In light of the recent Star Wars casting announcement, my brother and I re-watched the original trilogy. Fortunately, he still owns older copies of the theatrical versions, not the so-called “Special Editions.” The original versions of Star Wars are harder to find because George Lucas has tampered with several scenes. In some cases, he’s added unnecessary CGI; distracting, but minor. In other cases, he’s changed iconic scenes so drastically and clumsily that one has to wonder what he was thinking; the prime example is the ‘Han shot first’ scene. Sadly, these “Special Editions” have become the authorized versions. In response to repeated fan requests to make the originals available, Lucasfilm has inexplicably treated the originals’ existence as an internet rumor instead of a publicly accessible fact. Thankfully, despite Lucas’ best efforts, there are still a few copies — some of dubious legality — out there.
All of this tampering raises — believe it or not — some interesting philosophical questions. How far do the creator’s rights extend over a work of art? When is a work of art finished? At what point, if any, does a work of art belong to the culture? Of course, there are legal answers to these questions, but the laws are predicated on concepts like “intellectual property” that are seldom given philosophical justification. In the Star Wars case, however, even the legalities are complicated. For example, it’s debatable to what extent the Star Wars trilogy is the sole creation of George Lucas rather than a collaboration among very talented directors, editors, and special effects artists. Also, given the fact that the National Film Registry has selected Star Wars for preservation due to its cultural significance, this raises questions about whether Lucas does in fact have the right to tamper with a film that now, in effect, belongs to the people.
After we’d watched the unadulterated versions of the trilogy, my brother introduced me to a funny and irreverent documentary called The People vs. George Lucas that explores these questions and many more. In addition to exploring the above questions, the film looks at fandom’s love/hate relationship with Lucas. Ironically, several fans have gone over to the dark side by allowing their hatred of the prequels to poison the love they once had for the first Star Wars films. Nevertheless, the fans’ relationship with Lucas is ambiguous throughout the film. Although Lucas is the villain of the documentary, he’s portrayed as a sympathetic villain, a man who accidentally created a pop culture phenomenon that then became a business empire. It seems that Lucas, like some of his former fans, came to resent Star Wars because its success prevented him from becoming the serious filmmaker he aspired to be as a USC film student.
The documentary also chronicles the way cult followings form around a larger-than-life personality and what happens when that person doesn’t live up to expectations. On the one hand, some fans seem to have experienced something akin to a loss of faith; they feel hurt and duped that they ever put their trust in this man. They feel that Lucas tarnished the childhood memories that they hold dear. On the other hand, the fans are also culpable for validating Lucas’ questionable creative decisions by giving him their money. Despite all of the hatred for the prequels, the Star Wars brand is still very lucrative. Very few fans have made good on their promise to entirely boycott the franchise. More than once in the documentary, interviewees used the analogy of an abusive relationship; they know it’s bad for them, but they keep coming back.
Where do I stand on all of this? I confess that I’m not the biggest Star Wars fan and the films didn’t have the seminal influence on me that they did on many of those interviewed for the film. Philosophically, however, the controversy over Star Wars highlighted in The People vs George Lucas is an interesting test case in hermeneutics — the theory of interpretation — since it clearly illustrates the difference between two prominent views. One view says that authorial intent determines the meaning of a text or film. The other view says that the text — or film — takes on a life of its own and that we bring our own meaning to it. Less philosophically, I find Lucas’ attempt at revisionist history problematic. It’s one thing to invoke creator’s rights to make changes to the original material; it’s another thing to claim that the movies were always that way. That’s simply insulting to the intelligence of the audience who saw those films in their theatrical form. If George wants to mess with Star Wars, he should at least give fans the choice between the two and let the people decide which film will become the definitive version. Fair point, fans.
However, I think many of the fans overstate the egregiousness of Lucas’ transgression. Okay, so he altered your favorite childhood movies. He also made some disappointing prequels to those films. He did not by any means ruin your childhood. I honestly don’t see how Lucas’ subsequent actions retroactively ruin an experience you clearly enjoyed when you were young. After all, Lucas didn’t hop in Doc Brown’s DeLorean and somehow prevent you from enjoying those movies as a child. You can’t take back an experience. Your evaluation of that experience may change in light of subsequent events, but why should it in this particular case? I’ve heard it compared to the steroid scandal in baseball, however I don’t think that analogy holds. In the baseball case, many fans felt betrayed because they had, unwittingly, cheered and celebrated cheaters. I suppose in the Star Wars case, fans could feel bad because they cheered for a talentless hack. However, that’s precisely what they don’t say. On the contrary, they laud the original Star Wars as a masterpiece. Even if he’s fallen from grace, Lucas had talent back in 1977. Moreover, I don’t think Lucas produced bad movies intentionally to alienate his fans, as those of a conspiratorial disposition often claim. I think he sincerely attempted to make good movies and simply failed. Why attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence? Lucas even seems to be a pretty good sport about all of the fan hatred directed at him. Fair point, George.
At the end of the day, the fans are looking at Star Wars through rose-tinted glasses. We tend to forget that we were younger when we saw Star Wars and have difficulty separating the experience from the nostalgia of youth. The documentary makes that point eloquently, but also reminds us of the ‘dark side’ of that nostalgia. Several of the fans featured in the film have gone through distinct stages in their relationship with Lucas’ creation. It’s fascinating how quickly love can turn to obsession and how obsession can turn to loathing. I think there’s a lesson here that extends beyond fandom to include other aspects of life, perhaps especially academia. I’ve seen many aspiring academics go down a similar road to Star Wars fans. The only real difference is that the former can earn a PhD in their area of nerdy interest whereas the latter, to the best of my knowledge, cannot.
In any case, The People vs George Lucas is worth a watch if you’re even remotely interested in recent pop culture history. Of course, the documentary is somewhat dated now that Disney and J.J. Abrams have taken over the franchise. Whatever happens in Episode VII, one thing is certain: we can’t blame that one on George.