Friday, October 28, 2005

Cultural Tinkering

Slashdot has a recently posted thread discussing the tinkering of cultural history. The examples given are the edits made to feature films by their directors (with George Lucas' changes to the Star Wars saga being a case in point) as well as the practice of publishing posthumous novels.

Obviously this kind of thing has been going on for much longer than the twentieth century. The biblical book of Revelations, for example, contains a dire curse invoked against anyone who introduces changes when rewriting the book. The Byzantine Empire was wracked by violence and persecutions over and over again whenever the orthodox Christian doctrines were called into question by sufficiently influential proponents of reinterpreted doctrines. As both seventh century Christian monks and twentieth century publishers of comic books could testify, making radical changes to the existing storyline is a good recipe for producing a bitter schism.

The cause célèbre of the anti-Lucas heretics is the notorius "Greedo shoots first" edit to the original Star Wars Episode IV. The Country Pundit has a good summary of the controversy, which also mentions the critical flaw introduced by the edit: Han shooting Greedo first is a more natural reaction of self-defense than is Han waiting for Greedo to shoot and miss before returning fire.

From a more expansive point of view, another critical flaw with this edit is that it contradicts a cultural trend of the twentieth century to depict heroes and villians as more similar to each other by purposefully, and painfully obviously, distinguishing Han Solo from his criminal associates. That is not to say that a director cannot do such a thing; a similar and much more successfully handled distinguishing of hero and criminal counterparts occurs in the recent movie "Batman Begins", for example. The mistake is that Han Solo's forbearance from violence is too strong in the new version, thus making Han Solo more akin to the cliched "Christian Hero" (see my post The pertinent Pertinax for a discussion).

In hindsight, one suspects that it was precisely this effect that Lucas had in mind. Re-editing Han Solo into a hithertoo unsuspected "diamond in the rough" gives a certain fairytale character to Solo's romance with Princess Leia that small children (i.e. the primary end users of those billions of dollars worth of Star Wars merchandise) could appreciate.

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