Stop it, J.K. Rowling

I’m too young to hate the Star Wars: Special Editions. When they were released in 1997, I was eight years old and pretty much just excited to see Star Wars in the theater. I was also pretty excited to see all the bits of “new Star Wars” — not only scenes that were digitally touched-up and “improved” with CGI but also the insertion of entirely new scenes. The films — particularly A New Hope — were extensively revised after-the-fact. Lots of smart guys have comprehensively detailed all the changes to the classic films, offering their criticism.

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This is mostly fine. I love the Star Wars movies and think that if anything can be done to preserve the watchability of the films for future generations, it should be done. CGI enhancements make Star Wars feel newer than it actually is. You are welcome to decide for yourself whether you like this fact or not. I do. If I ever have children (God help them), I want them to watch Star Wars and enjoy it, not roll their eyes at how dated everything looks like me and my siblings did when our dad made us watch The Last Starfighter.

But not all of the changes were aesthetic improvements. There were plenty of narrative changes too. One of the issues that comes up among SW nerds is the problem of “retconning,” or changing established elements to improve continuity. The way George Lucas did this was usually appalling: replacing Sebastian Shaw with Hayden Christiansen looking all kinds of creepy, changing Boba Fett’s voice from the great Jason Wingreen to the lamentable guy from the prequel films, and of course the “Han Shot First.”

While I would argue these changes were not really necessary, the main problem is philosophical: Collectively, we remember certain things. Changing those things thirty years later doesn’t fool anyone. Each change fails to improve the viewing experience for old and new fans alike.

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The thing I keep coming back to about the altered Greedo/Han scene is that — unlike some of the above changes — it wasn’t necessary for chronological continuity. For Lucas, it was necessary for character continuity. George had an idea in mind of what he wanted Han Solo to be. This is fine, of course. As the creator, Lucas has the authority to render his characters however he would like. If he wants Han to be a scoundrel, he should be a scoundrel. If he wants Han to be a good guy, he should be a good guy. Lucas apparently thought Han shouldn’t be a cold-blooded killer, so he had him shoot Greedo only in self-defense.

The problem with the change, though (and I’m hardly the first to note this), is that it conflates the character Han ended up being (the guy who sacrificially cares about his friends) with the character he was at the beginning (the guy who only cares for his own interests). There’s an undeniable character progression in the original version: he’s a selfish scoundrel, then a hero. In the “Special Edition,” he is a man with standards. Lucas actually flattened Han Solo into a less dynamic and less compelling character.

This discussion has bounced around the internet for years. I only bring it up now because of a concerning trajectory in another popular SF/Fantasy series:

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really,” Rowling says in the interview. “For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.” (CNN)

“Today I would just like to say: I’m really sorry about Fred. *Bows head in acceptance of your reasonable ire*” (Independent)

Now, to be fair, in neither instance does Rowling actually say she is going to change her work. That’s probably a lot more difficult in literature than film anyway. Neither does she says she wishes she could change it.

But her line of reasoning in both cases is just wrong and a little alarming for those of us with SW PTSD. It just isn’t necessary.

I remember going to the theater as an eight-year-old and my mom telling me that the changes to the Star Wars films in their special editions only added, and didn’t remove, material. “They put new scenes in,” she said, “but didn’t take anything away.”

Now let me ask: was that really true?

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