Sunday 4 September 2011

Undeath of the Author and the Vagaries of Sub-Creation

So, of course, the internet is all in a tizzy as it transpires that George Lucas is continuing to monkey around with Star Wars by inserting new sounds and effects to the trilogy in a seemingly never-ending quest to tinker and fine-tune something which many people was fine the first time around. Most of it revolves around this scene:

While I love Star Wars, I don't have quite the same attachment others have to the series, likely because I was much older when I first saw it than most of my contemporaries. Besides, I'm a Trekkie, I'm honour-bound or something. Yet at the same time, I easily sympathise with those who object to these sorts of changes: even if you're not a massive fan of the films, altering such a dramatic, pivotal scene as Darth Vader's redemption by adding a big NOOOOO completely destroys the impact of the scene. Instead of being an understated, wordless, powerful image, it descends into cheesy melodrama. So why does Lucas insist on making changes that undermine the strength of his own creation?

There seem to be two main points of view in all this.

The first is that George Lucas is the creator of Star Wars and so it is entirely within his creative rights to alter his work as he sees fit. If he wants to add in stupid things like CGI beasties wandering in front of the camera or adding screams that ruin the understated power of scenes, then he's well within his rights to do it. Just as Harlan Ellison and J.D. Salinger were well within their rights to demand that their unfinished works be destroyed upon their death to stop posthumous collaborations. After all, he's the author, creator and artist, so who are we to decide what he should or shouldn't do to his own creation?

The second is that once a work has been exposed to the world, it ceases to be the sole propriety of the artist, but belongs to all of humanity. When a painting is displayed in an art gallery, or a book is published, or a film is released, then it has become part of the cultural landscape. It, in effect, belongs to everyone. George Lucas can thus be considered the creation of Star Wars, but in a sense, it no longer belongs "exclusively" to him, but to everyone.

It's an interesting dilemma with many ramifications.

Pertinent to the discussion is this excerpt from an argument made by George Lucas in 1998:

At first glance, one could suppose that this exposes Lucas as a hypocrite: after all, aren't the changes he makes no better than the alterations to The Maltese Falcon or worse? Is he not commiting acts of barbarism against a work of art? Well, of course, many point to Lucas' emphasis on the artist's rights to not have their works corrupted by the hands of others:

American law does not protect our painters, sculptors, recording artists, authors, or filmmakers from having their lifework distorted, and their reputation ruined. If something is not done now to clearly state the moral rights of artists, current and future technologies will alter, mutilate, and destroy for future generations the subtle human truths and highest human feeling that talented individuals within our society have created...

I accuse the corporations, who oppose the moral rights of the artist, of being dishonest and insensitive to American cultural heritage and of being interested only in their quarterly bottom line, and not in the long-term interest of the Nation.

In the process, however, he makes some very pointed remarks that are surely just as valid in this debate:

American works of art belong to the American public; they are part of our cultural history...

People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians, and if the laws of the United States continue to condone this behavior, history will surely classify us as a barbaric society. The preservation of our cultural heritage may not seem to be as politically sensitive an issue as "when life begins" or "when it should be appropriately terminated," but it is important because it goes to the heart of what sets mankind apart. Creative expression is at the core of our humanness. Art is a distinctly human endeavor. We must have respect for it if we are to have any respect for the human race...

The copyright holders, so far, have not been completely diligent in preserving the original negatives of films they control...

In the future it will become even easier for old negatives to become lost and be "replaced" by new altered negatives. This would be a great loss to our society. Our cultural history must not be allowed to be rewritten...

The public's interest is ultimately dominant over all other interests...

Attention should be paid to this question of our soul, and not simply to accounting procedures. Attention should be paid to the interest of those who are yet unborn, who should be able to see this generation as it saw itself, and the past generation as it saw itself...

What Lucas hasn't foreseen is that this desecration of cinema might not necessarily come from some faceless corporation seeking to make a quick buck, but from the artists themselves.

There are many cases where artists felt the need to alter their previous works, for many reasons. One obvious example is J.R.R. Tolkien altering The Hobbit to reconcile with The Lord of the Rings. The most profoundly alterations can be found in "Riddles in the Dark," which necessitated dramatic revisions to the structure, dynamics and characterisations of the story. Originally, Gollum was less menacing and monstrous, but also less tragic, and he actually gives Bilbo the ring. This obviously conflicts strongly with the narrative of The Lord of the Rings, where the ring's power and Gollum's descent has rendered such an act grossly out of character. Tolkien came up with the ingenious solution that Bilbo was actively twisting the tale in The Hobbit Or There And Back Again, and that the revision chronicled in The Red Book of Westmarch was the true account.

