One of the more amazing aspects of fandom is the way people interact and engage with their chosen franchise, from cosplay, to fansite writing/podcasting, creating various homemade games/films, or finding news ways to interpret it. Star Wars Ring Theory: The Hidden Artistry of the Star Wars Prequels is one of those unique things only a fanbase as passionate as the Star Wars universe can conceive of. If you haven’t read this multi-page epic dissection of the first six films in the saga, do so now and then return here for an interview with the author, Mike Klimo. If you don’t want to read it just yet, stick around and I’ll try to explain why you should read it no matter what level of fan you may be of Star Wars.
Whether or not you like the prequel films, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith, they are a vital and instrumental part of the Star Wars saga. For fans who didn’t enjoy the films, they’ve invented ways to watch the saga which make the prequels more ‘bearable’ to them, with the most popular example being the Machete Order, which encourages completely skipping TPM and watching the films in this order: 4,5,2,3,6. I’ve tried the Machete Order and I won’t lie, it does kind of work and is an interesting way of experiencing the saga…but leaving TPM in and doing 4,5,1,2,3,6 is just as rewarding. And after reading Star Wars Ring Theory, I can never considering cutting TPM out of any viewing order ever again; plus, while I was already a fan of the prequels, the essay by Klimo reminds me why it’s not insane to be one.
For those who haven’t read it yet, Star Wars Ring Theory (or SWRT for short) proposes the saga, consisting of episodes 1-6, is the first film franchise to follow the Ring Theory (or chiastic) concept of storytelling. Ring Theory is the idea of cyclical storytelling, down to even the most atomic level of the piece of work in question, where the story progresses to a midpoint and then is repeated in reverse order. Klimo uses the famous line from John F. Kennedy to provide an easy to understand example of the principle of Ring Theory in action, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” For SWRT this means the films ring in on each other, such that 1 matches with 6, 2 with 5, and 3 with 4, while 1-3 lead to the midpoint and the story is repeated in reverse order through 4-6. He does a better job at explaining it than I do and he has quite the list of examples to back it up.
The examples really bring SWRT to life, helping to show the theory possibly at work in Lucas’ storytelling. In fact, a lot of instances Klimo points out really didn’t feel like a stretch of the imagination at all, instead they have the chance to forever alter your understanding of the films. I know I was hitting my forehead in disbelief, wondering how I missed such a simple but almost obvious connection numerous times while reading SWRT. And it’s not just visual and plot similarities that each ring pair connects on, but also philosophical messages and tones, showcasing the surprising depth Lucas took in crafting the saga. The strongest examples, to me at least, come from the correspondence between 1 and 6, 2 and 5, which feel the most natural and the make the best possible case that Lucas planned out the prequels to really fit within a ring composition structure. It’ll be hard to unlearn what you learn from these examples of ring composition; I certainly plan to check out each episode and its corresponding one with the SWRT in mind.
Most importantly, Klimo set up the essay to read in a very compelling manner, thanks to it’s insightful and intricate use of said examples to weave it all together almost like a story itself. SWRT is hardly the usual boring scholarly paper, eschewing mind-numbing detail for a not totally exhaustive amount of detail. It occasionally makes it feel like SWRT could’ve gone further, but due to its length already it’s certainly not a problem.
However, I did feel like some of the connections between 3 and 4 were a bit of stretch and Klimo admits they are “imaginative reinterpretation(s)” of each film’s structure so they’ll be harder grasps as part of a ring structure. The examples I wasn’t so set on right away include: Luke and Han marching up to the throne to receive medals is supposed to match up with Obi-Wan and Anakin’s flight together through the battle over Coruscant; the two instances where Leia’s hologram is emitted from R2 are supposed to match up with Anakin’s nightmares. I get the thematic underpinnings of each example, as Klimo explains them, but I found it a bit hard to bite:
As a militaristic rendition of the “Force Theme” plays on the soundtrack, Anakin and Obi-Wan dodge enemy fire and, at Lucas’s request, “fly in perfect harmony to express their friendship.”
