It seems some people just can’t leave well enough alone. I refer, of course, to George Lucas, and his celebrated Star Wars franchise. Though in this case, I’m not just referring to his revisions of his original trilogy, but also to his apparent inability to stop baiting fans that are irritated over the changes. In a brief Q&A with the Hollywood Reporter, George makes a couple of remarks about the whole thing that have, of course, served only to further fuel the flames. Now, in truth I don’t have it in me to get terribly upset about the whole fiasco — and I’ve gone on record before as saying that some fans’ reactions go over the line from exhibiting justifiable upset to unnecessary offense — but I’ve never liked the changes, or the way that Lucas has reacted to people who just want to have the original, unadulterated versions of the movies in the best format possible. But amongst his comments here, George does have one interesting one — he states that changes to movies happen all the time, and that he’s the only one who catches any flak for it.
And you know… while he’s not exactly correct there, he’s not entirely wrong, either. Director’s cuts, re-inserted scenes, and the occasional altered ending (though usually just an extended version) are indeed nothing new to movies. George Lucas didn’t invent any of that. And on the whole I don’t think I’d hold any of that against Lucas any more than I would against anybody else. So, in the dual interests of fairness and hashing out just what the problem is with his revisions, I thought I’d take a look and see if I could determine what, for me, were the conditions on making revisions to a film.
In contrast to Star Wars, Ridley Scott’s director’s cut of Blade Runner is actually praised for its differences from the theatrical release.
Revisions — sometimes called “retcons” (retroactive continuity), especially among comic book fans — aren’t uncommon in certain media. Comic books have such a fluid continuity that you can’t count on any part of the story remaining the same for more than 20 years. Book series and television series often have later installments that change the “truth” about earlier installments. It happens with movie series as well — sometimes there’s a scene that says, “No, it may have looked like it happened that way before, but what really happened was this.” All of this tends to cause some eye-rolling, but little of it inspires the backlash that George Lucas has received. And a large part of that is because it’s all after-the-fact, meta-textual changes on the narrative — not to the actual work itself.
And that, as much as anything, is a large part of what’s getting George Lucas in trouble with his fans. He didn’t just change the narrative of Star Wars… he changed Star Wars itself, the actual film. And, further, has made it difficult to see the original version of it. The original trilogy has been released in unaltered form on DVD only once — and it’s a transfer of the LaserDisc version, without video enhancement to restore picture quality, and (as I discovered while grabbing the picture of Han there) matted for a 4:3 screen (the special editions, which these DVDs were bundled with, are in proper widescreen format.) So a large part of the flak is that people just want easy access to a high quality home video version of the unaltered original trilogy. And Lucas is not the only director I have an issue with about this. I’ve never seen the theatrical version of Blade Runner, and it’s because for many years the only version on DVD was the Ridley Scott approved Director’s Cut. It has a better reputation, but I don’t know if it’s genuinely a better movie — and unless they had very good memories, neither did most of its proponents until 2007 (10 years after the Director’s Cut release), when the theatrical release was finally put out on DVD, along with Scott’s “Final Cut”. One of these days, I’ll track down copies of each, and probably do an extensive “Version vs. Version” compare and contrast, but for about 10 years there I had no chance — none at all — of experiencing the theatrical cut firsthand, and that annoyed me as much as the idea of not being able to get a non-Special Edition version of Star Wars. (Especially since I have to wonder if my viewing of the original will be tainted by having seen the revised cut first.)
It wasn’t helped by the misleading promo text. Original cut, perhaps, but not original release version.
But availability of the originals aside, what is it that makes the special editions of films acceptable or unacceptable? For me, a lot of it has to do with the nature of the changes. I think that, most of the time, the changes should be additive, not subtractive — i.e., it should better the film by adding something to it, rather than by taking something away. I am fully in favor of putting things back into films that were cut due to time constraints; The Blues Brothers is a superior film on DVD because of all the scenes that are extended just a little bit that fill in details that weren’t there originally, but were meant to have been. It’s harder to swallow subtractive or substantive changes, though. There are exceptions — I would find a version of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence that ended with the robot boy staring at the Blue Fairy to be a superior film to what was released — but by and large, I don’t like to see something taken away from a film that was there originally. And that includes taking something away and replacing it. Substantive changes, such as removing ghost David Prowse and putting in ghost Hayden Christensen, are subtractive changes. Even dolling it up with shiny CGI graphics over the old practical effects is a substantive change — and while I kind of appreciate the new graphics, I also appreciate the old and want them to be available. That’s the version that I remember; the other is a novelty only. And Lucas isn’t the only one to catch flak over this — I think we all remember the rifles-to-walkie-talkies incident with Steven Spielberg’s anniversary edition of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.
Now, there is one additive change that I can think of in the Star Wars Special Editions, and that’s the scene with Jabba in A New Hope. (Actually, the label of “Episode IV: A New Hope” is itself an additive change from back in 1980; it wasn’t there in the 1978 release, and as far as I know, hardly anybody objects to it.) Lucas shot the scene for Han meeting Jabba in Episode 4 originally, with a person there as a placeholder, and left it out because he wasn’t sure what he wanted Jabba to look like or how to work it practically. For the Special Edition, he added the scene back in. I’ll defend him on that one — that’s an additive change, it does help the movie a bit (other than some redundant lines with the Greedo scene), and it’s similar in purpose to other movies restoring deleted scenes. I have no problems with that one.
Though it would be nice if the CGI weren’t so conspicuous.
The other condition that I think gets other directors off the hook is a question of intent and studio interference. We tend to flock towards director’s cuts if and only if we have a sense that the director got screwed over by the studio — and if we think the studio didn’t do as good a job as the director would have. This is why Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner cuts haven’t garnered as much of an outcry, this is why people were curious about the Richard Donner cut of Superman II. And that’s part of what started this article for me; one of Lucas’s comments in that article was about the “Han shot first” argument, and he states that his original intention was always to have Greedo shot first, and that people just misinterpreted it because of the angle it was shown at. The word of Lucas is that Greedo always shot first. Well, that’s fine… except, Mr. Lucas, you’re not arguing against some pitiful fan-fic writers here, or even a deuterocanonical Star Wars novel. You’re not arguing against the studio either. You’re arguing against yourself. Putting aside the fact that your own book at the time (ghost-written by Alan Dean Foster, but Lucas approved) indicates otherwise, your original intent was pretty clearly not that Greedo shot first. You were never booted from Star Wars, and you had control over the camera the whole time. If you really wanted to show Greedo shooting first (or to have them shoot simultaneously, as in the most recent revision), you would have shown that originally — to say otherwise is to say that you’re incompetent at filming a very simple scene, and I don’t think any of your detractors would go that far. (As for the “cold-blooded killer” argument, that’s not on the table; Han had a gun drawn on him, nothing about that killing was cold-blooded either way.)
And that’s why Lucas hasn’t gotten the slack that others have when it comes to revisions. His changes are substantive and subtractive, not additive, and they aren’t to the benefit of the movies. They’re also unnecessary at best. And he not only doesn’t respect that people just want to see his original masterpieces — there are directors that would kill to have such devoted fans! — he can’t even keep his story straight. There’s the original sin of his revisions — he claims to be making them truer to his authorial intent, but he doesn’t seem to know what his own intent was or even is.