Another case of an author altering his work has far more sobering motivations. Charles R. Saunders rewrote his seminal Sword-and-Sorcery novel Imaro for its latest publication by Nightshade, replacing an entire chapter with a new one. Saunders felt that the original chapter, "Slaves of the Giant-Kings," was so uncannily prophetic of the Rwandan Genocide that he couldn't retain it in good conscience: he felt that even though it was written twenty years beforehand, future publications of the story could be misconstrued as being inspired or otherwise exploitative of the atrocity. As such, he replaced the chapter with "The Afua," and "Slaves of the Giant-Kings" was consigned to the original paperbacks, and there they are likely to remain for the foreseeable future.

Is what Tolkien has done with The Hobbit, or what Saunders did with Imaro, any different from what Lucas has done, and is continuing to do, with Star Wars? Well, for one thing, an author is usually the only creator involved in the process of actually writing a book. Tolkien and Tolkien alone created and wrote The Hobbit; Saunders and Saunders alone created and wrote Imaro. Editors play a significant role, no doubt, but nobody says Farnsworth Wright created the Cthulhu Mythos any more than they would say that of August Derleth.

Does Lucas truly deserve sole credit for Star Wars, considering the sheer number of hands involved not just in the visualization, but active creation of the work? What of the significant contributions of Irvin Kershner, Richard Marquand, and especially Gary Kurtz and Marcia Lucas? Does Lucas have the right to alter the films of Kershner and Marquand, who directed The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi respectively? Come to think of it, does any director have this right?

Lucas certainly isn't the only director doing this. Not including the restoration of studio-mangled films like Brazil, Superman II or Kingdom of Heaven, the likes of Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola and James Cameron have gone back and reworked some of their films to varying degrees of success. Some improve the film, others are largely unnecessary alternate versions, and still more manage to be inferior to the original iteration. However, there's a distinct difference between what was done with Blade Runner, Alexander, Apocalypse Now and Aliens: the original versions are made available alongside the alternatives. The last unmodified release of the original Star Wars trilogy worth a damn was the Laserdisc release (the 2009 non-anamorphic DVD releases do, in fact, have alterations).

This brings me to another important consideration: medium. See, if Tolkien or Saunders decides to change his book, the original publications are still out there for those interested to seek out.  All you need to read a book is a pair of eyes and understanding of the written language.  With films, however, you need a specific piece of technology that requires another specific storage medium.  You can't watch a VHS on a DVD player, or a Laserdisc on a Betamax, or even a Blu-Ray on an HD-DVD player.  As such, finding the original iteration of a film (or video game for that matter) requires not just finding the work itself, but finding something that will play it.  If you have certain films on VHS, Betamax, Laserdisc and DVD, that requires at least four different boxes of machinery in order to view the work contained on those devices. Some of these formats are becoming scarce, and in the future, may be lost - meaning that the works released on those formats may too be lost.

Overall, I don't think it has to be a choice between two courses.  I do think that Lucas is failing in his duty to those "who should be able to see this generation as it saw itself, and the past generation as it saw itself," and should endeavour to make the original theatrical releases as accessible to the public as he is with the "improved" editions.  At the same time, I don't see why he should be forbidden from making alterations as he saw fit. I just wish we could take the obvious third option: he can make alternate editions to his heart's content, but he should ensure that the originals which changed a generation in the 1970s are preserved with equal vigilance. Plenty of other film series take that tack, Star Wars shouldn't be any different.

As the man himself said, it's more than allowing an artist to exercise control over his creation: it's a matter of preserving cultural heritage. Star Wars, as it was released in the 1970s and 1980s, fundamentally changed popular culture ever since. Preserving those films as they were released is preserving the works which made such a profound impact, allowing future generations to view it through their ancestors' eyes. Who is George Lucas to deny them that?


  1. the original versions are available on thise two disc dvds one disc has the altered dvd and the other hasthe movie in its original form ( i know i own the empire strikes back in this format.) so when i do have the time to buy the other two, ( i sure as hell dont want to own the prequel movies) i can watch them in their original form and my daughters ( if theyre even interested ) can too. to hell with buying every latest version ,lucas made enough of my money. if the fans are so fed up, i suggest they do the same,while like you said, they are still available.And yeah i too am more a 'classic trek' follower than a star wars guy.
    I really only enjoy the empire and the original 77 movie, not much else ,maybe episode 3. but i love the original star trek ,mmovies 2 and 3 and at least the first 3 or 4 seasons of tng.-Mario

  2. The deponent has nothing more to say

  3. In my house, we consider this a religious difference: my husband has traditionally looked at Lucas much like the Pope (he can do what he likes), whereas I am a die-hard Anti-Special Edition crusader. With this latest go-round, though, he suggested that perhaps Lucas actually suffers from some form of OCD...

  4. Yes, yes, yes!! The NOOOO definitely disintegrated any feel from the scene, other than ridicule. I mean, seriously.

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  5. This?

  6. I think it is indisputable that Lucas has the *right* to make these changes.

    But equally indisputable is my right to heap derision on him for doing so.

  7. Why he can't do the same as Ridley Scott or Steven Spielberg and release all publicly released versions of movies in an all bells and whistles boxset is a mystery though.

    You can easily download a 720p "despecialized" version if you wanna give George the finger though.