My earliest New Piti Elementary school memory – besides counting to one-hundred and posing for Picture Day during first grade – was a field trip to the local movie theater to watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Now, how the principal was able to rationalize going to the movies as an educational endeavor I haven’t a clue; perhaps it was teaching first graders science? As I sat in that dark movie theater, staring at the bald, glowing head of one of the main characters, I was confused as heck because – I admit it – Star Trek: The Motion Picture just wasn’t meant for six-year olds.
In contrast, Star Wars: A New Hope, was. Or, better put, Star Wars: A New Hope was meant for all ages, even all the way down to six-year olds.
While I saw Star Trek about the same time as it was released in the States (1979), I didn’t see Star Wars: A New Hope until early 1980, over two full years after its stateside release, at the naval base movie theater. I didn’t see it when it was released back in 1977, likely because my parents thought we kids were just too young and they were too busy with a new baby (my brother Eric). Either way, Star Wars: A New Hope was shown again in theaters on Guam, and Pa, a huge science-fiction and action-adventure fan, hauled all of us to the movie theater.
Having seen my own six-year old son watch Star Wars: A New Hope for the first time (granted, on DVD), I can see myself in him. Just like him, when I first saw it at age eight, I tried to read the scrolling words after the opening title, but it was too fast. I jumped at the loud sound of blasters the first time I heard them. I sat, transfixed, leaving my popcorn untouched. I probably leaned over to ask Pa questions of what was going on, and he would’ve likely answered, “Shhhh – just watch and you’ll find out.”
When I found out that there was going to be a sequel, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and that it was going to be shown at theaters this summer (perhaps that was why the base theater was re-showing A New Hope – to hype up the sequel), I knew that we were going back to the theater once it arrived.
But, for some reason, we didn’t go to the theater when it arrived in late May.
Then it started to rain.
It wasn’t a typhoon, and it was pretty early for the rainy season. But the rain – stopping and then starting, stopping and then starting again — was enough to knock out the electricity in many buildings such that power became sporadic.
In spite of that, my family was invited to an early summer party hosted at a house that wasn’t military housing, so we piled into the station wagon well before the party and set off because it was a bit of a drive to get there. Pa drove steadily inland, from the lowland coast – with its sandy beaches and easy, paved roads – to the lush highland plateau of Guam’s interior. The more inland we went, the less sandy the soil, as it became old volcanic-like ridges covered with tropical, marshy soil.
The ridges petered out onto the flatter plateau, which was cracked with ancient canyon-like crevices so that we’d be driving on a highland road with a black crumbly rock wall covered with dark green jungle on one side and a sheer drop of several hundred feet into a deep blue inland lagoon on the other side. There was a reason why the highest speed limit on Guam back then was forty-five miles an hour, but mostly everybody did thirty.
Since I had (and still have) a fear of heights, I would often look at the jungle instead of the sheer drop on the side of the road. Nipa palm trees, coconut trees, hardwood ifits, and gigantic banyan trees created different shades of dark green that mingled and shimmered into one another as the light glinted off the drops when the rain would pause. A similar type jungle surrounded New Piti Elementary School, so I wasn’t afraid, although – as I would do every time I saw a dark, lonely place in Guam – I wondered if there were taotaomona in there.
When Mom got nervous, she would nag. “It’s 40 here, Pa, it’s 40.” (Yes, my mom usually called my dad “Pa”.)
“Fely, nobody goes 40 here.”
“But nobody does 50, either. Slow down! It’s raining!”
“Fely, I know how to drive. See I’m slowing down.”
“There’s a bend in the road.”
“I see it.” Pa slowed the station wagon, made the bend, and sped up.
“Ay naku! Will you just let me drive?”
We eventually pulled up the wide, gravel driveway of a large, wide, one-story designed to remind one of Spanish villas with its pinkish stucco and tiled roof. There was plenty of room for the various cars already parked and also just arriving, and I recognized many of the Filipino guests and even the hosts – whom I called Auntie and Uncle even though we weren’t related – as we got out of the station wagon and rushed into the house, even though the rain had stopped.
As usual, the menfolk went out back with beers and cigarettes, to finish grilling and roasting the various meats under the dripping eaves of the back patio. Meanwhile, the older womenfolk bustled in the kitchen, cooking over steaming pots and oil-popping woks, while the younger women set out hot, large dishes in a huge buffet table. They all spoke in rapid-fire Pilipino, and again I would wish that I could understand them.
Since us kids couldn’t play outside because of the weather, we played inside, in various kids’ bedrooms, jumping up and down on beds, playing board games, and, of course, playing Marco Polo. As the oldest sibling, I was in charge of Wendy (who was six at the time) and Eric (who was three), so I couldn’t get too crazy with playing.
The party went for a long time, culminating with singing cheesy serenades and dancing, and the host whom I called Auntie made sure everyone got any party food leftover from the buffet table, supplying aluminum foil and plastic wrap. (To lessen the awkwardness and to admit that I don’t remember the host family’s name, I’m going to call the hosts “Auntie Tess” and “Uncle Carl.”) My family was one of the very last guests left when the rain started up again and the power went out.
“Oh!” I heard the remaining grown-ups say and then rapid-fire Pilipino as the host family sought out flashlights, candles, and matches.
Mom thought it best to wait until the rain let up and the power came back on, as did the remaining guests, so we all settled down in the large living room, lit candles as our only light source. At one point, I needed to go to the bathroom, so I grabbed one of the flashlights and made my way to the hall one.
“I’m using it,” someone said. It sounded like one of the daughters who lived in the house.
“Oh, okay. Where’s the other bathroom?”
“In my mom and dad’s room. Down the hall.”
