Disney's dilemma: digitally resurrect Carrie Fisher or write her out of Star Wars?

Carrie Fisher

There is a temptation to assume that Princess Leia, and by extension Carrie Fisher, who played the Alderaanian Rebel leader in four movies across more than five decades, belongs to all of us. For those who grew up with the fiery bun-headed teenager in 1977’s Star Wars, her youthful image is burned so deeply into our cerebellums that we can recall her countenance in an instant.

Related: Star Wars focus group to plot life in Leia-less universe after Carrie Fisher's death

As the late actor was given to mentioning whenever she felt like embarrassing George Lucas – her venomous 2004 congratulatory speech at the Star Wars creator’s AFI lifetime celebration springs to mind – the film-maker did in fact “own” Fisher for decades, as part of her deal to appear in the original space opera trilogy meant that his company Lucasfilm retained her image rights. “Every time I look in the mirror I have to send you a cheque for a couple of bucks,” joked the actor and comic in her famous roasting of Lucas at Hollywood’s Kodak theater.

Now Disney, which presumably inherited those rights when it bought Lucasfilm for $4bn in 2010 and embarked on a new Star Wars trilogy, has to decide how fully to use them in the wake of Fisher’s distressing death in the final days of 2016. A new piece in the Hollywood Reporter suggests Leia, reimagined as a general in the Resistance against her estranged son Kylo Ren’s nefarious First Order during the events of 2015’s The Force Awakens, was due to play a major role in the two films that will complete the new triptych, Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII and Colin Trevorrow’s Episode IX, out in December of this year and 2019 respectively.

Leia’s key scenes are reportedly a meeting with her long-lost brother Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and a showdown-of-sorts with Adam Driver’s patricidal Ren, which promises to be a family reunion to make Skywalker’s father-and-son battles with Darth Vader look like breakfast with the Brady Bunch. The Hollywood Reporter’s sources suggest Fisher was due to play a greater part in the events of IX than she will do in VIII, scenes for which were shot before the actor’s death.

This leaves Disney with a Death Star-sized quandary. Write Leia out, and deny the Rebel leader – and by extension Fisher – her full part in the new trilogy? Or use digital tinkering – similar to the process that brought Peter Cushing back to life for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – to create a CGI Leia who can play a reasonably full, if somewhat ghoulish part in the final instalment, a move which would surely have its own ethical ramifications so soon after the actor’s death.

The above is complicated by two further factors. The first is Fisher’s famous uneasiness over Lucas’s exploitation of her younger self in the original trilogy, via that gold bikini scene and the film-maker’s distinctly murky assertion that there were no brassieres in space. The second is the sense that Leia was relatively under-established as a key character in The Force Awakens, in comparison to the other two members of the original Star Wars trio. Harrison Ford’s Han Solo emerged as something close to the new instalment’s central figure – and achieved Ford’s long-wished-for death scene – while Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker was reconfigured as a figure of near-mythical grandeur, even if he only appeared for a few tantalising seconds at the movie’s denouement.

On the other hand, Frank Oz’s Yoda did not require three movies to make his syntactically eccentric mark on the original Star Wars trilogy. Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan Kenobi will always be a singular totem of 20th century Hollywood despite dying in the first instalment - though he did return as a Force Ghost in parts two and three. Might it be possible to give Leia a fitting send off in Episode VIII without going down the digital route? Only Johnson and his team know the answer to that one right now.

Still, those rumoured scenes are tantalising, and it’s almost certain we’ll never get to see them unless Disney does go the CGI route. We have the technology; we can bring her back to life. But would it be right to do so just to satisfy our own yearnings as Star Wars fans?

Fisher endured her own struggles in the face of such early fame with great grace and charm – publicly at least. But there was obvious pain beneath those near-impenetrable layers of ballsy, quickfire charisma, which makes the idea of using her image to generate extra box office a troublesome one. And let’s not equivocate here, a CGI Leia in Episode IX would be a big deal profit-wise. The closest comparison is probably not Cushing at all, but the digital resurrection of Paul Walker for Fast and Furious 7 following the actor’s death in a high-speed road smash in November 2013. It is no coincidence that James Wan’s film was by far the highest-grossing instalment of the petrolhead saga, amassing a gargantuan $1.5bn globally. Cinemagoers are not immune to morbid curiosity.

One possibility the Hollywood Reporter failed to mention is that the matter might still be taken out of Disney’s hands, despite Fisher’s famous assertions over Lucasfilm’s rights to her image. A 1985 California law suggests that studios require permission from the estate of a celebrity to use his or her image for up to 70 years after death, so it may come down to the actor’s family to decide which way this one goes. It’s a reminder that, in the end, neither Fisher nor Leia really did belong rightly to all of us, or to Disney for that matter.

There have been calls this week – misguided, some might say, given the brand’s problematic history – for Leia to be officially canonised as a Disney princess, alongside Ariel from The Little Mermaid, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and numerous other pencil-waisted royal playthings. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine anything Fisher might have hated more, given her experiences with Lucas. Whatever decision the studio finally comes to on her future role in the long-running space opera, Leia surely deserves to be immortalised among the stars – in the movies – rather than in Disney stores.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ben Child, for theguardian.com on Friday 6th January 2017 15.50 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010