The latest and final instalment in the modern Star Wars trilogy was meant to be the film of Princess Leia Organa. Just as The Force Awakens was Han Solo’s story and The Last Jedi was Luke Skywalker’s - The Rise of Skywalker was always meant to round the saga off with the final member of the franchises original threesome.
But following the tragic death of Carrie Fisher in December 2016, it became clear that creating a film that centred on Leia was going to be a little bit difficult.
In The Rise of Skywalker, Leia has been brought back to the big screen using footage of Carrie Fisher shot for The Force Awakens. In the words of JJ Abrams, it was a “weird miracle” that they had all of this unused footage from his first venture into the Star Wars universe just waiting to be used. While this was an innovative solution it is, of course, understandable that we didn’t see much of Leia in the film.
But throughout the recent trilogy, and even before the death of Fisher, the role of Princess Leia has felt confused. It was in 1977’s A New Hope where 19-year-old Fisher first bought Princess Leia Organa to life, in an original trilogy that saw her play the female protagonist with a truly badass streak.
You just have to look at the original views from A New Hope to see how Leia was characterised. The “captive and endangered princess” said The Los Angeles Times (22 May 1977), while The New York Times emphasises that the character was out of step even with the image of a modern woman, “Princess Leia Organa [is] a pretty round-faced young woman of old-fashioned pluck.” (26 May 1977). Contrary to this, Leia also has a reputation for being read as expressly masculine. With The Toronto Star calling her “a no-nonsense royal tomboy” in June 1977.
This theme continued throughout the original trilogy with Leia sitting, at least in the eyes of a lot of the audience, firmly as either the damsel in distress or the ‘masculine’ woman. Wherever she was placed within these scenes, she had a purpose. She was a love interest, and a strong diplomat and a fierce character.
Carrie Fisher herself always disagreed with the idea of Leia being purely a damsel in distress. In 2015, she said, “You know, [men freed her], but then it was, 'What are we doing now? And she bossed them around and… distress? [Laughs] I don't know what your idea of distress is, but that wasn't [it]. I was locked up, but, you know, so were the guys later on. What about them? And also I wasn't some babe running through the galaxy with my tits bouncing around."
In December 2015, the Star Wars story was re-born and our plucky princess was brought back into our lives once again. But there was a difference - this time it felt like there wasn’t a clear place for Leia. She almost existed as a homage to her character in the original films - a warm blanket of nostalgia with a striking hairstyle and comforting smile.
In much of The Force Awakens, Leia is a mother. She discusses her son with Han and embraces Rey with maternal love and care. But alongside this, the resistance turns to her and it is clear she has played a pivotal role in the ongoing push for rebellion during the rise of the First Order.
In The Last Jedi, we see the return of Leia once again, but this time as the commander of the resistance, leading the fleet as a General, while also getting a throwback taste of Leia as the ‘damsel in distress’ as she nearly meets her death.
As the resistance are doggedly pursued by Supreme Leader Snoke, Kylo Ren, and the First Order fleet, a TIE fighter blows out the command bridge of her flagship, The Raddus. At that moment, many viewers may have believed that this was an edgy decision to remove Leia from the story, made by the controversial writer and director of the movie Rian Johnson following Carrie Fisher’s death. But we see this badass princess of Alderaan tap into the Force to pull herself to safety.
Her ability with the Force had only been alluded to in the previous movies, what with her being the daughter of arguably the most powerful Force-wielder in history, Anakin Skywalker. Alongside her lineage, there are obvious points that highlight of her connection to the Force; when she senses her brother Luke in peril on Bespin; when she senses the death of her former partner Han Solo in The Force Awakens; and actually a minute or so prior to the torpedoes crashing into the Raddus’ bridge as she senses the presence of her son Ben Solo, also known as Kylo Ren. Leia’s frosted body drifts through the vacuum of space before she summons the Force, pulling herself to the relative safety of the ship, right before spending much of the rest of the film in a coma.
The different sides of Leia throughout the trilogy could be explained with the way she has always been written as a multi-dimensional character, but instead it comes across more as though the writers just weren’t sure what to do with her. Where necessary, she is the soft motherly figure supporting characters, providing great big hugs and comforting words. Where needed, she is General Leia Organa - the harsh resistance fighter. And at other times she is Princess Leia, the bright faced sister of Luke Skywalker we remember from the early trilogy offering a boost of nostalgia.
If the last entry in the Skywalker Saga was meant to be a film about Leia, it's no secret that the tragic death of Carrie Fisher put a spanner in the works. But it would be simplistic to argue that there wasn’t enough development of a character in a film where the actress never actually shot a scene.
But the new trilogy has let Leia down by sidelining her from the beginning in 2015. Sure, The Force Awakens was Han Solo’s film, yet Luke Skywalker still played a key role in the narrative as his character was developed ready for the sequel. In The Last Jedi, Leia is placed in a coma before waking up to be met on Crait by her brother - completing the narrative of the film as a supportive character in Luke's story.
Perhaps there was a consensus that The Rise of Skywalker would develop Leia and complete her story with real force, and of course, we will never know what that would have looked like. But as surrounding characters played key roles in the previous films, the reality of the final trilogy in the Skywalker Saga was that it felt like it let Leia down - using her to fill gaps in scenes and narratives rather than allowing her to be the badass General we all wanted to see.