Casual Fridays: How does Star Wars end? Depends on how old you are

Here's a bonus bit of analysis from last week's Casual Fridays study. In addition to asking respondents how familiar they were with our selection of stories, we also asked them to describe some detail of the story that was independently verifiable, like how the story ended.

The reason we did this was to double-check the self-reported responses. If everyone had said they were familiar with the Fox and the Grapes fable, but then half of the respondents got the ending wrong, we would have had a reason to discount the self-reported responses. As it turned out, for most of the stories, people who said they were familiar with the stories got the question about the story's detail right. For The Fox and the Grapes, the correlation between getting the ending right and familiarity with the story was a very strong r = .77.

The exception to this rule was Star Wars. We asked if respondents knew how it ended, and while 78 percent of respondents said they knew the ending, there was a tremendous range of descriptions of the story's end. Here's a typical example: "Death Star explodes, cheesy ceremony."

In 1977 when the first Star Wars movie came out, there was no question that this would be the right answer. Since I was around at the time and waited in line (repeatedly) to see it, I'll always think of this as the real Star Wars. To me, the others are just sequels, and I ignore that movie's subsequent renaming to "Episode IV: A New Hope."

But many others see the whole series as Star Wars. Therefore the ending is the end of the final movie in the series, "Episode VI: Return of the Jedi." Here's a typical response: "Darth Vader kills the emperor and dies. Luke chills out with some ewoks and ghost Yoda."

So was there some identifying factor that determined whether respondents described the end of Episode IV or Episode VI? As the headline of this post suggests, there was. I read through all 772 responses describing the ending, and tracked their responses by age. If they said something like "Death star explodes" or "Big ceremony" I coded that as Episode IV. If they mentioned ewoks, the Emperor, or Darth Vader dying I coded that as Episode VI. Everything else got lumped into a single category because there was a lot variation in the response. Here are the the results.


As you can see, people in my age group (40-49) are significantly more likely than any other age grouping to describe the ending of Episode IV as the end of Star Wars. People age 30-39 and 50-59 also described the Episode IV ending more often than the Episode VI ending (remember, some respondents didn't know the ending at all). But all the other age groups described the Episode IV ending less often than some other ending (including endings to other episodes, like "Luke, I'm your father" and incorrect endings like "darth vader is defeated"). One plausible explanation of all this is that if you were a child or young adult when the movies first came out, you remember that the original movie was called Star Wars. If you're now an older adult, you might have only watched the movie with children or grandchildren (after the entire series was released as Star Wars). And of course people younger than 30 weren't around when Star Wars first came out, so they may only know it as a series of movies called Star Wars.

There were quite a few amusing responses to the "How does Star Wars end" question. Here's a selection:

  • Cheering all around the galaxy that they stuck jar jar in for no reason
  • "Luke, I am your father." (That's at the end, right? I can never keep track.)
  • Darth Vader kills the Emperor and dies, the others live somewhat happily ever after
  • Luke sees Vader in all his Jedi-hologram glory and realizes his father is no longer a part of the Dark Side
  • death star#2 goes boom, darth vader goes boom too, and everyone is all happy
  • Han Solo blows up the Deathstar (Okay maybe it was Luke but Han is better).
  • Disappointingly.
  • Luke and Leia are brother and sister. Gross!
  • Primitive Ewoks bring down Fascist Galactic Empire. Cuddly improbability.
  • Jedi save the galaxy! Everybody dances around on Endor.
  • When George Lucas decides he has earned enough money
  • The good guys win, luke i am your father blah blah blah
  • vader is luke's father! zomg!
  • Luke blows up the death star and R2 gets waxed.
  • Some big space thing gets blown up.
  • ewok celebration! (6) Or luke being born... (3)
  • Luke kissed his sister
  • lucas sells his soul by making 3 terrible prequels
  • But too many "star war's" to parse this question
  • Amateur fighter pilot ignores orders, listens to the voices in his head and slaughters thousands
  • Death Star go boom! Leia impersonates Triumph of the Will.
  • luke, han, leia and chewbacca get medals
  • Luke, Han, Chewy receive medals
  • Chewbacca doesn't get a medal
  • Everybody lives happily ever after except the ones who die
  • It does not end!

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I didn't actually code for that (I guess I should edit the post). I just coded "Episode IV ending" vs. "Anything else."

Based on my recollection, though, it's pretty much the reverse of the above graph. Coding was a little more complicated for Episode VI because a lot of people said something like "which episode?" and then gave a summary of both. I coded for Episode IV only when it was pretty clear that there was no question in the respondent's mind that "obviously" I must be talking about Episode IV.

