This month sees the first rerelease of the Star Wars Saga in 3D. Once again, George Lucas gets his sticky fingers on a new technology and shoehorns it into films he made in the 1970s. These changes are a constant source of nerdy controversy. Fans are angry because the films they love are being changed. Lucas contends that they are his films and he can do with them as he pleases.
But who’s right? Who does art belong to? The creator or the audience?
This isn’t a new question for writers and readers but it’s been academic until now. Ebooks are easy to change. All you need do is upload a new version and poof, the old one is gone. Just like Star Wars, the only book available is the new one, and the only old versions left are those that have already been downloaded.
This may not sound so bad, but I recently tweeted about Ray Bradbury’s argument with some students over the meaning of Fahrenheit 451. He thought it was about the dangers of television, they thought it was about censorship. They weren’t wrong; by making the book publicly available, Bradbury had invited the world to interpret it however they liked. But what if Bradbury had rewritten the book to make his intention more overt and made it the only edition available?
A classic would be gone and something else would be in its place. I don’t think anyone would argue that would have been a good thing. The audience would not have been free to take ownership of the work, to interpret it and love it in their own way. Bradbury would have been dictating how they interacted with his work, constantly recreating it to prevent any opinion of it with which he didn’t agree.
Should creators become curators of their art and allow the audience to take it for themselves? Or, like Lucas, should creators be free to endlessly revise their work to bring it as close to their vision as possible?
Update: I’ve been made aware of R. T. Kaelin, who substantially rewrote his self-published book in an effort to get a traditional publishing deal. Now that Amanda Hocking has made the jump from self- to traditional publishing, I think we can expect to see a lot of people attempting to follow in her wake and with that see a lot of rewritten books. Is this an acceptable path to traditional publication, or should a published book be left alone?