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October 18, 2010


Throwdown: When is it Okay to Modify an Existing Work?

Posted by on Oct 18, 2010

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.

Hayden Christensen

Why isn't this change okay? Is it his hair?

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?

Do you see any stylistic changes here?

  • t_armstrong


    How do you feel about adding color to old films? ( Personally, I’m not a fan.

    I’m not familiar with Gunslinger, but I imagine part of the difference in our reaction to changes has to do with the difference between visual and print media. Are we more attached to images than to words?

    And lastly, I think talent might have something to do with it. Lucas is a hack, King is brilliant at his craft. In Star Wars the change was jarring and glaringly obvious. In Gunslinger, it sounds like it may have been more subtle (again, not familiar with the work).

    • I tend to agree with you about old films. You might be right, that somehow
      the images get a little bit more seared into our memories, so we notice the
      difference. With books we make the images up in our heads, and they might
      change from time to time naturally as our experiences change, so minor
      differences are less likely to be noticeable.

      I have to agree though, King is a much better purveyor of his craft than
      George Lucas.

    • I agree with both of you that colorization of old classics shouldn’t be done. I have a bluray copy of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” which is one of my favorite movies. The bluray has the option to watch the colorized version, and it is the worst thing ever, ruining the beautiful cinematography of the film. Consider that brilliant film makers of that time understood that they were limited by the monochrome color palette available. Because of this, they used lighting, shadows, and all sorts of other great movie magic to keep their films engaging and good. Adding color completely removes this element of planning and foresight. Can you imagine Hitchcock’s Psycho in color? I think not.

      I’m not sure if the difference is between print and visual media though. I few years ago I directed The Zoo Story, by Edward Albee, and was one of the last people who was able to do so. Shortly after our production was finished (within a year or so), Albee reworked the piece, adding an entire act before the action of the original play, which included a new main character. This work was renamed to Peter and Jerry and is now the only version of the play that is available to perform. I personally have a problem with this for several reasons. First of all, the new play is almost twice as long as the original, which removes it from consideration for what a lot of theatres might want to produce. Secondly, one thing that I love most about the original Zoo Story is that the audience spends their entire time learning about the two main characters without existing context. That is a key part of the conversation the two have, and the ambiguity that is present in many cases adds to the drama.

      Maybe the difference is just in the artful execution of these changes? I’m sure there’s some film maker out there somewhere who could do some masterful work with adding color to an old classic and I would love it. I haven’t seen it yet so I automatically mark it off as a bad thing. Lucas’ reworking of the original trilogy was not well executed (the replaced Anakin is one of my lesser hated additions, preferring to point to things like horrible CG at the Sarlacc Pit or the changing of the Palpatine hologram). King is obviously a master of his craft and made the minimal changes necessary to keep readers as engaged in his story as possible. Edward Albee has even made previous edits to The Zoo Story before that I have really liked. The version I directed was not the original play he wrote in 1959, and I think it was better for it.

  • Ian Fahey

    I don’t think it’s just that the additions to Star Wars 4-6 make us think of the (very) bad new trilogy. The extended musical sequence in Jabba’s Palace would be grating even if it wasn’t a five minute slice of the over-computerized prequels. It’s the Star Wars equivalent of the Spider-Man 3 jazz dance scene, except it doesn’t even have the sense to involve any main characters.

    Furthermore, I find it quite easy to argue that the Hayden Christiansen add doesn’t improve continuity. Does it connect the image of Hayden Christiansen to the new trilogy? Sure. But let’s look at what that scene is supposed to be. Luke, finally at the end of his long road, after having rejected galactic dominance (for the second time in his life), chopped off his father’s hand, watched his father die, seen his father’s face for the first time, and finally, burned his father’s body, steps outside of the massive revelry to take stock in his personal part of the story. In his moment of reflection and, perhaps, pain, Luke is visited by visions of those fallen men/beings who guided him along the way. Ben and Yoda have appeared to Luke before and come once more in a form that Luke will recognized (albeit oh-so-shimmery). But when it comes to a comforting visit from Luke’s father, finally at peace with his son and himself, Lucas decided it was much more fitting to have Luke see his father as a young man. Luke JUST learned his father’s face as an old man and, in the original ending, the same actor was used in this final moment, so Luke could be like “Hey, Dad, looking good without all of that technology covering your body!”

    Instead it’s “Hey, wait, who the hell are you? Are you…you look younger than even I am! What?! You’re my father?! This isn’t comforting AT ALL!”

    I mean, hell, why not have Ewan McGregor instead of Sir Alec Guinness? There’s another comforting face Luke could be deprived of! Yoda, on the other hand, always looks roughly the same, so there’s no telling whether Lucas did go back and use some wrinkle cream on the lovable little muppet.

    And I feel like this argument would hold even in that happy universe where the prequels were good. Instead, I think it’s just Lucas’s flailing attempt to make the entire series the story of Anakin Skywalker’s fall and redemption. Well, George, I hate to tell you, but it doesn’t read that way anymore and you really can’t change that. Nor does it NEED to read that way. It’s not like until the prequels, we were merely interested in Darth Vader as a bad guy. Empire expertly took Vader, this embodiment of EVIL, and with two scenes in the final half-hour of the movie COMPLETELY sold us on wanting him to be redeemed.


    That’s all it took, George. Damn, but you used to be good at this.

  • On adding color to black and white: the reason it tends not to work, as far as I can tell, is that the cinematography is based on the fact that the images were going to come out black and white. Light, shadow, composition…the filmmakers knew they were making black and white films and so played to the strengths of the medium.

  • Third

    Since we’ve just about established the problems with the changes in Star Wars and movies in general, one example of a changed work that I actually think I like better the second time around is Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. The original, published in 1988, was intensely colored. The coloring was also done by John Higgins and not Brian Bolland due to time constraints. The original colors were definitely good, and the brightness and contrast gave the story a bit of a fever-dream feel, which was appropriate, given that it was mostly being told by and about the Joker. However, Bolland himself almost immediately after the 1988 release expressed dissatisfaction with the coloring.

    As a result, for the 20th anniversary 2008 release, Bolland went back and completely recolored the entire book himself. You can see a comparison here:

    The new colors are much more somber, which Bolland has said is more in line with what both he and Moore wanted out of the book. The flashback scenes to the Joker’s possible origin story are in black and white, and the subdued tones make things like the Red Hood and the Joker’s emergence from the chemical pit much more striking. One of the things that really blew me away about the changes is something that was first brought to my attention by a Comics Alliance article: the change in Batman’s logo. In the original, the logo had the yellow oval around the bat symbol the way that it usually did pre-The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, generally agreed-upon as the somewhat more lighthearted era for the Caped Crusader. In Bolland’s changes, the oval is removed, and it is just the bat symbol on a darker gray background, which has been the standard design for all the (thematically) darker Batman stories. The change of simply removing a yellow oval takes the story and places it in an entirely different Batman tradition, and that just bowls me over.