It's been a long time coming, but today we're finally getting the original Star Wars trilogy on DVD.
Star Wars fans—including many sci-fi geeks who lined up at stores last night for midnight release events for the 4-disc boxed set—have been looking forward to this day for a long time. At last, George Lucas digitally delivers his classic saga (1977's Star Wars, 1980's The Empire Strikes Back, and 1983's Return of the Jedi), right into our family rooms.
The Lord of the Rings aside, Star Wars was the movie trilogy to end all movie trilogies, the films that first married state-of-the-art special effects to the timeless battle between good and evil, all set against the backdrop of a galaxy at war. How much did these films impact our culture? Well, how many people do you know who haven't seen at least one of the movies?
Who can forget the destruction of the Death Star? Or the dazzling lightsaber duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, ending with arguably the greatest shocker in movie history ("No… I am your father")? Or that breathtaking scene where a diminutive Yoda frees a spacecraft from the mire with a mere wave of his hand, thus providing countless Sunday school teachers a perfect object lesson of faith moving mountains?
Thank you, George Lucas.
And yet many are tempted to say, "No, thank you" to Mr. Lucas. Why? Because these new DVDs aren't the films we remember so fondly.
Goodbye to the Originals
Those original three movies finally came—unaltered—to VHS in 1995, and Star Wars fans around the world were elated. Then, in 1997, to celebrate the first film's 20th anniversary, Lucas released extended versions of the original trilogy—also on VHS. The tapes came out with ballyhooed new special effects, expanded scenes and additional music. While the "improvements" received mixed reviews, they certainly didn't detract from the originals. And besides, those who preferred the original, unaltered versions could simply opt to skip the "improved" versions.
But that's not the case with today's DVD releases, which include only "improved" versions of the movies—further enhanced and changed from the 1997 alterations. When Lucas announced that the originals—the films on which so many fans grew up—would never again see the light of day, you could hear the outcry clear across the galaxy. Heated exchanges have followed the project ever since.
Fans, sensing a disturbance in the Force, started a petition at PetitionOnline.com, urging Lucas to release the originals on DVD "untouched and unaltered." More than 11,000 had signed the petition, but when their comments got too mean-spirited, the petition moved over to OriginalTrilogy.com, where comments are not allowed. The new petition, with more than 61,000 signatures and addressed to Lucas, reads in part:
While we appreciate your creative viewpoint on the evolution of the films, we respectfully submit that there is tremendous importance in the original theatrical prints of the Star Wars Trilogy. … Undeniably, these movies are also cultural placeholders for millions of film fans. The impact that the original Star Wars Trilogy made on countless numbers of children, young people, and grownups everywhere is indisputable. Preserving the unaltered theatrical release forms of these movies and making them available to your public is of utmost importance.
Other irate fans launched the Han Shoots First website, declaring that they're "genuinely pissed off that George Lucas refuses to release the theatrical versions Star Wars. While we enjoy many aspects of the Special Editions, we are irritated by Lucas' obstinate attitude on what the fans are asking to see."
Why the outcry? After all, the DVD changes consist almost entirely of additional shots and effects, with few subtractions, no plot changes, and only one or two lines of altered dialogue. But from a diehard fan's point of view—stated so well in the petition cited above—it's easy to understand the uproar.
It's also important to note that fans aren't telling Lucas where to stick his "improved" versions; they're fine with giving the man his creative freedom. But what fans don't understand is why, with the capacity and capabilities of DVDs, Lucas won't just deliver both versions—the originals and his updates. It would seem a no-brainer, and not doing so seems almost like a personal swipe. For Pete's sake, the SW faithful argue, why not?
Why not, indeed? There is an answer, but to get at it, we need to first look at things from Lucas's point of view. Understanding his perspective will help us recognize the complex ties between artist and vision—and those possessive "lines in the sand" we're all guilty of drawing. After all, as Obi-Wan noted, a great deal can depend upon those points of view.
Lucas not the only one
Lucas' stance seems straightforward enough—that any artist has the rights to his own creation, and the Star Wars universe is his. He gave the characters life; he dreamed up the Force and the Wookiees and the lightsabers, and took the time and risked big money to bring them into reality. So, as Lucas puts it, if he needs to discard early versions that failed to meet his original vision, then he will. It may cost him many fans—and it has. It may cost millions in unrealized sales. No matter: Lucas will remain true to the vision.
While it's easy to criticize Lucas for his stubbornness, it's worth noting that he's not alone in this peculiar and passionate devotion. J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers and, more recently, Mel Gibson shared many of the same views that Lucas espouses.
Let's start with Tolkien, author of that other timeless trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, and whose artistic vision, like Lucas's, also led to the eradication of a "previously released version."
In 1947, Tolkien rewrote Chapter Five of The Hobbit, the children's book that had served as an entry into Middle Earth and the Rings trilogy, because the riddle sequence between Bilbo and Gollum bore little resemblance to the same incident as described in his soon-to-be-published The Fellowship of the Ring. Sending the revision to his publisher, Tolkien suggested that all subsequent editions be "remodeled"—incorporating the story of Bilbo's acquisition of the One Ring into the larger work, and suffusing the gentler children's book with the grander, deeper tone that we've all come to venerate. The publishers agreed, and the previous version of the Riddle Game was soon unavailable to readers.
Lucas might well claim that his own actions are no different. But there are differences. Tolkien's as-yet unpublished trilogy would later depend upon the passage in question, and a change of some sort was necessary to avoid confusing readers. Such is not the case with the earlier versions of Star Wars. In addition, in 1947 there was no clamoring on the part of an informed fan base to make both variations of the Riddle Game available. If there had been, Tolkien would almost certainly have arranged for it. As proof we need look no further than his many later releases that showed the development of the story from its inception, through a myriad of different versions, to the final, familiar classic of today.
