As devotees of the Star Wars saga work themselves into a lather over the reported changes in this week's Blu-Ray release, it's time once again to ask the question: Why aren't we more bothered by movie re-tweaking of all kinds? ---
The subject has been in the news ever since word broke that George Lucas had tinkered yet again with the original Star Wars trilogy for his Blu-Ray edition -- including digital blinking added to the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, and Darth Vader screaming "Nooooooo!" as he hurls the Emperor into the abyss in the same film -- and fans have been swinging between outrage and depression. It was only the latest chapter in a saga that began when the 1997 "Special Editions" of the films released to theaters included a host of changes, ranging from the superficial to the hotly controversial (specifically, the "Greedo shoots first" edit in A New Hope). The trilogy has become the cinematic equivalent of a woman who can't stop having plastic surgery, to the point where she's no longer recognizably human.
Lucas' tinkering may be the most infamous case, but it's hardly the only one that has gotten fans of a beloved movie worked into a lather. Steven Spielberg altered E.T. so that the ominous figures searching through the woods no longer carried guns, and added a digital E.T. to scenes that didn't look quite right with the real-world puppet when it was filmed in 1981. "Lost" footage has been added to theatrical re-releases and DVD editions of films like Alien and Blade Runner; and television broadcasts of Brazil featured a much-derided "Love Conquers All" ending. Often, these changes have been defended as a restoration of a filmmaker's original vision after studio tinkering. And sometimes, they're clearly just cynical attempts to squeeze extra dollars out of fans.
So why is it that only genre nerds seem to care about multiple versions of a movie? We seem to accept that movies are different from a novel or a play, that we're fine with the censored dialogue on broadcast television or airplane versions of movies, or "unrated" versions on DVD, or "director's cuts" because ... well, it's a pop-art form, and a collaborative medium, and compromises have to be made and so forth. All of which assumes that somehow these factors might never have existed 50 or 60 years ago, in a tightly controlled studio era where compromises and different standards affected what filmmakers could do all the time. Should a text stand as it was when it was released -- imperfections, compromises and all -- or be subject to fixes every time a filmmaker realizes something that could have been done differently, or better, or without the imposed MPAA rating or running-time constraints of a studio.
What do you think: Are multiple versions of movies an acceptable fact of life, or a violation of the work the way you first encountered it? Are there times when a changed movie is acceptable, and times when it's not?