Dealing with Death in Cinema

This is a response to public outcry against the idea of digitally recreating Carrie Fisher’s image in the eventual Star Wars Episode IX following her untimely passing at the end of 2016. It is a claim that Lucasfilm has decided to publicly comment on as a result of the fan outrage. Fisher’s passing is, no doubt, a tragedy to her family, friends, and everyone who was inspired by her work: be it in a galaxy far, far away, or one closer to home.

The team at Disney and Lucasfilm are in an impossible situation. Assuming General Leia Organa is not being written off in the upcoming Episode VIII, there would of course have been plans to incorporate her into the closing chapter of this latest trilogy. And her unfortunate passing means that those plans inevitably have to change.

Historically, when such a death occurs, the creative team behind a project needs to address it head on. In television, this has lead to characters being written off the show, either in parallel with the character passing away, or in a fantasy with the character getting to live on elsewhere while the actor who portrayed them is no longer with us. Depending on the role within the show and/or visibility of the character, another actor might be brought in to fill the void or the show might even be cancelled entirely. As examples, upon Phil Hartman’s untimely death, his characters on The Simpsons were retired immediately rather than bringing in someone new to voice them and his character on News Radio died off screen of a sudden heart attack, with Jon Lovitz coming in to fill that role in the ensemble cast for the fifth and final season.

Alternatively, the role can live on while being recast with a new actor. One of the most notable examples of this came upon Richard Harris’ passing following the second Harry Potter film. As his character Dumbledore lives on past that point in the source material, the role went to Michael Gambon for the remainder of the films. This is admittedly a unique scenario with the Harry Potter films being based on the pre-existing books so Warner Bros. hands were tied and couldn’t write off the character in any other fashion like they could with an original product but I highlight it here as a potential for how Lucasfilm could address the situation.

The key difference though is that Harris had only been established as Dumbledore for two films/years and coming in to a 7-book series, it was understood that Gambon would ultimately wind up as Dumbledore for the greater span of the franchise. Contrast that to Fisher playing the role of Leia Organa in five films over the span of 30 years and you will see people arguing that nobody else can or should be brought in to play the role in, what would presumably be the final appearance in Episode IX.

It is here that the idea of utilizing the technology available to us in this day and age, seems to be an appropriate compromise between creator and fan, while still also trying to respect the work Fisher brought to the character. Now, if she ever stated objections to the idea of using her likeness, or her family was opposed to the idea, than I can absolutely appreciate honoring those wishes. But the hard truth is that in honoring such a commitment, the studio would be allowing the wishes of the few to outweigh the wishes of the many (apologies mixing some Star Trek in with this Star Wars essay, but it was an appropriate sentiment).

From a strictly cost-benefit perspective, the costs of paying an entire team of artists to digitize and animate Carrie Fisher would outweigh the costs of hiring a look-alike actor or a new person to fill the role. This was no doubt the case for General Tarkin in the recent Rogue One film. But Disney and Lucasfilm were trying to honor that the fans of the series know Peter Cushing’s face as Tarkin and bringing in a new actor would have been as jarring as the uncanny valley concerns. But speaking anecdotally having seen it with my family (they are much more casual fans who don’t consume news surrounding every detail of the franchise), they were not aware that the character was digitally recreated. They thought he was in make-up or something, but they still thought it was the same actor. And to be fair, with Ian McDiarmid having played Palpatine in the original trilogy and again in the prequels, Star Wars is very unique in how they’ve managed casting across time as it is.

Ultimately, I think I fall in favor of supporting the team behind the films if they were to eventually go the route of putting a digital version of Leia on screen in Episode IX. The grand space epic of the Skywalker family is one I’ve spent my life enjoying (or occasionally hating) but, as heartless as it may be to say, I would want the creative team to tell the story they want to tell. It would be hard to see anyone other than Fisher in that role for what is presumably the final chapter and I wouldn’t wish any actress the pressure of trying to live up to the Star Wars fandom’s expectations. But characters can live on long after the actors who made them famous. And in this ever-changing digital age, the ability to celebrate those original actors by integrating their likeness into the work is becoming more and more seamless all the time.