I love casual research like this. It may seem frivolous, but this is important stuff to look at; we are, in many ways, products of our age cohort.

'To me, the others are just sequels, and I ignore that movie's subsequent renaming to "Episode IV: A New Hope."'

I'm fairly certain the official title was always "Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope".

I was only 7 at the time, but it seems like I remember reading that in the fancy slanted writing as the movie started and wondering how I missed the other three.

By Brian Melancon (not verified) on 27 Mar 2009 #permalink

"Amateur fighter pilot ignores orders, listens to the voices in his head and slaughters thousands"

I laughed so much at that one.

Brian Melancon is correct; the first movie has been "Episode IV: A New Hope" all along. It was never renamed.

By Brandon Kennedy (not verified) on 27 Mar 2009 #permalink

No, it was released as Star Wars. I realize memories can be deceiving, but IMDB confirms:

Upon its original release, the opening crawl did not include "Episode IV: A New Hope." According to Lucasfilm, this was added upon its re-release in 1978 or as late as 1981. The later print was the first one to be released on video, and all video, laserdisc or DVD releases have featured the subtitles.

I also have a replica of the original movie poster. It just says "Star Wars." No Episodes, no "A New Hope."

Brian Melancon and Brandon Kennedy: Not according to my girlfriend (who was a teen when she saw it). It was quite a fight we had about it, actually. Wikipedia agreed with her, last time I checked.

By Julian Sammy (not verified) on 27 Mar 2009 #permalink

The original title was indeed just "Star Wars" as has already been posted. If you listen to the commentary track on the movie, Lucas even talks about it a little.

Hrmm... I eagerly anticipated the release of Star Wars ever since the 1974 My Weekly Reader article. I gave the answer as "Luke, I'm your father," not because it comes at the literal end of the film, but because it is the film's denouement, the moment that ties all the threads of the films together in a satisfying package.

I've not seen all the prequels, but from what I've heard of them, everything still leads to the Classic/Gothic moment when Luke learns that Darth Vader is his father. It's the central core of the story. Everything before it is exposition; everything after it is coda.

I mean, if you ask a classicist how Oedipus Rex ends, he'll say, "Oedipus plucks out his eyes when he learns he's married his mother." Now, the story itself continues on after that, but that's the central moment where the tragic flaw plays itself out.

But what do I know? I'm just a wayward Humanities-type slumming in ScienceBlogs.

I'd agree that the ending of Star Wars was the Death Star explosion. The end of the Star Wars Trilogy was the ewok orgy. Stupid people can't tell the difference between a movie and a trilogy, and the question asks for the movie. Perhaps the problem is not the movies, but a misunderstanding of the English language?

Brian, of course they didn't have "a new hope" when it came out originally, since, despite what Lucas says, it was the first (and only) Star Wars movie. The rest came out after the movie hit big time. Only a moron would name the first movie he made "part 4" (except for History of the World, pt 2, but that was a comedy).

Although, what kind of a man would go back and change the story, including elements like Han shooting first, just because? And making Jar Jar Binks? And the construction of C-3P0 (with the accompanying memory wipe? Or having the Princess Leia bun-ears on Pdame (and the disappearing outfit)? Or pick two actors for the romantic leads, who, when brought together, had all the animation of an oak tree? Hmm....

At least he didn't remove the guns from ET since they were "too scary."

D'oh, I stand corrected on the numbering! I had a conversation recently with a colleague who thought that Episodes IV, V, and VI had been renumbered as such in 1999 in order to make room for Episodes I, II, and III. I knew that wasn't the case, but I didn't know that Episode IV got its number retroactively. Thanks!

By Brandon Kennedy (not verified) on 28 Mar 2009 #permalink

Well according to Badger3k I'm a moron because I consider "Star Wars" to be the entire 6 movies. Even though there was one movie called "Star Wars" it has never been just one movie in my mind. So I would consider the ending to be Darth dies, Emperor dies, and Ewoks die in mass holocaust from the rain down of Death Star debris. And they released the original theatrical release of Star Wars on DVD about 2 years ago and no, it does not contain the Episode IV moniker (just checked about 30 seconds ago).

And just so you know Badger there is no such movie as History of the World Part II. Brooks never made it, he only made Part I.

star wars doesn't end with episode VI!!!!! it's still going on in the EU with the novels and comics. it goes on for at least another 125 years!!!!

