Tuned In

The Blu-Ray Menace; or, Who Really Owns Star Wars?

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Vader, in a legendary Internet meme, pretty much sums up fan reaction.

You may recently have noticed a disturbance in the Force, as if billions of voices suddenly got royally pissed off and cried out in Internet discussion threads. The impetus: a report, later confirmed by the New York Times’ Dave Itzkoff among others, that George Lucas is once again fiddling with the original Star Wars trilogy in a version soon coming out on DVD Blu-Ray.

The most egregious and lamented of the purported changes: when Darth Vader throws Emperor Palpatine to his death in Return of the Jedi, he now cries a superfluous (and silly-sounding) “Noooo!” (A shout that, intentionally or not, echoes Vader’s lamentation at the end of Revenge of the Sith, famously mistranslated in a bootleg as “Do not want!,” above.)

It would be pretty easy to say that, like many of Lucas’ previous tinkerings, this is at best needless and at worst stupid. (Also, as Jaime Weinman notes, that the controversy will probably only profit Lucas.) Whether you liked the original climax of Jedi or not, I think it’s fair to say that it didn’t really need dialogue to clarify that Vader is, in fact, reacting negatively to the Emperor’s decision to kill his son, Luke. Throwing someone to his death seems to get the point across.

More interesting to me is a question that increasingly comes up in debates between creators of already-established works and their fans: who does the work belong to—in a moral, not legal sense—anyway?

I would never argue that fans of a movie, novel or TV show have no right to criticize its creator. But not all criticisms are the same. It’s perfectly legitimate, I’d say, to argue that Lucas made a dumb choice, say, in banishing the original Ewok song from the end of Return of the Jedi. But arguments like this often go beyond arguing that a creator has made a bad choice to arguing that he is, essentially, betraying the fans: that he is violating something that he no longer has a claim on, or that his fans have a truer and purer idea of what his work is than he does himself.

I remember this kind of argument coming up in the heated debate over the ending of The Sopranos—and really, throughout the series’ later years: not just that David Chase made bad choices or had written a bad ending (one that I loved, by the way), but that he fundamentally did not understand the show that he himself created. I could never buy into that idea. It may be that the version of The Sopranos David Chase had in his head is not the one you wanted, but in the end, he’s the guy who gets to decide what The Sopranos is. It may just be that that show turns out to be a worse one than you hoped. (Here replace The Sopranos with Lost, or Battlestar Galactica, or Seinfeld, or… you get the point.)If you don’t like the direction George R. R. Martin is taking A Song of Ice and Fire, does it mean that he’s lost his way, or just that he never wanted to take you the way you wanted to go?

That’s my gut feeling about Star Wars too. On one level, I’m as much a purist as anyone. I think the original trilogy is far superior to the prequel and that Lucas’ embellishments to the franchise have mostly been for the worse (though the Clone Wars series has grown on me). But that’s my problem. Maybe it turns out that Star Wars is in fact simply not as as good as I wish it were.

It’s true that, once a work is already in existence, things get more complicated. It didn’t take CGI to allow creators to make changes or for audiences and scholars to fight over which versions are canonical. Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, exist in many versions, and anyone has the right to decide that an earlier version is better than the later. And if we’re talking about respecting the wishes of the creator, Franz Kafka’s wish was for his works to be burned on his death and never published. Much as I respect the intent of the author, that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop myself from reading them.

Movies may be a more collective art form than books—the collaboration of writers, directors, producers, actors and so on. There’s a point, though, where the voice of the fan community stops and a creator’s work begins. Tweaking Jedi’s climax may be a bad idea—OK, it is a bad idea—but just because a work is experienced communally doesn’t mean it can be created by committee. Star Wars is George Lucas’, for good and bad. But at least I’ll always have the Yub Nub song in my memory: