A blog post I read recently made me think back to when I was growing up. The world was changing. Vietnam was done, and now we got our Asian war fix from the 4077th. Disco and prog rock gave way to hair bands and pop. And while we were moving from the hippie idealism of the ’70s to the cold capitalism of the ’80s, a young director came on the scene and changed the face of science fiction films. He had only made a couple movies before, but his new film, a tale of robots and rebellion and redemption, created a world so rich it would touch sci-fi movies for decades to come and attract a legion of devoted fans.
But then we come to find out that the movie he made didn’t live up to his expectations, and when time and technology allowed, he recrafted it, adding bits here and subtracting bits there, even changing one scene in such a way that it totally altered the nature of Harrison Ford’s character. And when the final product was revealed to the fans, they loved it even more than the original, and spent lots of money on the new release, and were thrilled that the director could at last have his vision realized.
“Wait a minute,” you say, “what on earth are you talking about? Everyone hated the special editions of Star Wars. George Lucas is a monster who took a giant dump on my childhood! HAN SHOT FIRST!” Well, that’s as may be, but what does that have to do with Ridley Scott and Blade Runner?
The original version of Riddles in the Dark, the chapter where Bilbo meets Gollum and gets the One Ring, was markedly different in 1937, when the book was first published. In that version Gollum is much less menacing, and the prize in the game of riddles isn’t Bilbo’s survival but rather the ring itself. In the original version of The Hobbit Gollum is quite happy to give away the ring, and when he loses the game he’s rather bummed that he can’t give it to Bilbo because he’s lost it (Bilbo has already found it).
Will ends up with the following question:
Separate, if you will, your feelings about the specific revisions that Lucas made from your feelings about an artist’s ability to continue working after a work has been released to the public. Then search your feelings. Is publication the entombment of a work, locking it for all time?
Will has done what most fans can’t seem to do, which is to split the raw question from the emotion we often bind up with it. Whether a creator can change his or her work after releasing it to the world can’t really depend on how we feel about the changes. Ridley Scott’s changes to Blade Runner in his Final Cut edition aren’t substantially different from what George Lucas did to Star Wars.* If we say Lucas shouldn’t have changed his film, why should we let Scott off the hook? Because we liked what he did?
But I liked some of the things in the Special Edition of Star Wars, too. The special effects were cleaned up (the little boxes around the TIE fighters always annoyed me), and they added back a joke I loved that had gone missing since the original theatrical release.** Is that enough for it to be okay to remix my childhood?
Here’s the thing: It doesn’t really matter what I think, or what anyone else thinks, for two reasons. One, it’s the artist’s work, not mine. I’m glad he decided to share it with us, but ultimately, it’s his to do what he wants with. If it doesn’t live up to what he sees in his head, and he has the technology now to make it closer to his vision, then why shouldn’t he be allowed to do that? If Diane Duane wants to update her Young Wizards series for a new generation so the characters and situations will be more relatable and relevant, why can’t she? If Tolkien’s vision of Middle Earth grew between writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, why not let him update it?
The second reason is the one that makes me really irritated when people say that so-and-so is ruining their childhood by having Han shoot in self-defense instead of cold blood***, or by changing the personality and motivations of all the major characters when they make movie versions of Lord of the Rings, or by making a new Indiana Jones movie that’s utterly terrible. I’m sorry, but no. No, your childhood is not ruined. Why? Because you can still watch Han shoot first. You can still find a noble Faramir by reading The Two Towers again. You can still pop in the Raiders DVD and relive all those childhood memories, because even if new versions exist, so do the old ones. We geeks seem to spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about the changes new versions of things make, as though they somehow cause the versions we love to disintegrate.
So if you don’t like J.J. Abrams’ take on Kirk & Co., you can still go back and watch the originals on NetFlix (or, heck, even on old-fangled TV maybe). If you think Elder Scrolls Online is a travesty that destroys the spirit of the original games, you can stick the Morrowind DVD in your Xbox, wander out of Seyda Neen, and get killed by a mudcrab. And if you long for the original version of Star Wars or Blade Runner, you can still watch it because it probably came with the super deluxe edition of the new release that you bought. Or if you’re like me, you still have the original on DVD. And LaserDisc. And VHS. (If you can find a VCR to play it in.)
* When I say Star Wars, I mean the original film, not the prequels. I think most of us share the same opinion of those, but as they’re new “art,” they don’t really relate to the question at hand.
** When I first watched Star Wars when I was 8, in the scene where Han and Chewie are running away from the Stormtroopers, you heard a voice say, “Close the blast doors!” Han and Chewie dive through the doors just as they iris shut, and another panicked voice says, “Open the blast doors! Open the blast doors!” I loved that so much, it stuck in my brain ever since, and I could never figure out if I had just dreamed it, because the “Close the blast doors!” line was never there when I watched it later on videotape or LaserDisc or DVD. But they found the audio clip and added it back into the Special Edition, so I can forgive the hackery done to the Greedo scene.
*** Regardless of who shot first, Han was acting in self defense. Greedo wasn’t going to let him leave the cantina alive, and Han knew it.