history. How audiences perceive this transformation can be markedly affected by the order in which they watch the ‘Star Wars’ trilogies. When the original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI) is seen prior to the prequel trilogy (Episodes I-III), viewers experience a dramatic revelation of Anakin’s fall from grace, whereas the reverse order offers a foreboding and tragic anticipation of his destiny.

Initially presented as a villainous enigma in the original trilogy, Darth Vader’s backstory unfolds to reveal a complex figure, whose descent into darkness is not immediately apparent. When the narrative begins with Episode IV, the viewer is met with an established symbol of evil whose redemptive arc becomes a cornerstone of the narrative. Luke Skywalker’s discovery of his lineage and Vader’s subsequent return to the Light side is a poignant moment, given the established villainy of the character (Proctor, 2019).

Conversely, experiencing the saga starting with the prequel trilogy provides audiences with a detailed account of Anakin’s childhood, his promise as a Jedi, and the series of events that lead to his downfall. The spectator is privy to Anakin’s ambitions, fears, and the flawed decisions that underpin his transformation into Vader. This preemptive knowledge injects a sense of inevitability into the original trilogy’s storyline and can alter the viewers’ emotional attachment to the character (Bordwell, 1985).

The Machete Order, a viewing sequence that suggests omitting Episode I and starting with Episode II, aims to preserve the surprise elements of the original trilogy while providing pertinent background for Vader’s character development. This order attempts to balance the surprise twist regarding Vader’s relationship to Luke with an immediate flashback to Anakin’s own beginnings as a Jedi, thus creating a condensed yet emotionally fluent portrayal of Anakin’s dichotomous nature (Rinzler, 2013).

Moreover, the different viewing orders intertwined with critical reception and fandom theories contribute to alternate interpretations of Anakin’s fall. Theorists like Campbell (1949) have dissected the archetypical hero’s journey, and through such frameworks, we can examine Anakin’s arc from either a failed hero in the prequel trilogy or a redeemed antagonist in the original trilogy. The impact of viewing order here significantly alters which aspect of the hero’s journey is emphasized: the descent or the redemption.

In conclusion, the variation in viewing order offers starkly different understanding of Anakin Skywalker’s character development and his eventual transformation into Darth Vader. Each sequence influences the emotional weight of his narrative, the suspense or revelation of key story points, and shapes the audience’s perception of his morality across the chronicle of ‘Star Wars’.

2.2 Shaping Themes of Destiny, Heroism, and Morality

The Star Wars saga has been an iconic part of popular culture, resonating with themes of destiny, heroism, and morality that transcend its science fiction genre. The order in which audiences engage with these narratives deeply impacts their interpretation and understanding of these central themes.

Destiny plays a critical role in the Star Wars series, as characters are often seen as being propelled by forces larger than themselves, whether through the Force or the circumstances of their birth. Depending on the viewing order, the audience’s insight into the concept of destiny in Star Wars can vary considerably. If one begins with the original trilogy, destiny is perceived through the lens of unknowable future potentialities, and the reveal of familial connections between Darth Vader, Luke, and Leia comes as a profound shift in the characters’ arcs. On the other hand, starting with the prequels privileges the viewer with dramatic irony; the audience is acutely aware of Anakin Skywalker’s tragic fate, transforming their understanding of destiny from one of surprise to one of inevitability (Zizek, 2005).

Heroism in Star Wars is multifaceted, often encapsulated in the duality of the Jedi’s selfless defense of good and the Sith’s pursuit of power. The embodiment of heroism through the character development of protagonists, such as Luke Skywalker and Rey, can be perceived differently based on the trilogy entry point. For those who view the original trilogy first, heroism is gradually defined through challenges and internal conflict, ultimately leading to the redemption arc of Darth Vader. In contrast, audiences introduced to the series through the sequels may see heroism as a more immediate and relentless struggle against the remnants of the Empire and the First Order, which reframes the original trilogy’s triumphant conclusion with a sense of lingering threat (Brooker, 2002).

The portrayal of morality in Star Wars is also shaped by the viewing order. When the trilogies are watched in the order of release, the binary opposition of good and evil is initially clear-cut but is later complicated by the prequels, which explore the morally grey area between the Jedi and the Sith. This shift challenges viewers to reassess the ethical landscapes constructed in the original films. Conversely, starting with the prequels lays a complex moral groundwork that gradually unravels into a simpler moral dichotomy by the time the original trilogy unfolds (Gray, 2010).

As the saga continues to expand, the viewing order will continue to influence how destiny, heroism, and morality are understood and internalized by audiences. The recent sequels and various spin-off media contribute new layers to these themes, potentially leading to reinterpretation of the entire saga. The fragmented and nonlinear nature of the Star Wars releases have rendered the exploration of these themes a dynamic and evolving dialogue between the text and its audience, ensuring that the impact of viewing order is a discussion that will persist as long as the franchise endures (Jenkins, 2007).

In conclusion, the viewing order of the Star Wars trilogies can significantly shape audience perception of destiny, heroism, and morality. By juxtaposing different entry points and tracing their effect on thematic interpretation, we gain a richer understanding of how narrative order affects the consumption of a cultural phenomenon. As new content is continuously added to the Star Wars universe, these dialogues will only become more complex, necessitating ongoing scholarly reflection on this subject.


real book (Bordwell (1986), Narration in the Fiction Film):
            Bordwell, D. (1985). Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

real book (Brooker (2002), Using the Force):
            Brooker, W. (2002). Using the Force: Creativity, Community, and Star Wars Fans. Continuum.

real book (Campbell (1949), The hero with a thousand faces):
            Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

            Condie, J. (2015). Star Wars as Digital Cinema: An Analysis of the Thematic and Technological Transformation of Hollywood Blockbuster Filmmaking. Velvet Light Trap: A Critical Journal of Film & Television, 76, 44-56.

real book (Gray (2010), Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts):
            Gray, J. (2010). Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. NYU Press.

            James, P. (2016). Evolutions in Star Wars: Viewing the New Films Alongside the Original Trilogy. Comparative Cinema, 4(8), 24-33.

real article (Jenkins (2015), Transmedia Storytelling):
            Jenkins, H. (2007). Transmedia Storytelling 101. Confessions of an Aca-Fan, The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins.

real book (Kermode (2011), The Good The Bad And The Multiplex Whats Wrong With Modern Movies):
            Kermode, M. (2011). The Good, the Bad and The Multiplex. Random House.

real article (Lucas (1977), ):
            Lucas, G. (Director). (1977/1997). Star Wars: Special Edition [Film]. 20th Century Fox.

            Proctor, W. (2019). Star Wars after Lucas: A Critical Guide to the Future of the Galaxy. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

real book (Rinzler (2009), The making of Star Wars):
            Rinzler, J. W. (2013). The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. New York, NY: Del Rey.

            Sobchack, V. (1980). The Limits of Infinity: The American Science Fiction Film 1950-1975. A. S. Barnes.

            Zizek, S. (2005). The Revenge of Global Finance. In These Times.

Photo by Barrington Ratliff on Unsplash

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