Penny Arcade, in a recent cartoon nails why I despise George Lucas–the man cannot leave well enough alone.
I’ve seen in stores the past week a Star Wars DVD box set. Ten years ago, had DVDs existed then and had I a DVD player then, I would have bought the set instantly and with great enthusiasm. But these Star Wars DVDs aren’t Star Wars as I remember it, as I have it on old VHS tapes. No, Star Wars has become a giant tech demo, with Greedo shooting first, pointless special effects added, and Hayden Christensen instead of Sebastian Shaw at the end of the saga. I can’t say I’m tempted by these DVDs, because I’m not. I don’t feel excitement anymore, just a profound sadness that a cherished memory of my childhood has been ruined by George Lucas’ pointless tinkering.
I can understand some degree of tinkering. Tolkien corrected typos on The Lord of the Rings right up until his death–many of those typos had been introduced in the first edition by an over-zealous copy-editor who thought he knew better how to spell Tolkien’s invented words. Scribner’s a few years ago released a corrected edition of The Great Gatsby, again to fix typographical errors, many due to Scott Fitzgerald’s rewrite of the novel in its galleys. Mistakes happen, and correcting an obvious mistake I have no trouble accepting. There comes a point, however, when tinkering goes over the top. Putnam published an expanded Stranger in a Strange Land and it was a bloated whale that served Robert Heinlein’s literary reputation not at all.
At some point, an artist needs to let his work go. Generally, that point should be before the work reaches the public, because then it’s no longer just the artist’s work–there will be someone else, a fan perhaps, who has an investment in the work as well because it said something, it meant something.
Sometimes movies aren’t finished when they reach the theaters. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a case in point, and Robert Wise has worked on that film, first in the extended ABC broadcast version and later in the DVD director’s cut, over the past twenty years and he made no secret of the film’s unfinished state. But it wasn’t until the mid-90s, when Star Wars was twenty years old that Lucas began to say that the film was unfinished, that it didn’t accurately reflect his vision. Cleaning up matte lines I can understand. State of the art in special effects is light-years away from what was possible twenty-five or thirty years ago. But shooting new scenes? Changing old scenes so that what happened originally doesn’t happen now? The end result might as well be a new film because that’s what it is–new.
George Lucas, quite simply, hasn’t been able to let go of Star Wars and its sequels. And I don’t understand why. I wouldn’t have minded a presentation akin to the Alien Quadrilogy, where the original versions of the four films exist side-by-side with director’s cuts and expanded workprints. There the best of both worlds can be had. By denying the existence of the original Star Wars films, by calling them essentially workprints, Lucas runs the risk of alienating fans, much like myself, who loved the films because they were raw, because they were cheesy.
Calling Lucas a hack seems harsh, because the man has had great success in many fields. But it feels as though he can’t let go of that one success from twenty-five years ago. He made his reputation, but with his constant tinkering with Star Wars he’s jeopardizing that reputation. He’s gone from artist to hack in the span of a decade. Sad.