Revenge of the Fan Edits
“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft,” H.G. Wells said, and he was perfectly right—except, of course, for the passion among certain fans to create their own version of Star Wars. Over the past few days, I’ve found myself sucked into the curious world of Star Wars fan edits, thanks to the wonderful documentary The People Vs. George Lucas, which I watched twice in a row one night last week. Fan edits are a sort of fanfic executed with Adobe Photoshop and Final Cut Pro: a chance for enthusiastics to engage directly with their favorite—or most hated—works of art, in a way that is guaranteed to reach a small but receptive audience. In the case of Star Wars, fan editors recut, restructure, and even radically augment the original films to fix problems, address perceived shortcomings, or serve an artistic agenda of their own. Fan edits, at their best, can serve as a showcase for considerable talent in editing, film restoration, and special effects. And like fanfic, they often reveal surprising things not just about the fans involved, but about how we think about storytelling in general.
In the world of fan edits, there are two prevailing tendencies, which I’ll refer to as the preservationist and the revisionist (although there’s a lot of overlap). The preservationists are the ones concerned, and rightly so, with the fact that no adequate high-definition print of the original, unaltered Star Wars films is currently available, and Lucasfilm seems to have no interest in ever providing it. The result is a community of intelligent, informed preservationists who are as concerned with restoring the correct color balance to The Empire Strikes Back as they are with making sure Han shoots first, with the undisputed masterpiece of the form being Harmy’s Despecialized Edition, which painstakingly restores the original trilogy to something like its pristine state. In many cases, the apparent restoration is an illusion, with new mattes and rotoscoping used to recreate the original effects, but it’s an incredibly compelling one. I’ve been watching it with something like awe all weekend, and when I finally have the chance to show Star Wars to my own children, this is the version I’m going to use.
The revisionist tendency is somewhat more problematic. The Star Wars prequels, for obvious reasons, have inspired the most revision, starting with the famous Phantom Edit, which removes much of The Phantom Menace‘s exposition, its talk of trade disputes and midichlorians, and most of Jar Jar Binks. The result is a stronger film, but also less interesting: by removing the worst of its excesses, we’re left with just another bland space opera. Much more ambitious is Adywan’s Star Wars Revisited, an obsessive fan edit of A New Hope. Continuity errors have been fixed; special effects have been cleaned up and enhanced; entire sequences have been reedited or created from scratch. Sometimes the changes are fun—as when the soundtrack swells with the Imperial March, which originally didn’t appear until the second movie—but they occasionally cross the line: Revisited radically reedits the final assault on the Death Star, for instance, as if the original weren’t exciting enough on its own, and it even fixes Han Solo’s floppy wrist motion as he fires his blaster in one scene.
These changes are perfectly fine when viewed as a sort of elaborate fan criticism, or as a demo reel to show off the reviser’s skills at editing and visual effects (which are impressive…most impressive). But I disturbed by the implication on one forum that for some fans of the film, this has become their preferred way to watch the movie—or even to introduce it to viewers seeing Star Wars for the first time. At that point, their philosophy begins to shade into that of Lucas himself, who apparently would be quite happy if all copies of the original version of Star Wars were somehow destroyed—as they will be, in time, if they aren’t adequately preserved. The original Star Wars isn’t perfect, and that’s part of its charm: it’s a film made by real men and women on real sets, under considerable constraints, with solutions invented on the fly, without the luxury of digital retouching. It’s a film made lovingly by hand, and I like even the things that bug me about it. In one shot, for instance, you can see a crew member crouching behind a droid at the Jawa Sandcrawler, dressed to blend in with the background. You can erase him, of course—but why would you want to lose that connection to that day’s shooting, out in the hot Tunisia sun?