By Stephen S (not verified) on 28 Mar 2009 #permalink

I find this interpretation of "Star Wars" a little odd. I mean, A New Hope was originally just called Star Wars (at least that is what I am told) but it was officially renamed. I guess it all depends on how you view it, but now when referring to just Star Wars you could be making reference to it as any given Star Wars movie, or the movies as a whole. I don't think you can refer to just one specifically by that. The meaning has changed. That is like using a word that has changed meaning over the years, and using it as the old meaning that no longer applies. No one is going to get what you're talking about, because you are using it out of context. It might of meant one thing once, but it means something else now. Star Wars is a saga, not a specific movie. Just my opinion, though. Probably worth nothing.

Interesting study, though. I suppose the intent was to see how many people knew what A New Hope was originally called. I would have got the answer wrong, as I think of Star Wars as a saga.

Oh, and Stephen S, I'm pretty sure everyone is just talking about the movies, and how they end. Thank goodness for EU.

I see no pedant has yet pointed out that "Luke, I am your father" is not in fact said at any point in any of the films. So I guess I'll be that pedant!

From memory (yes, it's embarrassing)...

Vader: Obi Wan never told you what happened to your father.
Luke: He told me enough! He told me you killed him.
Vader: No, I am your father.
Luke: [dramatic histrionics]

I'm not sure what the implication for a study like this is, but at least you got some great qualitative data. "Amateur fighter pilot ignores orders, listens to the voices in his head and slaughters thousands." That was quite the brilliant response to your question.

This is fairly interesting.

I'm curious why Badger3k thinks "the question asks for a movie"--as far as I can tell, it looks like it's just "How does Star Wars end?" But maybe I'm just one of those "stupid people." :-)

I'm in the 18-22 age group, and oddly enough, I think I would have answered this question differently depending on how it was written. This survey used written responses, correct? For me, if it asked "How does Star Wars end?", I would probably have described the end of [i]Return of the Jedi[/i]. However, had the question been "How does [i]Star Wars[/i] end?", I think I would have described the ending to [i]A New Hope[/i]. For me, italicizing it makes it refer to the specific movie, while the non-italicized version is for me the Star Wars Movie Saga as a whole.

...But maybe I'm just over-analyzing.

"It does not end!"

This would have to be my answer too. The series has kept going in comics, novels, cartoons, and (oh how I hope) perhaps a live action series someday.

It's a bit like Batman in that there will always be new additions to the mythology...unlike Batman, the story is a bit more fixed, no one hits a "reset" button on the plot with every new release/medium.

Now if you ask specifically how the "movie" or "movies" end, then that's a different question. ;)

By Carla Lute (not verified) on 30 Mar 2009 #permalink

I would have answered "It does not end" or written in something to the effect that it's still being told. Without knowing the question I'd have asked, "Are you talking about A New Hope or the film stories or the Star Wars universe?"

I mean, it's like asking, "When does Batman end?" and then not giving any follow up; of course you're going to get a range of answers. I'm 35, technically I saw it in the theater when it came out, I was four, but still. Of your 40-49 year olds, how many are Star Wars fans and how many have ONLY seen the 1977 movie? How many saw all three movies and still said Episode IV was the end? How many have seen all six movies? How many have read any comics or books?

I'm going to have to read more Casual Friday's Studies. :)

why does "chewbacca doesn't receive a medal" (and the like) not get included in the episode IV results?

Okay, it ends when Anakin solo it's kiled and han let's his saber on the Chewie's tribute tree on Kashyyk! XD

no , jk... i think it doesn't end, it can't..! ^^ Its star wars1 it will live for ever! or untill I make my very own "Death Star the third" and kill you all! YOU FR34K5! XD

Interesting question, especially since I'm in Episode IV age range, but think it's Episode VI also (I do see the whole thing as a one long story).

The other two possibilities I could think of:

1) Star Wars III - Revenge of the Sith (last live-action far). Even though it's "chronologically" in the middle, it's the one that answers key questions and completes the cycle.

2) One of the novels - many of them take place after Star Wars VI (into the next generation even). Of course these are being published (so the answer may be never so long as there is revenue to be earned). Kind of like Batman.

Well couldn't we assume that the ends of episode IV and episode VI are so similar that people responding "big explosion + celebration/ceremony" can describe either ?

So there may be a bias in your study her, couldn't it ?

Love your blog anyway !

It doesn't end until they film Star Wars VII, VIII, and IX, just like Lucas originally outlined (reportedly)!

+500! AHAHAHAHA! "When George Lucas decides he has earned enough money" or
"Amateur fighter pilot ignores orders, listens to the voices in his head and slaughters thousands"