The Bildungsroman

I’m going to follow up my post yesterday praising the Wachowskis’ widely panned Jupiter Ascending by talking about the genre from which it comes – no, not space opera, I talk about that a lot more often. I’m talking about the Bildungsroman – the “coming of age story.”

The Bildungsroman is one of the most popular fictional story constructs in Western culture. In Robert A. Heinlein’s three (he claims) most basic story structures in the English language, it’s “boy becomes a man.” (or “girl becomes a woman” as it were).

The bildungsroman as a story construction is oversimplified by Western movies – we tend to assume that our characters are already competent adventurers, even if they just came out of a pretty normal lifestyle (or if, as in Jupiter Ascending, they actually came out of an underprivileged life of an assimilated-but-still-immigrant laborer who lives with her Russian extended family in Chicago and works in the homes of the very wealthy). Jupiter is not trained in any skill set that would help her in this adventure: She’s not a skilled warrior (the extent of her knowledge of fighting appears limited to bashing someone with a pipe or a wrench), nor a computer expert (not that being an excellent coder, a la Neo in The Matrix, would be of any help to her in a world where the basics of coding are literally millions of years more advanced than they are on Earth).

What Jupiter has going for her, uniquely, is that by being one of the Entitled in the galaxy – the elite who wield more money and power than a human being of our Earthly civilization can dream about – gives her power, but it’s a precarious form of power that also affords her no room for missteps or mistakes.

Her progress through the film is from acquiescence to agency; when she refuses Balem’s apparent victory, she becomes the heroine. Until that point, she’s the protagonist, but she’s also the Fool: A callow youth who may or may not become the hero.

If we think about Star Wars – the definitive male-oriented modern-day film bildungsroman – Luke Skywalker primarily relies on his allies until the moment that he chooses to stand with the Rebels flying into battle against the Death Star. Until then he is primarily following the lead of mentor figures – first Uncle Owen, then Ben Kenobi, and finally Han Solo. And like Jupiter, Luke spends act 2 growing tentatively into his own agency until he finally takes charge in act 3. The difference being that Luke shoots a blaster throughout act 2. Jupiter, well she’s got the bad luck to be in a position here gunplay would make her position substantially worse.

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