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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  1. Puppet Yoda was awesome, and I will always find him more real and appealing and even... human? --or maybe 'warm' is the word I'm looking for -- as I was saying, I will always treasure my memory of puppet Yoda, rather than that dead-eyed CGI thing that looks like Yoda. So we can't agree there, I'm afraid.

    This new, rather sad NOOOOOOOO from the bleakest pits of Darth Vader's soul is, well, just sad. Lucas has proven, time and again, that he doesn't respect his own work.

  2. As a long time Star Wars fan, I welcome the 97 Special Addition. But that is where I stop. The whole NOOOOOOO is way over the top. I would have hated that scene even if it was in the original. Looks like if I ever get a Blu Ray player I won't be buying Star Wars. Way-to-go Lucas.

  3. Every single one of us dreams of inspiring the same level of fanatic loyalty as Lucas was able to inspire with his original trilogy. Should we ever be so lucky as to achieve that, we'd do well to remember that once our work is released into the hands of said fanatics, it belongs to them as much as, if not more so, than it does us. Authors who don't respect their fans are in trouble from the get-go.

  4. "Nooooooo!" eh? I guess they're going for backwards consistency. In the third new movie, when Darth wakes up in his Darth-suit and hears the news that his lady love is dead, he belts out a similar "Nooooo," which cracked me up when I first heard it, because it reminded me of a Devil May Cry gem of voice acting: the Infamous Light Scene. This association is problematic if a scene is meant to be at all serious.

    I really enjoyed the original movies, without the inconsistent CGI tweaks of the dvd release. I never expected that in hindsight Lucas would decide that these movies needed more melodrama...

  5. Neither Han Solo nor Greedo shot first. Lee Van Cleef did.

    When Han Solo killed Greedo, it wasn't the first time on screen this scene had been enacted. Many viewers of the original theatrical release of "Star Wars" had seen the spaghetti western "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" that had been released years before and had been shown on television.

    The western opens with three establishing scenes introducing the characters of Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood. These scenes define Mr. Wallach as ugly, Mr. Eastwood as good, and Mr. Van Cleef as bad. Lee Van Cleef establishes that he is bad by shooting a man through his dinner table.

    George Lucas stole this scene from Sergio Leone to establish Han Solo as a ruthless operator. It worked with the story at the time. However, it doesn't work with the mythos of Han Solo as a "good guy." And thus Mr. Lucas' felt moved to vandalize this scene.

  6. I have to say that it cracks me up that people get this hyped up about a movie (or a story, or a play.) It's just a movie, people! Give it a rest!

    I think that if good ol' George wants to change it, let him. It's his story, after all. And who's to say that Picaso DIDN'T go back and add to or change some of his paintings? When do we say that a painting is finished? When the artist walks away from it the first time? Or the 20th? Say a painting sells and makes the rounds through several fans, but eventually returns to the artist. Would it be wrong for them to fix something they've grown in and now can see is a weakness in the piece? I don't think so, at all.

    The same goes for story, IMO. If you have a chance to re-release a story, and you don't take the time to make it better (even if others disagree with what you think makes it better) isn't that your loss as an artist?

  7. Lynette,
    Define 'better.' ;)

  8. All this reminds me of why a fuss is kicked up when people suggest making sequels to other films, like "Gone with the Wind." They're also talking about remaking "Dirty Dancing," and the groupies are furious. The message is clear: ya don't mess with perfection.

  9. Good article, John. However, I disagree with the Picasso analogy. If Picasso had gone in to a gallery to change one of his paintings, that original would be altered forever. However, the original Star Wars videos still exist. Just a few months ago, I got the original 1977 Star Wars from Netflix and showed it to my kids.