Cool hand, Luke

I finally let Thing 2 (the 5-year-old) watch Star Wars. We watched the original trilogy over a period of about a week.

We watched the movies together. I explained the parts he didn’t understand and, when things got scary, I told him to cover his eyes or reminded him that it was only pretend, and I fibbed my way through what I thought might be the really disturbing parts (I said they were only burning Darth Vader’s costume on the pyre at the end of “Return of the Jedi”).

I thought he’d have questions about Luke Skywalker being Vader’s son and Princess Leia’s brother, but he took both revelations in stride. His only question came a couple days after we watched “The Empire Strikes Back,” on our way home from preschool.

“Dad,” he said, “where’s Luke’s hand?”

“Well, Darth Vader cut it off with his lightsaber,” I said, thinking maybe I’d made a mistake and that he wasn’t old enough to watch the movies, even though most of his friends had.

“But he gets it back, right?”

“Well, they give him a new hand, remember? On the spaceship, at the end of the movie? They give him a mechanical hand.”

“But where’s his real hand?”

“It, uh, fell.”

He was quiet then, but he asked me about Luke’s hand again the next day and the next, and I then realized he wasn’t thinking about Luke Skywalker as much as he was Mark Hamill, who played him. He wanted to know what happened to the actor’s hand in the scene where it looked like it got cut off.

“That was just pretend. He just pulled his sleeve down over his hand so you couldn’t see it, but it was still there, like this,” I said, pulling my sleeve down over my hand.

He understood and demonstrated to Sweetie when she got home from work.

I thought everything was OK until a few days after we’d watched “Return of the Jedi.”

“Dad, what happened to the snow monster’s arm?

“What do you mean?”

“When Luke cut it off. He didn’t have any sleeves. Where’d his arm go?”

PHOTO: Luke’s mechanical hand, from The Empire Strikes Back. Part of last summer’s Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination movie prop exhibit at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, Ala.

The 17-minute rule

I learned about the 17-minute rule a few years ago when I was reading a book about screenwriting. 

The idea is that the first act of pretty much any movie ends around page 17 of the screenplay, or about 17 minutes into the movie (give or take a minute).

Act I is the setup. We meet the characters, figure out when and where we are, and then something happens that starts the ball rolling. The hero passes a threshold of sorts, and there’s no going back.

Here’s an example:

George Bailey tells his father he couldn’t face being cooped up the rest of his life in a shabby little office at his father’s building and loan 17 minutes into It’s a Wonderful Life.

The rest of the movie is about everything that happens that stops him from leaving Bedford Falls and drives him to consider jumping off that bridge on Christmas Eve.

It isn’t just old movies that follow the 17-minute rule:

  • Luke’s uncle buys the droids 17 minutes into Star Wars. The droids are what leads Luke to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia and, ultimiately, the Death Star.
  • Buddy leaves the North Pole to find is real dad 17 minutes into Elf.
  • The shark eats the little boy on the raft 17 minutes into Jaws. It’s the second attack that forces the town to close the beach and go after the shark.
  • The Iowa farmer is thinking about plowing under the baseball field he built in his cornfield until Shoeless Joe appears 17 minutes after the credits in Field of Dreams.

Of course, the 17-minute rule isn’t set in stone.

In the book I was reading, Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 424, the chairman emeritus of UCLA’s film school calls it the “floating page 17” rule, meaning the scene setting up the rest of the movie should come around page 17. There are plenty of examples of where that scene comes sooner or later — but only a little sooner or later.

How come?

Hunter says, basically, that 17 pages (about 17 minutes of screen time) is about how long it takes to set up the story and pull people in. Sooner, and we don’t know enough about the characters to care about what happens next. Later, we just get bored.

Ever since I read Hunter’s book, I can’t help but notice when Act I ends and Act II begins, and when I check the clock, we’re usually around the 17-minute mark.

I’ve got a bad feeling about this

A few years, Thing 1, our 10-year-old began asking me about Star Wars. She didn’t know much about it except what she’d heard at school, and what she heard at school was mostly about the prequels.

Sweetie and I … OK, Sweetie doesn’t really care.

I — pretty much by myself — have worked hard to make sure our children grow up in a Jar Jar-free home.

When our daughter just a baby, I decided that, when the time was right, I’d let her watch the original Star Wars, then The Empire Strikes Back and finally Return of the Jedi, and then, and only then, would I expose her to The Phantom Menace and the other prequels, because, no matter what George Lucas says, that’s the natural order of things.

I worried sometimes that I’d waited too late to talk to her about Star Wars, so I was relieved when we were watching Empire — this was a couple years ago — and Vader says, “Luke, I am your father,” Thing 1 sat bolt upright and said, “Whoa!”

Despite everything she’d heard on the playground, despite the scene in Toy Story 2 where Zurg tells Buzz Lightyear that he’s Buzz’s father, she didn’t know. The moment still surprised her.

I had done my job.

Our youngest, Thing 2, the 4-year-old, has begun asking questions about Star Wars.

I think he’s still too young to watch the movies,I think they might be too scary, but I don’t want him to hear about this stuff on the playground. I want him to hear it from me. I don’t want him to grow up thinking Jar Jar Binks is funny or that Greedo shot first. I want him to know the truth.

I think that’s why this new public service announcement hit so close to home: