Editorial: Why Princess Leia Should Have Lived (A Tribute To Carrie Fisher)
A year after The Rise of Skywalker, the death of Princess Leia remains the movie’s biggest mistake.
This is usually a great time of year for Star Wars fans, especially in the last five years or so. December usually means a new Star Wars movie (or season of The Mandalorian). It’s also a sad anniversary. Carrie Fisher suffered a heart attack four years ago today and passed away on December 27th, 2016. Her tragic death upended the ultimate plans for the sequel trilogy. General Leia Organa had been set to be the focus of the final film as Han Solo was of The Force Awakens and Luke Skywalker The Last Jedi. J.J. Abrams had an impossible task. He handled it with grace, invention, and the delicacy that it required.
But he made the wrong choice.
In choosing to kill off the character of Leia Organa, Abrams and writer Chris Terrio fumbled the last piece of a remarkable legacy of the saga’s most durable survivor. Throughout the Star Wars saga, Princess Leia suffered, endured, and fought on through cosmic and personal tragedy. So did Carrie Fisher. The best way to honor the legacy of both would have been for Leia to live to the end of the Skywalker Saga, bereft, grieving, but always carrying forward as only she could.
“If anything, my mother taught me how to sur-thrive. That’s my word for it.”
Carrie Fisher’s struggles with manic depression and substance abuse are well documented, particularly by Carrie herself. She was open, honest, and unflinching about her personal troubles from the beginning of her career. Her transparency and courage were an inspiration to many, including myself. Beyond being the princess of a galaxy far, far away – whose first impression on a four year-old boy in rural Iowa can never be overstated – she remained a beacon of light and hope throughout my life.
During much of my adolescence and early adulthood, I was depressed. I was suicidal. I was poor, lonely, awkward, confused about a lot of things, and the road ahead seemed dark and ultimately a dead end. I couldn’t express any of this pain then and really I don’t have any facility in doing so now. As Carrie Fisher often said, she was better taking her life and rearranging it in story than she was simply writing or commenting about it. That’s true for me. I find release through other people, and I did through Carrie.
Around this time, I watched an interview with her on Charlie Rose. That led me to her books (Postcards From The Edge, Surrender The Pink) and to this realization that we were similar in many ways. Carrie was a novelist like I wanted to be. She was a manic depressive, a self-destructive person whose own personal engine of light always gunned through her dark. For the first time, Princess Leia wasn’t this idol or mythic figure but she was real. Human. She was like me. I absorbed all of Carrie Fisher’s writing, read all the interviews I could find, and leaned heavily on this rock I had found.
“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually, the confidence will follow.”
Her death brought a lot of memories of my youth back and not at a good time. But I clung to the abiding image of Leia the survivor. Princess Leia suffered the loss of her entire planet, her foster parents, her birth parents, and the death of her husband at the hands of her son. She buckled but never broke. Her strength, optimism, and perseverance were synonymous with the enduring spirit of the Rebellion in the saga and I was certain that when we got to the end of the story, she would be there. She would have carried everybody else.
Her death cast a shadow over the release of The Last Jedi, a movie that if nothing else proved she had so much more to give to the franchise. It also put The Rise of Skywalker in a position it could never really get out of. Whatever the movie did with Leia, it couldn’t be what it should have been. J.J. Abrams deserves all the credit in the world for fighting for a way to honor Carrie and Leia the best way he could. He avoided the trap of recasting or using CGI, though he did in some cases to augment the performance he assembled from cut scenes he shot for The Force Awakens. All of that I found remarkable and fitting.
The best thing the movie did was to retcon Leia’s past so that she did train as a Jedi. This was a strange oversight early in the sequel trilogy, and out of step with her natural progression as a character. The flashback reset all of that in a way that felt appropriate. The decision to kill the character off may have felt necessary for the story that Abrams and Terrio were telling. It was a choice and I understand it within the context of the movie. Her death doesn’t honor the legacy of Carrie Fisher or Princess Leia, though.
“I’m very powerful about my weaknesses.”
Both Princess Leia and Carrie Fisher are pioneers. Both are icons. Both are survivors. Leia’s death motivates Kylo Ren to return to the light, a cliché and the repetition of a trope of female characters dying to serve the narrative purposes of male ones. It was tired decades ago and it’s tired now. Leia could have intervened in the story of her son one last time and still survived. She deserved to be the last person standing at the end, carrying on into the future despite the incalculable losses she had suffered.
Lots of things get revised in Star Wars. It’s unlikely Leia’s death will be and really, it shouldn’t now. Death is a part of life. We all must come to accept it, and four years after the death of Carrie Fisher, I have accepted that she is no longer here. She remains a guiding light. A poster of Princess Leia, a gift from a friend, hangs over my desk. She’s always looking out for me. Whenever I get down or lost in something, I look up. I look out of myself. That’s the biggest lesson Carrie Fisher and Princess Leia have for all of us.
Look out for yourself, and be a light for others.
Anyone feeling suicidal should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
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