…continuous shot that opens Sith is actually a wildly imaginative reinterpretation of the final scene in A New Hope, where, following the destruction of the Death Star, newfound friends Luke and Han march in unison up a very long aisle in a throne room medal ceremony—with a military-style “Force Theme” soaring in the background.
However, the more I thought about it (and after Klimo’s explanation in the interview below), the scenes really started matching up. It’ll be up to you when reading SWRT to decide how you feel about the connections and correlations, but the more time you spend on it, the more you’ll probably start seeing the ring theory at work. Either way, there are still many numerous and less initially stretchy seeming examples to correlate 3 to 4, which assuaged my fears SWRT was suddenly going to make me feel like it was being written by my over explaining English high school teacher. And I’ll be honest, it never does.
It’s interesting to note Lucas has never publicly said anything about ring theory or that he was specifically using it, but it’s hard to deny he didn’t have the basic concept in mind after reading through SWRT. In fact, several various quotes from Lucas that Klimo references, like Lucas looking at the films as poetry or this one below highlights his mind was definitely working to “complete the circle,” as it were while making the prequels:
Each episode has to stand on its own and have meaning on its own—except that it’s only one chapter in the book. It’s not the book. I can’t sacrifice one for the other, so I’m constantly balancing between the now and the larger picture.
Even when the ending of SWRT adds on a heavy layering of Daoist philosophy and Yin Yang symbolism, it’s really hard to find a chink in the SWRT’s tightly written armor. Through and through it’s an enjoyable, mostly light read worth many a fan’s time for the way it can readjust your thinking about the entire (current) saga as a whole. So no matter where you consider yourself to fall within Star Wars fandom, SWRT is an investigative and eye-opening defense of the prequels anyone can really get behind and enjoy. And it just might make you a fan of the prequels or at the very least, make you reconsider them again in a whole new light.
Here are some of my favorite examples of ring composition that Klimo points out:
For TPM and RotJ: Leia in RotJ pilots her speeder upwards and Anakin pilots his podracer upwards in TPM; Both Luke and Anakin get in entanglements which end their high speed chase scenes; Jabba is awoken by Bib Fortuna in both films; at the exact same time in both movies, Luke is brought before the Emperor and Anakin is brought before the Jedi Council.
For AotC and TESB: That both films start out with a blue tone and end on a red-ish one; Han, Leia, and Chewie are captured at the same time Obi-Wan is; the correlation between Anakin sneaking into the Tusken’s huts to find his mother and Luke’s Dark Side Cave encounter; Yoda pretending to be someone he’s not to Luke and Obi-Wan pretending he’s someone he’s not to the Kaminoans.
For RotS and ANH: Anakin and Vader both choking people in each film; the correlation between Luke and Obi-Wan discovering the slaughtered Jawas to Obi-Wan and Yoda discovering the slaughtered younglings; General Grievious looks out an escape pod window and so too does C-3PO and R2-D2.
But the real moment you’ve all been waiting for is the interview. Mike Klimo was gracious enough to respond to several questions I had about the SWRT, with answers which include his thoughts on the future of the ring structure in relation to the sequels, whether or not we’ll be seeing more work from him in the future, and his direct response to some of my criticisms (which got me convinced about an example I wasn’t so set on before):
Take a moment to give us a little background on who you are and what you’re doing these days besides writing massive essays about Star Wars:
I’m just a simple copywriter trying to make my way in the universe. I’ve worked in advertising for the last 15 years. Before that, back when I was in college, I wanted to get into film at one point and studied cinema, especially screenwriting, for years. I’m from the Midwest. I live in Cincinnati with my wife Elaine and our daughter Story, who turns 3 in March. So, most of my time now is spent with Disney Princesses.
How exactly did you decide to start on Star Wars Ring Theory? What brought the theory to your attention and why did you choose to apply it to Star Wars?
It was actually the other way around. I started noticing that the “rhymes” in the movies—particularly between all the beginnings and the ends—actually formed a pattern. A larger, overarching pattern. But I really didn’t know what it was or how to describe it. So, eventually I remembered Lucas describing the films in terms of poetry. And I started doing some research on rhyming patterns and rhetorical devices. Eventually, I remembered “chiasmus” from my college days. And as I searched for more information on it, I stumbled upon Thinking in Circles, a book about ring composition by social anthropologist Mary Douglas. And there it was, staring me right in the face—the pattern was a perfect fit.
