George Lucas: Childhood Rapist?

September 19, 2011
A thought by James Berardinelli

Star Wars was not my first love. By the time it came out in 1977, I had already enjoyed flirtations with baseball, astronomy, dinosaurs, and monster movies. I had developed an unrequited crush on Jessica Lange. I had spent countless afternoons watching The Lone Ranger (who was and always will be Clayton Moore), and evenings in the company of Steve Austin and Jamie Summers. So the emotions I felt when I first watched Star Wars were nothing new.

I wish I could remember the first time I heard about Star Wars, but I can't. I was sufficiently aware of it to want to see it. I didn't go to the drive-in that early summer night on a lark. I actively lobbied my best friend at the time to encourage his parents to invite me. I think my first exposure to Star Wars may have been through a comic book. At the time, Marvel was doing a six-issue adaptation of the movie. My friend bought Issue four, and that's where it may have started.

My crush on Star Wars deepened into the kind of obsession only children can experience. By the end of 1978, I owned every bit of Star Wars paraphernalia known to man including, of course, the action figures. I slept on Star Wars sheets. There was a Star Wars poster on my wall (several of them, actually). I was a member of the official Star Wars Fan Club. I had two Star Wars records: a badly scratched copy of John Williams' score and something called The Story of Star Wars featuring narrated sound clips from the movie. I had all three complete sets of trading cards (plus many, many duplicates).

As best I can remember, I thought the Star Wars Christmas Special was kind of cool. I don't think it occurred to me at the time how epically awful it was. I re-watched the movie during its 1978 and 1979 re-releases. One of my friends brought a tape recorder into the theater and pirated an audio copy. Using his master, I dubbed one for myself, portable tape recorder-to-portable tape recorder (with his speaker blaring directly into my condenser microphone). I read Alan Dean Foster's Splinter of the Mind's Eye and wondered how it would compare to the real sequel. Then, in December 1979, along came Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

It's funny how childhood allegiances can change on a dime. For a little more than two years, it was all Star Wars for me. But by early 1980, Luke, Han, Leia, and Vader had slipped into the back of my mind, replaced by Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and a funny Doctor wearing a long scarf. I saw The Empire Strikes Back upon its release, and was suitably filled with anticipation beforehand, but Star Wars had become an ex by then. I had the good sense at the time to recognize the excellence of Empire - I returned to the theater twice more to re-watch it. The same could not be said about Return of the Jedi in 1983. The conclusion to the trilogy disappointed me and I saw it only once theatrically.

It would be five years before I re-discovered Star Wars via the miracle of the VCR. I purchased pan-and-scan VHS copies of the trilogy in 1988, then followed up by buying widescreen versions in 1991. I acquired a laserdisc player in 1994 but held off shelling out for Star Wars laserdiscs until the release of the Collector's Edition in 1996. (To Lucas' credit, this was advertised as "the last time the films would be available for purchase in their original theatrical formats.") In 1998, when the Special Editions were made available, I bought those. Then the DVDs. Now the Blu-Rays. In total, I must have spent about $700 on home copies of Star Wars. I know fans who have spent in excess of $1000.

It goes without saying that the Blu-Ray copies sitting on my shelves are not exact replicas of the movies I saw in theaters in 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, and 1983. A perfectionist, Lucas never seems satisfied with his "final" product, and has the clout and ability to tinker with it on an ongoing basis. In 1997, he was able to tweak aspects of the original three films to "improve" their look and eliminate some of the things that had become painful irritants for him. Those changes were for filmmaker and fans alike. I enjoyed seeing the new CGI sequences and the deleted scene with Jabba (something I had daydreamed about since seeing its depiction in the Marvel Comics adaptation).

For the most part, I think fans welcomed the 1997 Special Editions. At least, I don't remember much complaining. That started a few years later when it was announced that the DVD releases would include additional changes and the original theatrical editions would not be made available as "alternate takes." I'm not sure why anyone was surprised by these things. Once Lucas made the changes in 1997, it became apparent he viewed the movies as works in progress and wasn't going to provide access to inferior "works in progress."

Do I really care whether Greedo shot first? Not really. Sure, it adds an edge to Han for him to gun down Greedo in cold blood, but does it impact my enjoyment of the scene, the movie, or the trilogy? Again, not really. And I can kind-of understand Lucas' motivation. Han Solo has evolved beyond what he was in Star Wars. He has become a conventional hero, and no conventional hero would shoot down an enemy like that.

Does it bother me that the Ewoks now sing a different song? No. I don't like either. I hate pretty much anything with Ewoks in it. I don't mourn losing "yub yub." How about Hayden Christensen at the end of Jedi. Again, it doesn't bother me. It makes sense for future fans who watch the entire saga from start to finish. They will appreciate seeing "their" Anakin redeemed. People who want to complain about Sebastian Shaw need to remember that he had, what, about 60 seconds of screen time? Compared to a few hours for Christensen. That's just sour grapes.

So that brings us to the Blu-Rays and "nooooo!"

From a purely dramatic perspective, the original approach works better. Williams' score, the visuals, and the Emperor's cackling are more than enough to convey all that needs to be conveyed. Adding Vader's "noooo!" to the scene is an unnecessary distraction. But I say that as someone who has watched Jedi a half-dozen times. Future generations won't care. It doesn't ruin the movie. It doesn't make me want to throw the disc in a trash compactor. For the benefits of watching Star Wars in high-def, I'll put up with a "noooo!"

Why did Lucas do it? Unlike the various previous tweaks he has made, this one seems to have no defensible underlying reason. It doesn't make the films better, bring them up to date, streamline them for future viewers, or "fix" something Lucas saw as broken. The only reasonable conclusion one can draw is that Lucas did it because he can. He's flexing his muscles. He's showing fans that these are still his movies. It's a power play. He knows casual fans won't notice or, if they do, won't care. It's the die-hards he's sending the message to.

Some fans take things too far. Their affinity for a product becomes so extreme that they incorrectly believe they deserve to have a say in future developments. The sense of entitlement can be galling to creators. In an infamous Saturday Night Live skit, William Shatner pinpointed how many in the industry feel about the extent to which the most obsessive devotees take their love: "GET A LIFE, will you people? I mean, for crying out loud, it's just a TV show! I mean, look at you, look at the way you're dressed! You've turned an enjoyable little job, that I did as a lark for a few years, into a COLOSSAL WASTE OF TIME!" Fandom is a great thing; it brings with it a sense of community. But there are dangers in taking it too seriously, in going too far. It's a fantasy world. I wonder if the more we become divorced from reality and rely on electronics for interpersonal interaction, whether the lure of such fantasy un-realities will become dangerously appealing.

I bear George Lucas no ill will. He has not raped my childhood, as those given to unpleasant hyperbole might claim. It's still intact. The Star Wars I watch on Blu-Ray may not match my memories 100%, but the nostalgia has sprouted from fertile ground. Greedo shooting first, Vader screaming "nooo!" - these are details, and details do not invalidate the whole. If they change the experience of watching the Star Wars saga, they do so in an insignificant way. Although the knee-jerk reaction of the deeply buried fan within is to be outraged, the more I think about it, the sillier and less appropriate such a reaction seems. Sure, I love Star Wars and I cherish many memories associated with it, but the actual property is not mine. It belongs to George Lucas who, upon reflection, I think not of as the greedy, frustrated obstructionist he is sometimes portrayed as but as the author of some of the best times of my childhood.