Revisionist Filmmaking: ‘Star Wars’ and the Obsession with Perfection
I’d been mulling over this logic for the past few weeks. With the debate still raging about George Lucas’ multitude of alterations to his epic original trilogy of Star Wars films, I thought perhaps I should put my opinions down on paper. Well, on screen, at least.
In 1997, Lucas did what I’m sure most filmmakers would love the opportunity to do. Go back to films they had made in the past and make them “better”. Improve some shots, fix some mistakes, put in something they’d reluctantly left out. It is the destiny of all storytellers that a work is never really finished. I don’t think I’ve read a story of mine or watched a film years later and not kicked myself for one reason or another.
It’s the nature of creating something. Sure, there are those times where a craftsman can step away and feel satisfied by his endeavor. But, that doesn’t always happen. I would go so far to say it is rare. In fact, I would say right now that I’ll probably look back at this commentary and feel that I could have said it better.
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The problem that arises is when craftsman cannot step away from their work and put the pen down. Release the paint brush and decide that it is time to let go of the painting. To accept the work for what it is and let it go. When I was younger, I had this problem. I couldn’t let anything go. I would tinker with stories for days at a time, constantly obsessing over every word, comma and vowel.
But it was my mother that helped me understand that I had to learn to let it go. It wasn’t some kind of sitcom-like lecture or anything, she simply remarked on it one day after catching me obsess over a story. She warned me that if I didn’t learn to finish something, then I could find myself trapped in it for so long that I’ll either never complete it; or I may revise and revise for so long the story will end up losing focus and become a shadow of it former self. The original intent of the tale will become watered down and lost as my opinions and feelings change and grow.
I think the reason artists get stuck inside a story is because a lack of confidence. Then, the longer they sit with a story, the more they think about it. The problem is, the more a person writes or works, the more they grow and their perceptions change. When you look back on a story point or a film years later, you are seeing who you were at the moment you created it. Your skill at that time, your perception, your opinions. A story captures an element of the writer, and that element often differs from the man or woman you are later.
The prime example of revisionist filmmaking gone arie is Steven Spielberg, and his classic, E.T. This fantastic science fiction tale is a touching, heartfelt movie that moved millions. I can remember as a small boy crying as the pale and sickly E.T. lay dying by the stream.
Spielberg seemed to feel the need to “alter” this movie and play with the special effects. Not only that, he removed some dialogue and replaced guns with walkie-talkies. These changes were completely unnecessary. What would cause a man to feel the need to water down a movie that was already filled with innocence and joy?
The problem wasn’t the movie. The problem was Spielberg was no longer the young man he had been when he first made E.T. He was now a father. A man who had grown and changed and become a different person than the one he had been when he first made that soft-hearted tale of a boy and his alien. His perception was different, undoubtedly altered by his experience of having children. In fact, Spielberg once commented that he would not have let Richard Dreyfus get on the alien ship at the end of Close Encounters had he made the movie now. He couldn’t have let him leave his wife and children behind.
However, I don’t think all revisionist filmmaking is bad. I’ll site my own experience in this field. When in film school, I had directed a short which I was very happy with. Except for one thing.
In my haste, I had apparently forgotten to get a shot. Nothing terribly important, a simple cut-to that I felt was a necessary shot but one few people would realize was missing. Every time I watched the movie, I was disappointed in how that one element was simply not there. Some years later, I was given the opportunity to go back and fix that mistake. And I recently did. The shot was seamlessly inserted into the finished product, and now I can watch the film with much more satisfaction.
This minor adjustment was accompanied by a retooling of the film’s credits at the beginning and end. This was done largely because the original credits had been damaged slightly. And while I did take the opportunity to add some more life to the rather static credits, I did not alter the meaning of the film or change the story in any way. What you see now is not terribly different than what you would have seen had you been sitting in the theater watching the original premiere.
I was initially reluctant about making these adjustments, as I do not really like the idea of altering films after the fact. But, I felt that what I was doing was more about fixing mistakes than changing the heart of the story.
Lucas’ adjustments to his original Star Wars films jump the line between these two examples of revisionist filmmaking. While to a degree, many of his alterations are similar to the “corrections” I did to my own short film; some are also similar to Spielberg’s retooling with E.T., which change the feeling of the film by altering its tone.
In Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope, Lucas fixes a moment during the climactic dogfight where an X-wing fighter passes through an exploding Tie fighter. A minor adjustment, one designed to correct an effect that didn’t quite look right. However, he also did the one change that had fans in an uproar to this day: he made Greedo shoot first.
This infamous adjustment had nothing to do with fixing a mistake, or correcting a poor special effect. This change was a direct alteration of a character. Han Solo was a rouge, a smuggler who excelled at the practice of illegal activities. He dealt with bad people on a daily basis, and according the original version of the film, he did what was necessary in order to protect himself. No one faulted him for killing Greedo. The bounty hunter had threatened Han, and even went so far as to indicate he was going to kill him. Han wasn’t less of a hero because he preemptively took action when a clear and present danger had shown itself. However, Lucas altered the scene in order to water down the event and make him less of a killer. His act is now one of clear self defense.
Although Lucas claims that this had always been his intention, it plays more as a change by a man who — like Spielberg — has a perception that was altered by fatherhood. That he sought to remove the edge that existed in the films in order to promote the more kid friendly nature that is prevalent is several of the other Star Wars films, such as Return of the Jedi’s Ewoks, and The Phantom Menace’s Jar Jar Binks.
To a degree, I think some of the adjustments he made to the Original Trilogy were understandable. With the prequels, the original films would look rather out of date when seen in order. It was only natural to make them blend together more, which would mean updating and adjusting the effects of the original films.
But Lucas fell victim to his own altered perception by making further adjustments to the story. And he not only did it in 1997, but again with the recent DVD release. And the Star Wars movies are not the only victims of his inability to let a movie be what it is. He did the same thing to American Graffiti, and most recently to THX-1138. Lucas has basically made changes to every film he’s ever directed.
I may not agree with several of the changes Lucas has made to his films, but I will defend his right to make them. They are, after all, his films and his stories. He can do what he wishes. And while he actively defends his right to make his changes, it plays more like a person who did have a mother there to tell him that he needs to learn to let the movies go. Accept them for what they are, for better or worse, and move on.
What concerns me about revisionist filmmaking is not about correcting mistakes. I’m guilty of that, and believe that in certain instances it is justifiable. What worries me is that when a director’s perception changes, or even society’s, resulting in people making changes to fit changing times. Like Spielberg’s attempt to make E.T. more politically correct by removing a harmless “terrorist” reference, what will stop people from adjusting other films to remove language, characters or story points that people may find offensive today.