At what point is a movie no longer owned by the filmmaker and instead owned by society? Does that transition ever occur? In recent years, with the advent of DVDs and new digital technologies, filmmakers have found it to be their right to go back and alter movies, movies that have been a part of our popular culture for twenty years or more.
This all comes to mind because this Tuesday, George Lucas is re-releasing the original Star Wars Trilogy to DVD. This time around however, if one buys Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, they will receive the 2004 updated version and the original 1977 version as well (The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi will also be released as both the original theatrical version and the updated 2004 editions).
Sort of. At least one exceedingly minor content change from the original theatrical release will occur. When the prologue scrolls at the top of the movie, it will say “Episode IV” and underneath that “A New Hope.” The original theatrical release of this film lacked the “Episode IV” title.
This is a very minor change, and one that probably very few, if any, people will actually complain about. It probably doesn’t really change anything; maybe the way society sees the film, but we’ve been taught to see it as Episode IV anyway by now. So Lucas going back and editing that part is most likely acceptable except to an exceedingly small portion of the population.
At what point is it not acceptable, though? In the special editions of the movie Lucas certainly improved the sound quality. Is that okay? He also improved the special effects and added more digital creatures. Is that something we can approve of? Some people at this point would still say that it’s all well and good, even a good percentage of Star Wars fans.
An incredibly vocal segment of Star Wars fans balk at the notion that Han Solo didn’t shoot Greedo first in the Mos Eisley Cantina (a quick Google search of the phrase "Han Shoots First" turns up 24,400 hits, including a HanShootsFirst.org & a HanShootsFirst.com). Han certainly shot first in the 1977 release. In the Special Edition release he didn’t; Greedo fired the first shot. Is that a minor change? Is that a major change? Many would argue that this moment actually changes who Han Solo is at the start of the trilogy.
If Greedo shoots first and Han is protecting himself, is Han’s emotional change and story arc smaller over the course of the trilogy? If Han shoots first he starts out closer to being evil, or if not evil certainly more on the outskirts of acceptability. By having Greedo shoot first and Han fire only after being attacked, he may have a shorter way to travel to being the hero of the Rebellion that he becomes by the end of Return of the Jedi.