Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Nerdrage: When Changes Become Blasphemy

The original Star Wars trilogy changed the way I saw genre adventures forever. A combination of saturday matinee adventure, galaxy-spanning escapism, with a healthy does of classic hero mythology, Star Wars spawned a Golden Age of a whole new wave of genre storytelling. The films changed everything.

However, those of us who saw the original films in the theater starting in 1977 remember those stories and those iconic images in a certain way. In 1997, George Lucas sparked controversy when his 20th Anniversary Special Edition verions of the films were released.
After ILM used computer generated effects for Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park, Lucas concluded that digital technology had caught up to his original vision for Star Wars.[5] For the film's 20th Anniversary in 1997, A New Hope was digitally remastered and re-released to movie theaters, along with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, under the campaign title The Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition. The Special Edition versions contained visual shots and scenes that were unachievable in the original release due to financial, technological, and time restraints; one such scene involved a meeting between Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt.[5] The process of creating the new visual effects for A New Hope was featured in the Academy Award-nominated IMAX documentary film, Special Effects: Anything Can Happen, directed by veteran Star Wars sound designer, Ben Burtt. Although most changes were minor or cosmetic in nature, some fans believe that Lucas degraded the movie with the additions.[58] For instance, a particularly controversial change in which a bounty hunter named Greedo shoots first when confronting Han Solo has inspired T-shirts brandishing the phrase "Han Shot First".[59]
He changed even more things for the DVD release in 2004. This last week, news broke that George Lucas isn't done changing Star Wars. We learned that even more things have been changed for the upcoming Blu-Ray releases.
"...several dozen or even hundred tiny tweaks have been made that will actually enhance your Original Trilogy viewing experience. These are mostly audio/video fixes, such as extensive color correction, removing matte lines, fixing problematic audio issues, and that sort of thing. The nitpickers will find these changes most welcome, because it looks like every last glitch has been meticulously and carefully addressed. They’ve even fixed whatever few technical issues the Prequel Trilogy had.


If Lucas had stopped there, I think we’d all be pretty happy. But of course he did not."
While many or even most of the changes are small and welcome, and at least one is large and welcome (switching the puppet Yoda for a new CGI Yoda in Episode I, The Phantom Menace, to be more like the CGI Yoda in Episodes 2 and 3), at least one change is receiving nearly universal outrage.
 "The climactic scene of Return of the Jedi — and in fact, the entire saga, since the whole shebang is Anakin Skywalker’s story — comes when the Emperor is electrocuting Luke Skywalker, while Vader looks on. Inside, he’s feeling horribly conflicted, because he wants to obey his master, but his son is dying. Finally, at the last moment, he grabs Palpatine and throws him to his death, absorbing all of that Force lightning and saving the life of his son. In the Blu-ray version of Jedi, Vader croaks out a moaned “No…” while watching his son suffer, and then belts out a big “NOOOOOOOOO!!!” as he intervenes."



Fans are delighted with the clarity of the new Blu-Ray version, and rightfully so. But they are also furious at the continued twiddling of an iconic series.
"Lucas' constant tinkering has become a turnoff, and even the most loyal Star Wars fans can't take it anymore. After the director confirmed to the New York Times that "Nooooooo!" has been added to one of the most pivotal moments in the entire series—it was the straw that broke the camel's back. There have been rumors of boycotts, petitions and plenty of confirmed web outrage."

I have no issue with fixing technical glitches, however, I have a huge problem when major changes are made to a work well after release. One fan summed this up for me: "What if Picasso saw fit to go back and retouch paintings he had done earlier in his career? They'd be worthless now."

That's not to say that one can't cleverly handle changes to a work after publication. Engineering problems in the first Ringworld novel by Larry Niven led to a fascinating sequence of events.

"In the introduction of the novel, Niven says that he never planned to write more than one Ringworld novel; however, he did so in a large part due to fan support. Firstly, the popularity of Ringworld resulted in a demand for a sequel. Secondly, many fans had identified numerous engineering problems in the Ringworld as described in the novel. A major problem being that the Ringworld, being a rigid structure, was not actually in orbit around the star it encircled and would eventually drift, resulting in the entire structure colliding with its sun and disintegrating. In the novel's introduction, Niven says that MIT students attending the 1971 World Science Fiction Convention chanted, "The Ringworld is unstable! The Ringworld is unstable!" Niven says that one reason he wrote The Ringworld Engineers was to address these engineering problems."
You'll note that Niven didn't retcon this major plot point in the original novel, he worked the problem into a Hugo and Nebula nominated second novel.

In Star Wars (before it became Episode IV), smuggler Han Solo fired before the bounty hunter Greedo. It told us something about his character, it demonstrated that this was a smart, dangerous man, and it made his eventual redemption all the more powerful because we saw what he was capable of. Han Shot First became a rallying cry for people outraged that this critical plot point was changed in later versions of the film.


If you're a genre author, the lesson is simple—the time to make major changes is in the planning stages of a genre work. Once the project is released, the work belongs as much to the fans as to the creator. It does them a disservice to make major changes to works the fans have already embraced.
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