Estimated length it took to complete the project?
Almost two years. The research and actually figuring out what was going on was the hardest part–and then going trough each film beat by beat was pretty time consuming. The actual “writing part” probably took a good 6 months. And then of course, building the WordPress site took some time.
Considering the lack of faith in the Prequels from many, were you ever worried about the possible negative reactions for defending those movies’ existences? Has there been a lot of negative feedback, specifically about that aspect?
Not really. I never really expected the people who are most critical of the prequels or Star Wars in general to even read the piece. Most of them have made up their minds. And that’s fine. Actually, I’m not sure if I even expected the people who love the prequels to read the piece. After all, it’s basically a short book! Plus, it’s kind of academic at times but also really geeky at times, so I was always unsure of the audience. But the overall reaction has been really positive. I’ve received a lot of comments like “Mind = Blown,” so that’s been nice.
But one thing I was worried about when I was writing was people thinking that I was reading too much into the films or the pattern. So, I was very careful to keep it as grounded as possible and try to support the claim with as much evidence as possible, from the movies and from Lucas himself. Because I know that you can take almost any one of the “correspondences” between the films—and in isolation, you may not think much of it. But when you look at the totality of the links between the films and the way that the links are arranged, the ring pattern that’s created by the examples I included in the piece become pretty irrefutable.
Take the opening of Sith, for example. Believe me, taken on its own, I know it sounds more than a little crazy to suggest that it echoes the Throne Room scene at the end of A New Hope. But when we look at it in the context of the larger, ABCC’B’A’ ring pattern, here’s what we know. For the ring pattern to hold true, Sith has to correspond to A New Hope. And I think the essay makes clear that the two films are indeed connected, almost beat by beat. But Lucas took the idea of ring composition one step further and also flipped the beginnings and ends—so the beginning of Sith corresponds to the end of A New Hope and the end of Sith corresponds to the beginning of A New Hope. Now, the latter seems fairly obvious to even casual viewers: Sith ends with C3P0 and R2D2 aboard a ship that looks identical to the ship we see them in at the beginning of A New Hope. The former, however, is far more subtle and visually inventive. So, let’s break down the elements from the opening of Sith in very general terms: You have two main characters who are close friends moving side by side across the surface of a very long ship. And in the Throne Room, you have two main characters who are close friends moving side by side down a very long aisle. And if you look at some of the other details in the scenes, you’ll notice that in Sith, Anakin’s ship is colored yellow, the same color as Luke’s jacket at the end of A New Hope. In Sith, Anakin flies in on Obi-Wan’s right. In A New Hope, it’s reversed. Luke walks in on Han’s left. The music is also the same in both scenes—a militaristic version of the Force Theme. But perhaps the most telling for me was that Lucas himself admitted that this is exactly the kind of thing he was doing throughout the movies, especially the prequels—taking concepts and reinterpreting them in new contexts, kind of a like visual jazz.
Did writing SWRT help increase your enjoyment of the prequels or have you always been a fan?
Well, I’ve always been a fan. And as I got older and started to learn more about cinema, I became an enormous admirer of all of Lucas’ work. Especially when I learned more about the world where Lucas came from—a world of really avant-garde cinema, of documentary films, of the non-story, non-character films he was making at USC. At that point, I started to appreciate Star Wars on a completely different level.
Was it at any point tough to find correlations and examples between the films to support the Ring Theory?
Not really. Once I read Mary Douglas’ breakdown of ring composition in her book, from the ABCC’B’A’ pattern to the idea of “central loading,” everything just fell into place. Act breakdowns. Sequences. Plot points. Really minor details that suddenly popped out. That was a really exciting time, because it was like I was watching the films for the very first time—the way, I would argue, they were meant to be seen.
One of the most baffling moments for me was you pointing out the cloud’s forming what looks like the Yin Yang symbol in AotC. How did you find that/notice that?
