Star Wars “purists” who’ve for a long time been waiting for Lucasfilm to re-release the original, unaltered versions of the first Star Wars Trilogy may soon get their wish; at least according to Comicbook.com, which cites two independent sources suggesting Disney/Lucasfilm is planning such a release for the near future.
Whether this rumoured re-release of the Original Trilogy in unaltered form will go ahead or not, it does reignite the old debate among fans as to whether the original untouched versions or the revised special-edition versions are the superior statements; and moreover the debate as to which versions should be considered the ‘definitive’ versions of the Original Star Wars Trilogy. Check out the Burning Blogger’s 10 Great Original Trilogy Revisions here.
It doesn’t bother me either way, as I still have all of my original VHS releases of the Original (Unaltered) Trilogy; as well as the Special Edition VHS releases, and the Revised Revised DVD additions from 2004. However, I don’t have the Revised Revised Revised editions or the ‘definitive’ Blu-Ray set or whatever else has subsequently been put out, because, frankly, I don’t care anymore; as much as I love and cherish Star Wars, there’s only so much re-imagining of the same three films one can stomach.
Despite having began my love affair with George Lucas’s great space opera at the age of about six in the mid-eighties (and therefore having distinct and fond memories of the films in their original form), even I have trouble resolving this debate to my own satisfaction; I can’t decide which versions of the films I prefer.
It always surprises me how clear-cut the question is for a lot of other Star Wars fans who are able to declare unambiguously that their loyalty is to the untampered-with original versions. I don’t think it’s that simple; there are clearly elements of the special editions that genuinely are “improvements” on the originals, even if the original 1977, 1980 and 1983 movies have a nostalgia value that can’t be matched.
Of course that nostalgia value is substantial; I vividly remember watching the films on TV or VHS as a kid and being absorbed into those worlds and settings (from the breathtaking vistas of Cloud City to the moody swamps of Dagobah and the gritty hustle and bustle of Mos Eisley) and not at all thinking that there was anything missing or lacking or anything that needed improvement.
And there’s nothing wrong with old films aging gracefully and gaining further value, warts and all, with age; Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, for example, is still wholly watchable even if it looks dated. No one considers that film, or something like Raiders of the Lost Ark, to be anything other than classic. One imagines the original Star Wars films would be regarded just as highly now – probably even more so – in their old, untampered forms, even if there hadn’t been the re-releases and altered versions (and of course some would argue even more so if there hadn’t been the alterations and re-releases).
However, artistic license belongs to the creator in this instance, and George Lucas always said he wasn’t happy with the trilogy and wanted to be able to improve it. I don’t agree with the popular view that Lucas somehow doesn’t have the right to tamper with his own work or that those films somehow belong to ‘us’ more than to him. Granted, I’m speaking as a writer when I take that view, but I’ve never overly sympathised with the ‘South Park position’ that Lucas’s revisions are somehow a crime against his own creation or against ‘the fans’.
“There will only be one [version of the films]. And it won’t be what I would call the “rough cut”, it’ll be the “final cut”. The other one will be some sort of interesting artifact that people will look at and say, “There was an earlier draft of this.”
— George Lucas, speaking about the Special Edition re-releases in 1997.
So have all the alterations resulted in an improved product? The answer is both yes and no; it’s entirely dependent on the specific scene and the specific alteration in question.
As far as the 1997 re-releases are concerned, a lot of these improvements were in relatively minor areas. For example; the digital matte painting of the sandcrawler and extended sky that was added when the Jawas are setting up shop in front of the Lars moisture-farm. On paper you wouldn’t think an aesthetic tinkering like this would make much difference to the quality of the scene, but on screen it does (artificial zooming-in is also present in the revised edition). Other little sweeteners like the 1997 establishing shot of Ben Kenobi’s hut likewise add a good additional layer to a world we’d already thought we knew so well.
These things when done right make a big difference; it in fact tends to be the subtler changes that work best and usually not the more overt ones. Examples of the latter would include Jabba the Hutt’s insertion into A New Hope, which doesn’t work for me at all, seeming forced and unnatural.
Then there are the changes that aren’t necessarily better or worse, just generally more elaborate. The special-edition Jabba’s Palace Band musical number “Jedi Rocks” replaced “Lapti Nek”, with the classic puppet of Sy Snootles replaced with a new CGI version. Additional characters were added to the Max Rebo Band and the 1997 sequence is generally more elaborate. This is an example of a revised sequence that didn’t really matter one way or the other; I could take either version. I do probably think there’s something more pleasing, more novel, about the original version with Sy Snootles as a proper old-fashioned puppet, but that’s not to say which is the more effective way of doing things from a filmmaking perspective.
The debate gets even trickier when we go beyond the 1997 special editions and into the further alterations; the numerous subsequent changes that have been made to the films even beyond the 1997 Special Edition cinema releases, these being for the 2004 DVD releases, the 2011 Blu-Ray collection and anything else I might’ve missed out. The 2004 DVD box-set was released with new changes to establish a ‘better connection between the old and new trilogies’.
It’s by this point that even I start to get ambivalent about the tampering; some of the key changes made for the 2004 DVD releases in particular were effective and probably even necessary, but there is certainly the sense that at a certain point this excessive tampering begins to degrade the integrity of the films.
Even in terms of the later ‘corrections’, however, it’s still a mixed bag, some of it good, some of it questionable; in the revised revised ROTJ, for example, I entirely approve of Hayden Christensenn’s ghost appearing as part of the Holy Trinity, which I find poignant, but I’m uncomfortable with the CGI restructuring of older Anakin’s face in the all-important de-masking scene. This latter change was made apparently to create more of a resemblance between original ROTJ actor Sebastian Shaw and Hayden Christenssen’s prequel Anakin; but it just looks weird and is a little uncomfortable to look at.
Clearly there’s an issue of needing balance with all this; with some alterations being quite effective and others actually detracting from the quality of the films. I suppose we have to take the good with the bad, but the real issue now is that the amount of alteration to the Original Trilogy has been excessive and a line has to be drawn under it; many would say, of course, that the line should’ve been drawn some time ago. With the recent change in management, so to speak, I doubt any further alterations can or will be made now anyway to the first three Star Wars films.
As for the central question of this post – which version of the trilogy is the ‘definitive’ version? – I’m not sure it can be answered. It’s an entirely subjective matter that will be answered differently from fan to fan.
Arguably the only definitive answerer for that question is George Lucas himself; and Uncle George’s comments strongly indicate he doesn’t consider the original, unaltered versions as the definitive statement. Having said that, he made that comment at the time of the 1997 re-release and not in 2002 or 2011; so make of that what you will too.
But one suspects Uncle George’s position would be that the definitive version of the Star Wars Original Trilogy would be whatever the last edit is/was; in which case that would be the version that appears on the 2011 Blu-Ray. However, given that many, many people won’t even have seen the Blu-Ray versions, the only suitable conclusion we can make is that there is no longer a definitive version of the first three Star Wars films. It has now become an entirely subjective question…