This is a story about storytellers, about the people behind the words and images. We all have our own ideas as to whom this person should be. A lone artist atop their ivory tower, slaving away at their magnum opus. A moderately successful director known for quirky, realistic movies that probably star Jennifer Lawrence. A writer that lives somewhere in New England, in a log cabin miles from anyone else. A camp leader with kids around the fire. Wherever or however, stories are told by everyone. Some particular stories are fairly universal, and told by many people. Some less so. Some stories are iconic, recognized by millions. Again, some less so. But given that today is the 39th birthday of the movie that would come to be known as Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope, you can imagine that I’ll be talking about one story in particular. Or, rather, one storyteller.
George Lucas is a visionary director, a powerful force in the film industry, and, surprisingly, not the enemy. I can’t imagine what he thought or felt when he signed away LucasFilms. I don’t know his creative process beyond how the movies were made. I don’t know why some decisions were made and others not. I’m sitting here, watching the GOUT version of A New Hope, after a short argument with my sister over the fact that she initially grabbed the Special Edition DVDs. I get excited over the idea of the De-Specialised Editions. And then there’s everything to do with the prequels… Why do we get invested in a story to such a degree that such changes are seen as sacrilege? What makes the Special Editions different from LOTR’s Extended Editions? But mostly, who “owns” Star Wars?
It’s not who you think.
The story of Star Wars is fascinating as Star Wars itself. I’ve watched many documentaries on the subject. All three of the original trilogy went overtime and over budget. During Ep. IV, Lucas was diagnosed with stress-related heart issues (gee, I wonder why), and had to delegate V and VI to other directors. The story was changed many times before it finally got to the cast, and so many things were cut because the special effects just weren’t there yet. But Lucas had a particular vision, and he was going to do everything he could to achieve it. But the thing that he wanted more than anything else was to make his movies, his way, without any interference from any studio or anyone else. He wouldn’t truly get that until the prequel trilogy. In many ways, I understand his dilemma– the indie movie scene wasn’t the same as it is today (Sundance wouldn’t hold its first festival until a year after Ep. IV), and it was hard for a filmmaker to truly stand out. Kubrick and Hitchcock had done it, but they were Kubrick and Hitchcock– so fascinatingly weird and thrilling that they demanded your attention. To say that Lucas (and Spielberg, for that matter) changed cinema is an understatement.
Yes, I am implying that Lucas wanted to be an indie filmmaker in the way that we understand that term today. And it’s nice work, if you can keep it. With the resources we have today, anyone can make a movie, and that’s frankly amazing (and terrifying, if you’re a studio exec). But Lucas didn’t have an iPhone or After Effects. There was no YouTube that he could go viral on– hell, there wasn’t an internet. And even then, the story that he wanted to tell wasn’t exactly an “indie film” story. If Ep. IV was made today, it would cost, oh, maybe $245-360 million? And that’s a generous estimate. Even adjusted for inflation, the actual budget of Ep. IV would be $40 mil. Not exactly breaking the bank for Hollywood these days, but certainly not the budget of an indie film. To compare, Tangerine (which premiered at Sundance last year) was shot on iPhone. This is Not a Film is a guy in his apartment talking about movies while a camera is running (while also protesting the Iranian Govt in a major way). The entire Dogma movement of the 90’s was about making a movie on as shoestring a budget you can find. But you can’t make an epic space opera on a small budget. Or, well, you can, if you don’t mind MST3K getting a hold of it.
All of this is to set up why Lucas found it so important that he was in control over the prequel trilogy. Say what you will about them, you cannot deny that they were his films. And if you look carefully, you can see him steadily improving as he went through the process of making them. Ep. III was better than II which was better than I. If he’d kept going, the next one might have been on the same level as VI.
So why the Special Editions?
The Special Editions were not a cash grab. If you asked any writer working today about their latest published novel and if there was anything they wanted to change, each of them could give you a list. Why do you think George RR Martin is taking his sweet time with that last book– he wants it to be perfect. Hell, Tolkien never published The Silmarillion because he kept making changes. The Mona Lisa is speculated to have taken up to 11 years to finish. I’ve seen the Mona Lisa, its not “11 years of work” impressive. Lucas didn’t think that the “final” version was good enough, so he went back and changed it. Fans were outraged, because that’s what fans do. Fans think that they “own” what they are a fan of, and get mad when it’s “changed” to something they don’t like. I’m guilty of this myself, #SayNotoHYDRACap. But are they right? Well, yes and no. Fans don’t actually own these properties according to our current copyright system, and the
Studios people that do own them can technically do whatever they want with them, within the confines of whatever system they set up for the property. But on the other hand, culture belongs to the people that claim it as their own. What the fans don’t get however, is that I “own” as much of, say, Ghostbusters as Melissa McCarthy does. I “own” as much of Star Trek as Wil Wheaton. And I “own” as much of Star Wars as Carrie Fischer, and Mark Hamill, and John Boyega, and, yes, George Lucas. As soon as Star Wars first scrolled across screens in May of 1977, it became a part of a culture that we all belong to, and therefore the story belongs to us and we do with it what we will. Whether its through appreciation of the old EU, or cutting up the movies to try and get it just right, or simply drawing a picture of Rey and hanging it on your wall, it’s all how we engage with this story that we all have invested in.
In some ways, I empathize with Lucas. It seems to me that all he wanted was control over this story. That he would go to such lengths to keep that control, only to ultimately lose it is Shakespearean. King Lear, to be precise. I find myself in good company, being the perfectionist I am with my writing. Tolkien and GRRM, yes, but also Douglas Adams (Happy Towel Day, btw!) and George Lucas. And I can’t say that Lucas is the ultimate villain of Star Wars. Because, ultimately, while the prequels were a bit annoying, he went through a tumultuous time, both finding and losing people that kept him together, becoming head of a behemoth of an organization that is a part of everything anyone knows because he felt like he was going to lose control of everything he had achieved and wanted to achieve, and ultimately sacrificing himself (and his control) for his creation in order to save it.
George Lucas, or Anakin Skywalker?