...The more permanent and physical the perception of an art form is, the more it is perceived by the public as “art” rather than mere entertainment. A good example of this is sculpture and painting. Paintings are hung in galleries and museums. They are preserved from disintegration and frequently restored to prime condition. These practices are seen as culturally valuable to the point where allowing a painting to be defaced or lost to time is considered practically criminal. That’s wonderful, but then why do we allow so many films to languish and to be treated without the respect they deserve? Why do we accept George Lucas altering his classic films and then refusing to make the original versions available to the public, sometimes going as far as to claim that the original negatives have actually been destroyed in the process of creating the Special Editions? Why do we allow this?
I'm not as huge a Star Wars fan as others, but of course I enjoy the movies to a degree (I've written about the first time I saw Jedi, for example). George Lucas' constant fiddling with the movies, especially the original trilogy, is something I've certainly found odd, but I've never given it a great deal of thought, especially not from his perspective - until now. The occasion of the Blu-ray release of all six films, complete with even more cosmetic alterations, has caused fan outrage to swell once again, but I want to take a moment to try to see things Lucas' way.
I went on Facebook and asked some of my artist friends (painters, photographers and musicians, specifically), framing the question in general terms, whether an artist has a right to go back and alter his or her work after it has been appraised by the viewing public. The opinions were split. For some, the need to preserve the original work was an absolute; new technology can lead to new interpretations of older work but the originals should not be suppressed. Others thought the rights of the creator were paramount; public opinion should not get in the way of staying true to one's vision as long as the work belongs to the creator.
Do I think Lucas should let it go and learn to live with his films as they are? Yeah, but clearly he can't, hence the question I pose: is this a bad thing? Lucas is obviously uncomfortable with the version of the films that we've been familiar with for generations. As the creator, he wants his work to be the best it can be. If he feels that it isn't, and if he has the power to do something about it, isn't that his prerogative as an artist? We may prefer the original versions, but we had no hand in their creation. We did not commission these movies; we did not pay Lucas to make the Star Wars films; he made them on his own. And through the unique deal he struck with 20th Century Fox, he owns them. Its status as a cherished pop culture landmark does not change that fact.
Perhaps it's the kinds of alterations that fans object to? If Lucas went back and made more favorable changes to the fans, would we still have this conversation? But then, if he does that, he's compromising his work in order to kowtow to his audience, and that sets a bad precedent. Audience feedback is necessary for further artistic growth, but one should be careful not to heed it too much - and frankly, a part of me feels uncomfortable with the idea that fans can be so influential as to interfere with an artist's creative process.
I completely understand and sympathize with the fans' objections, and I'm even inclined to say that they're not wrong, but at the same time, I know how it feels to want to go back to a work of art and tweak it a bit after it's been released to the public. Rare is the artist who is completely satisfied with a "finished" work, and while I do believe Lucas needs to move on, I find I don't have the right to judge him if he's honestly unsatisfied with the original Star Wars movies. By the same token, however, if the fans are unsatisfied with the revised versions, then they absolutely should not buy them. It goes both ways.