Monday, April 19, 2010

The Fall of Horus, A Comparison

It's been a while since I posted anything with any meat out here.  I've been swamped at work, and between vacation and family stuff, my 40K time has been lacking.  Except in regards to reading.  Where I haven't had the time to focus on painting, I was able to read.  I just finished the third book of the Horus Heresy series, "Galaxy in Flames", and while a lot of people have said a lot of things about these books, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to say something myself.  Reading these books stirred up a lot of emotions about another story featuring a character's fall.  So while I tried not to gripe and complain about the other story non-stop I just couldn't help but find that where this story faltered at tunes the Horus Heresy triumphed.

So if you want to find out what the other story is, and read my thoughts on the Horus Heresy, then feel free to hit the jump and enjoy my long-winded opinion.

The fall of Horus to Chaos is the linchpin of the Warhammer 40K universe.  So much of the fluff is dependent on either the Horus Heresy itself or the fallout of the Heresy.  Being such an important aspect of this game I love, I decided the time was right to jump into, and start catching up on, this seminal story.  As I read the story, I found myself comparing Horus to similar stories.  The one that stood out the most was the fall of Anakin Skywalker to become Darth Vader.

Now, let me just say that I know there are inherent differences between the stories.  I am also comparing the first three Horus Heresy books with the Star Wars Prequel movies.  This isn’t necessarily fair to Star Wars, but the comparisons are justified.  While Star Wars told of the fall of a far more famous character, the Horus Heresy tells a far more compelling story.

Also, lest anyone get angry with me, I have been a Star Wars fan since I saw the first Star Wars movie at the age of 3.  I waited in line, in costume, for each of the prequel movies (*cough* 18 hours for The Phantom Menace *cough*).  I love Star Wars, at least the original trilogy.  I enjoy the new Star Wars movies, but there are deep flaws I believe the Horus Heresy did not have.  I will attempt to be fair, so I won’t use this article to discuss flawed story points such as the immaculate conception of Anakin, or the inability of Jake Lloyd or Hayden Christensen to act.  Neither complaints are fair to make as they don’t pertain to this article…although I guess I made the complaints, so anyway.

One of the best examples of how the Horus Heresy worked better than Star Wars was the structure of the story.  Star Wars felt compelled to show us the early years of Anakin, when he was a 10 year old boy.  While it provided some insight into some of the characters, it wasn’t necessarily a good starting point.  Most of that insight could have been provided in some exposition.  By forcing the story to be a trilogy, and spending a third of the time when Anakin is just a boy, it did nothing but force the rest of the story to be rushed.

Notice that the Horus Heresy did not start with the Emperor finding Horus on Cthonia.  We know he did based on conversations, but that first book was about Horus as Warmaster and how his actions and the events surrounding him set the table for his eventual fall.  This gave more time to the authors to spend on his actual fall, and on the eventual betrayal at Isstvan III.  Had Lucas skipped the story of Episode I, and started the trilogy with Attack of the Clones, he would have been far less rushed in the third movie.  He could have split that movie and given the time for Anakin’s fall it deserved, and given the time we as an audience deserved to see Darth Vader’s betrayal of the Jedi.  Order 66 worked, but wasn’t necessarily satisfying.

Given more time, the fall of Anakin to Darth Vader may have worked better.  His motivation was based on a fear of people he loved dying, and that fear being manipulated by Palpatine to push him to the Dark Side of the Force.  However, hardly any time was given to the actual manipulation and fall of Anakin.  He heard a story of a Sith Lord, and then he jumped ship.  With Horus the seeds were planted in the first book, and with the second book we were able to see how Erebus was able to play off the Warmaster’s ego and his feelings of abandonment by the Emperor going back to Terra to push him to Chaos.  We saw the journey Erebus took him on while being ministered to on Davin, and we were able to see how Horus fell.

Another area that Horus Heresy excelled at was how I found myself hoping as I read it that these characters I knew would fall wouldn’t.  I was so engrossed in the story that even though logically I was able to say to myself, “Ah that’s how that happened,” as I read it I was rooting for the characters to do the right thing.  Even though I knew Horus would fall I found myself reading it hoping he wouldn’t.  Not so with Star Wars.  With Star Wars there was the thrill of seeing how history was made, but never a hope to see it play out differently.