I was just scrubbing through Attack of the Clones, taking screenshots. I was actually taking a screenshot of the shot right after the Yin Yang, the one of Anakin mediating on the veranda, because it’s actually a reference to the first time we see Vader in Empire, the shot of him standing on the bridge of the Star Destroyer looking out the window. But anyway, I just went back a few frames and there it was. I’m sure if I’d been drinking anything at the time I would’ve done a spit take. But I just couldn’t believe I’d never seen that before…
Will you be investigating the Sequel trilogy (and possible trilogy following that) for the Ring Theory at work? Is it possible for 7, 8, 9 to fit with 1-6 as part of a Ring?
Will I investigate? I don’t know. What does Luke say to Leia in Return of the Jedi? Ask me again sometime. Like, in 2025. And I’m not sure how the new movies could fit with the design of 1-6, at least structurally. 1-6 work exceptionally well as a self-contained unit. So, it’s probably best if the new filmmakers bring their own artistic visions to the table.
Do you believe Ring Theory within Star Wars most likely died when Lucas left?
Well, I’m really curious to know who knows about Lucas’ use of ring composition. Did Lucas share this with his filmmaker friends? People like Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, or Philip Kaufman? Did he tell Jonathan Hales when they wrote Attack of the Clones? Or did Hales only focus on dialogue? Does Ben Burtt know? After all, he edited all three prequels. And then of course, there’s the million dollar question: Does J.J. Abrams know? You know, maybe Lucas, Abrams, and Kathleen Kennedy sat down and talked about it and how it might affect future movies, even the spinoffs. On the other hand, maybe Lucas, who I think can appear almost humble to a fault at times, didn’t tell anybody. And even if people do know, who’s to say that the new movies should use ring composition. Again, maybe it’s time that a new group of artists use Star Wars the same way that Lucas did, to express their own unique vision. So, basically all of this is a long, roundabout way of saying I have no idea.
I noticed in the comments at SWRT you’ve pointed out your work on Star Wars essays is far from over, with the next work looking at the criticisms levied at the saga over the years. Can we expect even more after that?
Hopefully. Like I said on the site, there’s still so much left to unlearn about Star Wars.
It’s pretty incredible Klimo not only stumbled upon the hidden chiastic structure at work, but he actually followed through with it by working on SWRT for two whole years. His time spent on SWRT really shows in the essay’s deliberate pacing and mostly non-wasteful words; I’ll gladly wait another two or more years to see whatever else he can come up with.
While we wait for the next one, let me extend a giant thanks to Mike Klimo for not only writing the memorable and practically game-changing essay, but also giving me a chance to interview him. Don’t forget to check out Star Wars Ring Theory for yourself and leave a comment at the site with your thoughts on it and/or say hi to him through Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
UPDATE #2: The folks at Ministry of Cinema have started a crowd funding campaign for a documentary on the Ring Theory, called “The Prequels Strike Back.”
As of this writing, it has over 50 days left and it’s already been 75% funded (though their are some stretch goals too). It’s not only been funded, but it far exceeded its goals! They are in the middle of production, though as far as I could find no definitive date announced yet for release. You can still head on over and support the cause while you wait, if you’d like.
UPDATE: Mr. Klimo and his work are getting even more of the recognition they deserve. Here are several other sites discussing SWRT:
- Mike now has a reoccurring post about SWRT on the official Star Wars blog! Can’t get much better than that!
- Ryder Waldron over at Coffee With Kenobi has an article/interview up.
- Mike Cooper at Eleven-ThirtyEight has two articles which use the SWRT to help make some interesting points: One to discuss Luke Skywalker’s true importance to the entire saga (with an extremely poignant final line) and the other to point out why George Lucas isn’t a fan of Star Wars.
- The Star Wars Underworld podcast got to talk with Mike Klimo in great detail about the essay and how Ewoks convinced them about SWRT’s strenghts.
- Star Wars: Delusions of Granular gets Mike Klimo on their show after they’re finished discussing a crazy theory involving Twilight and Star Wars.
- In A Far Away Galaxy has a much more concise and pointed summation of why you should be reading SWRT.
- Chris Pirillo has an epic dissection video of SWRT.
- Issue #155 of Star Wars Insider features of the SWRT so go out and pick up a copy if you can!
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