The Star Wars Special Editions 20 years on: should artists change their art?

In 1997, two events happened that would profoundly inform my later life. Firstly, I was born. This event would come to shape me as a person to a great extent. Secondly, the Star Wars Special Editions were released. This proved to be no less important.

The Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition was an anniversary edition of the original trilogy, in order to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of Star Wars. With the aim of renewing the films in the minds of older and younger audiences in anticipation of the approaching release of a prequel trilogy, director George Lucas embarked on a project of extensive restoration work on his original films. This included adding enhanced special effects that were not previously possible, as well as new scenes and controversial (if incredibly minor) edits, including the infamous ‘Han shot first’ incident. The release laid the way for a 2004 DVD release and a 2011 Blu Ray collection, both of which made further changes to the original films.

These Special Editions were not the first time changes had retrospectively been added to a film. In 1974, The Wild Bunch was released with 10 additional minutes of footage. James Cameron’s director’s cut of Aliens (1986) adds nearly 20 minutes to the theatrical cut. Lucas’ Special Editions, however, were unique in both the extent to which they changed the original material and the extreme hatred these changes provoked among fans.

The Star Wars franchise has always inspired a large and passionate following. When the Special Editions were released, fans were outraged that their beloved films had been tinkered with. The scorn directed towards later versions of the Star Wars trilogy were accentuated by Lucas’s claims that the most recent version is the only one people should see – there has not yet been a DVD, Blu Ray or Digital release of the original theatrical cuts. As such, there have been various attempts for fans to ‘de-specialise’ Star Wars.

The fan’s concerns are not unfounded – changes in the various editions range from the annoying (the added song ‘Jedi Rocks’, to the ugly (GCI Jabba the Hutt and a giant lizard thing walking slowly across the screen) to the downright unnecessary (Ewoks with blinking CGI eyelids).

Most of the hatred is directed at the director, George Lucas. Why would Lucas feel the need to change what were, in the eyes of millions of fans, perfect in their original form? Would Shakespeare rewrite his plays? Would da Vinci make changes to the ‘Mona Lisa’?

Well, yes. Leonardo da Vinci begun painting the ‘Mona Lisa’ in 1503 or 1504, but reworked it at various stages, probably continuing to refine the work until 1516 or 1517. Da Vinci, like many great artists, was reputably a bit of a perfectionist who could never leave his work alone. Likewise, Shakespeare rewrote, enlarged and amended most of his plays over the course of his life.

The act of changing a work of art after it has been revealed to the world is hardly an uncommon occurrence. Of course, in the film industry directors often cannot afford the same degree of revision due to a combination of time constraints and studio pressures. But returning to a film after its release has become increasingly common practice, especially since the release of the Star Wars Special Editions.

Being born when I was, I grew up watching the Special Editions of the Star Wars films. The films were some of the favourite of my childhood, but even when I was young I found the CGI additions deeply irritating. Suspecting that I would never get to see the films in their original form, I learnt to embrace the Special Editions for all their annoyingness. Recently, however, I stumbled upon a 1985 copy of Star Wars on VHS. Aside from a new stereo sound mix, this was visually the closest I would get to seeing the original film. I found my old video player and gleefully pressed play. Two hours later, I had to confront a sad truth.

The original Star Wars just doesn’t stand up technically in the HD world we now live in. I don’t just mean in terms of picture quality – some of the original’s special effects seem positively flat compared to later editions of the film. Sacrilegious as they are, the Special Editions go to some lengths to enhance the world of Star Wars for the better.

The financial success of the Star Wars Special Editions paved the way for similar ventures. The 20th anniversary of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial saw updated CGI work on the beloved titular alien, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner now exists in no less than seven distinct versions, which include updated effects and cuts that drastically alter the film. While the modernised E.T. has since been renounced by its director Steven Spielberg, the director’s and final cuts of Blade Runner essentially saved the film, a critical flop on release, from disappearing into obscurity – it is now established as a great of the sci-fi genre.

It may be the case that Star Wars, despite what the fans think (or think they think), needs to adapt to survive. We shouldn’t see the Special Editions as wholly evil, but as a work in progress. My hope is that Lucas and his team will keep tweaking, responding to what their audience likes and dislikes, until a version of Star Wars is produced that retains the magic of the original while also adapting to modern technology and tastes. No one liked the 1997 version’s ugly CGI Jabba the Hutt, but the 2011 Blu Ray version was much improved. If enough people are willing to dedicate their time to it, we can hope for a future in which Star Wars contains a Jabba the Hutt that does justice to the original films.

Da Vinci claimed that art is never finished, only abandoned. We may not like to admit it, but it seems that George Lucas subscribes to the same philosophy.

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