I’ve been thinking about this last point and trying to figure out why.  One part of that was me never being able to get too emotionally invested as a viewer with Anakin because I don’t see Darth Vader in him.  They are so different, and so separate as characters the change to Darth Vader isn’t a natural progression, but just a flip of a switch.  He’s good but confused, then he’s evil and killing kids.  And how he goes from wanting to save his wife to killing everyone is explained very clumsily.  Part of that comes from Point of View.  The Prequels do not have a “civilian” PoV.

The original Star Wars trilogy had non-Jedi, non-rebellion people to help give the viewer some perspective on what’s happening.  The same is true for the Horus Heresy.  The remembrancers, give a civilian perspective on the Astartes, and characters like Loken, Torgaddon, and Tarvitz give perspective on the changes happening to the Warmaster and his allies.  The prequels center around the Jedi so closely there is little room for non-Jedi characters.  And the non-Jedi characters are so closely tied to the transition of the Old Republic to the Empire they don’t provide perspective.  Really the one character in that trilogy that works as an outside character is Jar-Jar Binks, but we shall not speak of that abomination here. 

Still, by providing the perspective of civilians and heroic Astartes we are able to see the changes in characters with clarity.  We don’t see how Abaddon changed, but we don’t have to because we know he is devoted to Horus.  We do see how his devotion to Horus changes him.  Again, given more time perhaps the prequels could have shown that to us more, but by forcing so much into such a brief window we were robbed of another aspect that could have enriched that story.

The place I feel most robbed as a fan of Star Wars isn’t the fall of Anakin, but what happens after that.  Order 66 is given, and Jedi die, but the way those times are spoken of in the original trilogy, I was hoping for and expecting more, not to mention the formation of the Rebellion.  With the Horus Heresy I knew of Isstvan III, but the depths of that betrayal never clicked with me until I was reading that third book.  You read “virus bomb” when reading about the Horus Heresy, but the gruesome spectacle of what he did doesn’t hit you until you read that third book.  It’s dark, it’s brutal, and it’s what the third movie should have been. 

So many of my points come back to the structure of the story, but that is vital to a story of this nature.  This kind of story has to forego the traditional three act structure because it doesn’t apply.  Normally the second act is where the characters face their hardest struggles, and then will overcome in the third and final act.  But when telling the story of someone’s fall there is no happy triumphant ending.  The story has to end on a dark note.  And yes the characters you care about are going to fail or fall, but that is bound to happen.  Star Wars struggles come from poor story structure as far as the three chapters, but it also struggles because it focused on the character who is bound to fall.  Yet it wasn’t as painful to watch Anakin turn as I would have expected, and that goes back to not connecting with him as a character, and not being allowed to see his fall and the result of that in a story setting that gave those most important parts of that story their due.  We’re watching or reading the story of someone’s fall.  That is the most important part of the story.  It has to be given the time to work, but when 2/3 of your story setup the fall, then you are left cramming as much into that most important 1/3 as you can.

And this isn’t to say that the prequel movies are bad (okay besides The Phantom Menace).  They successfully incorporated a lot of elements from the original trilogy that fans wanted to see.  And the task of presenting the prequels to a rabid fan base and the world was a monumental undertaking.  At least with the Horus Heresy the authors had to only sate the rabid fan base.  But they did, in a far better, far more enriching, and far more entertaining way.

In the end, comparing the Horus Heresy to Star Wars really impressed on me how much is needed to make a story good.  It’s not just the sequence of events that make up a plot.  There is pacing, character development, and how both of those interact with the plot.  Where Star Wars failed to take into account what it needed to successfully tell the story everyone wanted to see, the Horus Heresy did.  That planning and work helped the Horus Heresy, I believe, tell a similar story in a far better way.

I’d love to hear everybody’s thoughts on this.  Or another good “Fall of the hero” type story you think is better than Horus Heresy.  And if you’re pissed off at me for picking on Star Wars I’d be glad to hear your thoughts on that too.


  1. A very interesting article. I can relate to the overall feeling of disatisfaction with the star wars prequels (they're good movies in their own right, but when compared to the "later" chapters they are but a shadow) although I have to admit I hadn't put so much thought into it. This has been quite thought-provoking, thank you.