So I made my way through the unfamiliar house, trying not to get spooked by the shadows on the walls and the shadowy thoughts of taotaomona in my mind, and reached the bathroom in the master bedroom. As quickly as I could without shirking on personal hygiene, I finished peeing (too much juice and water), cleaned up, and started my way out.
It was in passing a vanity table that my light fell on a paperback book. Looking closer, I recognized the figures on the cover – they were Han Solo and Princess Leia. Then I read the title: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
It was the novelization of the movie that I wanted to see but hadn’t had a chance yet!
Bringing the book back with me to the living room, I gave back the flashlight to Auntie Tess and asked, “Can I read this?” I held up the book so she could see it.
“Oh, okay — but wait until the lights come back on. It’s too dark to read.”
I sat down with the book, listening to the rain and the lulling murmur of adult, Filipino voices. After a while, I looked around. I saw Pa with the menfolk – the “uncles” again and Mom with the womenfolk – the aunties, clustered in separate areas of the living room. My siblings were asleep on the sofa, and the remaining kids – the children of Auntie Tess and Uncle Carl – had gone to bed. Since it didn’t look as if anyone was paying any attention to me (and I wasn’t even remotely tired I really wanted to find out what happened after that big ceremony at the end of Star Wars: A New Hope, especially with that provocative Han and Leia book cover), I hunkered close to a cluster of candles and read as much as I could by flickering candlelight.
After a while I heard “Eh, you’ll hurt your eyes. Aren’t your eyes tired?”
I looked up and saw one of the aunties noticing my reading. “No, I’m okay, Auntie.”
That was when Mom noticed. “Rufel, it’s too dark.”
“It’s okay, Mom. I can see.” I pointed to the candles with the book.
“You can read later.”
I started to protest, but then the lights came back on.
“Okay, time to go home,” Pa declared. “It’s late.”
“But, but –”
“You can borrow that book, so you can finish,” Uncle Carl said. He smiled. “That’s a big book – you can read all that?”
“Yes,” Mom answered for me. “Rufel likes to read.”
That was one of the first times Mom acknowledged my book-reading habit.
Clutching the book to my chest, I said, “Thank you, Uncle.”
It only took me a couple of days to finish the book, and I returned it to Uncle Carl at the next party. I never did see Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in the theater; the summer just got busy, what with attending beach parties and swimming and starting Girl Scouts. (Also, I started having visits to the eye doctor for near-sightedness, so perhaps the aunties were right.) But I knew I didn’t miss anything, since I read the movie in book form.
So the summer when I was eight years old was where my habit of linking movies and their book versions began, but only if the story was compelling enough. I wouldn’t feel compelled to seek out a book version of a movie until a few years later, when David Lynch’s version of Frank Herbert’s Dune arrived in theaters in 1984. I saw it, was overwhelmed by the imagery, and wanted to know more about the messed up human relationships that seemed to get caught up in the weirdness. Coincidentally, I borrowed the movie tie-in book from my dad’s brother, Uncle Fred, when he visited my family from Seattle, Washington. I wasn’t finished with it when Uncle Fred had to leave (it reads like an encyclopedia with a sci-fi political thriller story woven in), so he ended up giving it to me. (Frank Herbert’s Dune wasn’t my cup of sci-fi tea, but I still saw the book to be better than Lynch’s movie version.)
I still like watching movies; for instance, when Return of the Jedi was in theaters in 1983, I saw it three times. These days, however, I’m choosier with my time and money, and I won’t seek out the book versions unless I cannot get the movie out of my head because I want to know more of the story. Movies are easy to draw in the watcher, what with music, actors, scenery, and sound effects. But even a really long movie only takes up an evening’s worth of time, and if the story was particularly engaging, one in which I would’ve liked to “live” in that story’s world for a few more hours or even a few more days, then the ending of that movie always felt premature and abrupt. That’s when I would look for the book version – to have that engaged experience expanded, with its additional details, exposition, description, dialogue, and backstory.
That was how I was introduced to Harry Potter. I was a single women in my late twenties when J. K. Rowling’s first books were being published, so I was well outside the publisher’s intended reader demographic. However, when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone hit theaters, I (a fantasy and science fiction fan) saw it and immediately thought, “Okay, I need to read the books.” At first, I borrowed the books from the library but – feeling compelled to revisit Rowling’s world unfettered from due dates – I eventually bought the entire series because, unlike my younger self, I could afford to do so.
Of course, if the book came first, then the movie version would always feel too short, too much short-shrift taken, to accommodate a two-hour-or-so movie, and that’s how I felt when I saw the subsequent movie versions of the Harry Potter books, as well as The Lord of the Rings (which I bought used at the local Half-Price Books and read the summer after I graduated from college). But it was always enlightening to see a dramatic interpretation of what was in my reading head, and Alan Rickman’s Severus Snape and Ian McKellen’s Gandalf were amazingly close to what I got from the books.
Due to this childhood connection of watching movies with reading books, I see movies as the gateway to books for any nascent and non-reader. As a mom, I get my grade-school son book versions of any movie he obsesses about – like Star Wars or The Avengers — usually short chapter books with lots of illustrations. My kid has a growing library with titles beginning with SpongeBob, Iron Man, and Spider Man. In this age of New Media, where his favorite YouTube videos are age-appropriate Minecraft gameplay, there are even Minecraft children’s books available.
As a community college professor, especially when I’m teaching a sophomore literature class filled with students who are only taking the class to fulfill a core curriculum requirement, I show at least one movie version of what we’re reading so that my students can have a visual and auditory “hook” into the book, whether that be Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Often we compare the movie version from the book in class discussions and end up having students who read more with that movie in their heads than if the students had faced the book alone.
I have no problem with students seeing movie versions of books. Good movies are awesome. The joy, however, is in their discovery that the books that spawn or have been spawned from those movies are even more so.