Dorothy Sayers might also have sided with Lucas. She once remarked (in Lord Peter Views the Body, 1928) that the one thing above all which "a genuine artist can't and won't muck about with" is his vision, and countless destroyed canvases and manuscripts throughout the ages back her up
Sayers elaborated even further in The Mind of the Maker, which includes profound insight into a stance such as Lucas's. With regard to a writer's—or director's—unapologetic (and uncompromising) commitment to his work, Sayers observes:
The creator's love for his work demands that he subdue himself to it … (and) the more genuinely creative he is, the more he will want that work to develop in accordance with its own nature. If by his integrity he incidentally alienates his audience and diminishes his cash returns, this is sure proof that he loves his creation. … (As a result), well-meaning admirers are frequently astonished by the ferocious rudeness with which the author salutes perceived assaults on his vision, which he very properly resents.
To illustrate this "ferocious" response she draws up a fictional, but demonstrative, exchange between herself and a fan who wants her to adjust one of her characters. The exchange, also from The Mind of the Maker, ends thus:
"No; you shall not impose either your will or mine upon my creation. It exists in its own right and not to please you. … [N]ow get to Gehenna out of this and write up your own confounded material. Leave mine alone."
We can hear echoes here of Lucas' own frustrated response to those who want to interfere with his creation—and with his meticulous cultivation of a vision that has directed (some might say dominated) his life for more than thirty years. We can understand his feelings, and if we've written and created ourselves, even identify with them. He and we come by those feelings naturally, because we are made in the image of Creator God, who is likewise jealous, not of but for his creation. We see God's own fierce devotion in the Incarnation and Crucifixion and Atonement, and his refusal to either bend it himself, or allow it to remain broken by others, in the mysterious interplay between free will and sovereignty.
Yet with Lucas, there is more at work than the devotion of the creator. His almost obsessive desire to control not only the final version of the trilogy but the viewing of any previous editions—and thus the viewing preferences of millions—speaks of something else.
In a more recent example, Mel Gibson—citing artistic vision—had planned to release The Passion of The Christ in the Aramaic and Greek spoken at the time … without subtitles. This generated a huge wave of protest, precipitated by a director remaining stubbornly true to his vision. (Sound familiar, Mr. Lucas?) Gibson didn't want to use subtitles, saying it would subtract from the film's authenticity. And, like Lucas, he justified his decision by claiming the divine right of the creator: "This is my vision, and that's the way it's going to be."
But again, the differences between Lucas and Gibson soon become apparent: Gibson listened to the masses, relented and used subtitles. His willingness to compromise was partly due to the recognition that the importance of communicating Christ's work outweighed any of Gibson's personal preferences. But it's also likely that Gibson wanted to please his fans, many of whom could not have understood the film otherwise. This loyalty helped to leaven and ultimately redeem his sensibilities as an artist.
Lucas, on the other hand, seemingly feels no such obligation to his public. The fact that he owes millions of fans for being able to redo the films—he would never have been able to do it without their money—seemingly doesn't even enter his mind.
Possessiveness and pride
Mixed in with Lucas's loyalty to the vision are strands of possessiveness and pride. Not content with safeguarding the final cultivation of his work, Lucas is taking back what has already been accepted and treasured. In so doing he also succumbs to an even blacker temptation. By refusing to allow earlier versions even to exist, he is attempting to bend the public's vision to his own. He will not be satisfied until their opinions agree with his, so that in the end—by persuasion or by force—only his judgment of what is right or wrong, necessary or extraneous, beautiful or dull remains.
Does this judgment of George Lucas's motivations seem too harsh? Let's hope that it is. But the darker side of the creative artist—this tendency toward coercing others to see as he sees and think as he thinks—is as real as the fallen world around us. Left unchecked, it can soon strip from any craftsman the ability to empathize with his audience. The gracious surrender of the floor when competing sensitivities arise, the civility and fellowship with other artists whose opinions may differ, can also fall away—all surrendered to the vision, which by then has lost that independence from the author which he so cherished, and become not the vision, but his vision.
Indeed, the sin of pride is common to us all, and it can easily become intertwined with our own artistic vision—and opinions. If we can admire and identify with Lucas's loyalty to his vision, we should also take warning when we see how easily sin can corrupt it.
Which brings us back to today's DVD release.
We can certainly praise Lucas' vision of good overcoming evil, and the brilliant canvas upon which he painted it. We can be thankful his films have awakened many to the reality of that battle, and the place that courage, daring, faith and love have in it. And yet, we can also hope that Lucas will see the light and that the unaltered originals, so passionately remembered by many, one day find their way to DVD.
Frank Smith is a writer who lives with his wife and two children in Charlottesville, Virginia. He also wrote the commentary, "Why We Love Comic Book Movies."
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 09/30/04
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) celebrates the arrival of the original Star Wars trilogy (well, at least some of what you're seeing is "original) on DVD, examining the way George Lucas's saga serves as "the quintessential American mythology."
Matt Wiggins (Relevant) writes, "Whatever problems one might have with the alterations are heavily outweighed by the quality of the DVDs and the extra features. Outside of theaters, the films have never looked or sounded better. The extra features are a huge asset to the set and significantly increase its value. In the final assessment, The Star Wars Trilogy DVDs are definitely worth purchasing and will entertain and enlighten fans both old and new."
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