Throwdown: When is it Okay to Modify an Existing Work?
A couple of recent events have been the catalyst for this post. First, you may have noticed my recent rant about how George Lucas can’t seem to leave his beloved original Star Wars trilogy alone. Second, all of my posts about The Gunslinger convinced Tom to read it – but he read an earlier edition of the book, which Stephen King revised after he wrote the subsequent ones in the Dark Tower series. Third, I heard recently (and yes, I realize that this is not new but I just heard about it) that they are going back and recoloring some of the early issues of Sandman for the release of Absolute Sandman.
Each of these things involves an artist (using the term loosely) going back and editing their past works. Both Stephen King and George Lucas made the changes that they did for continuity reasons, and the Star Wars and Sandman changes are partly being made to take advantage of the changing technology landscape. Why is it that in some cases we are okay with these revisions, and in others we have problems with them? I have a few thoughts.
Let’s start with Star Wars. Most people I talk to tend to disagree with the changes George Lucas made to Star Wars 4-6 when Episodes 1-3 were released. There seems to be a fairly universal opinion that, for instance, adding Hayden Christensen to the final scene in Return of the Jedi degraded the overall feel of the film, even though it’s hard to argue the change doesn’t improve the continuity of Star Wars 1-6. Even so, I know a lot of people who will tout that they still have their old VHS originals just because they don’t have any of the changes.
On the other hand there is The Gunslinger. When Tom realized he had an earlier revision, and that Stephen King might have Lucased it, he called me. We talked through all of the major changes, and we don’t really have a problem with them. Every edit seems to be aimed at improving continuity in relation to the other Dark Tower books. For instance, in a scene at the end (no spoilers) where the gunslinger is told his future, Stephen King modified references to things that don’t occur later on in the series. It remains just a hint of what is to come, but removes the loose ends that don’t make sense.
So why is it we don’t mind what Stephen King did with The Gunslinger, while we have huge problems with the changes that George Lucas made to Star Wars 4-6? I’d argue that both sets of changes were made primarily for continuity sake. I’m virtually certain there are lots of additional examples on both sides. It seems that we fans have a bit of a double standard when it comes to things like this. But why? Here’s what I think: we have a problem with revisions to old works that link them to a newer work if we don’t like the new stuff. Most Star Wars fans over age 10 think that the new Star Wars trilogy was a masturbatory travesty of technology and shiny stuff, almost entirely devoid of good plot and writing (I’ve heard that kids these days prefer Episodes 1-3, which makes me sad on so many levels). On the other hand, Stephen King’s Dark Tower has been hailed as a masterpiece, and is a beloved fantasy epic. If he had to make some changes to a story that was written 25 years earlier to make it fit, so be it.
So here’s the kicker: I think that if people liked Star Wars 1-3, we would have had no problem with the equivalent of Hayden Christensen being digitally added to the earlier movies. We don’t necessarily have a double standard about it, we don’t want anyone to go connecting our favorite books and movies to something that isn’t as good.
The recoloring of The Sandman is a bit of a different story. It’s not being done to improve the continuity of the story – instead Neil Gaiman has stated that as printing and paper technology has improved over time, the colors being printed become progressively less like what they were intended to be. The solution is that as they reissue them for Absolute Sandman, they’re having a colorist go back and redo the colors digitally to overcome this technical problem. You can see a side-by-side of some of the changes below and make your own call. For me, I don’t have a problem if it’s just overcoming an unforeseen technical issue, but if that’s the case I’d really like to see an original trade in order to see the colors, and how they have changed over time. I have a hard time believing that the differences between the bottom frames below don’t include a little bit of stylistic editing. What do you guys think?