If you’re anything more than a casual fan of the Star Wars films, you’ll know how much George Lucas likes to tweak his creation with each rerelease. Even after he sold Lucasfilm to Disney, a new tweak emerged when the Mouse House unveiled its Disney+ streaming service: now Greedo inexplicably utters the word “maclunkey” before Han does/doesn’t shoot first. Naturally, the Internet had a field day. But it raises the question: should creators be free to tweak their work, or should they just leave their creations alone?
Creators are their own worst critics; they see flaws in their work everywhere.
Ask any creator if there’s something they’d change about their work and you’ll likely receive a resounding yes from every one. We’re our own worst critics, and we see flaws everywhere. The ones who say they don’t are either lying, or disgustingly egotistical.
In Lucas’ case, he made a science fiction film where he had to almost invent the special effects he needed on a relatively small budget. Since then, he’s witnessed technological advancements that would have helped him accomplish shots and effects he couldn’t achieve in the 70s. So it’s understandable why he made tweaks to his work such as adding in new effects shots or improving existing ones.
Lucas isn’t the only one with visions in his head that didn’t make it into the final product. Harry Potter author J K Rowling had huge amounts of trivia in her head about her wizarding world. Rather than edit the original novels to insert scenes or info she’d left out the first time around, she’s announced them in the years since, mostly via the Internet. Which is how we know that Dumbledore is gay, and that wizards used to soil themselves.
Hogwarts didn't always have bathrooms. Before adopting Muggle plumbing methods in the eighteenth century, witches and wizards simply relieved themselves wherever they stood, and vanished the evidence. #NationalTriviaDay
— Wizarding World (@wizardingworld) January 4, 2019
Yeah. Not her finest moment.
Why creators should leave their work alone
It’s possible to overwork a story. Like dough, it needs work to lift it from ingredients into something brilliant. But too much work and you spoil it.
Announcing that wizards soiled themselves spoils it. Dubbing “no no no” over a powerfully wordless scene spoils it. Adding in a shot where the villain randomly says the word “maclunkey” spoils a scene that, admittedly, has been bad since it was first messed with. (Han shot first. End of.)
Much of these opinions are subjective. You might find fans who think soiled robes are funny. You might find fans who aren’t bothered whether Han shot first (maclunkey or otherwise). And it’s certainly the grossest hyperbole to suggest that any of these changes ruin the entire story.
But if Rowling rewrote her books to include her new revelations, it would be rather difficult to enjoy an emotional scene if Dumbledore, Snape, and McGonagall were wearing robes in a new shade of brown, wouldn’t it?
It might seem ludicrous that Rowling would even consider doing that. But it isn’t that improbable. Because it’s happened before, and it’s happening now.
When authors rewrite books
If you’ve read my list of 25 top fantasy books, you’ll have seen Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword on there. What I didn’t mention in that article, though, is that Anderson rewrote his novel almost 20 years after he published it. And the reason I didn’t mention it is that, if you buy it new, nearly every edition of The Broken Sword is the original version.
Anderson’s novel is an ode to the Icelandic sagas of old, filled with elves and trolls, Odin’s plots and Faerie magic. It’s also a very poetic piece, in keeping with the sagas from which it took inspiration. Anderson published his work in 1954 but, 20 years on, his older self decided to make some changes.
The 1971 version of The Broken Sword was more straightforward and less poetic in its prose. This was a shame in and of itself, as the original version has a rough energy very much in keeping with its thematic matter. But Anderson also made a significant change to the story itself.
An early scene shows an old woman making a deal with the Devil for sorcerous power. In the original version of the novel, the Devil muses that he has masqueraded as other evil creatures such as Loki. But, in Anderson’s new version, this musing is removed and the scene ends with the Devil adopting a very different guise as he departs: that of Odin.
This sounds like a small change, but it has a significant impact on the rest of the book. It lessens the already-subtle influence of the new Christian faith and amps up Odin’s influence on the story to the point that he becomes a puppeteer and the characters pawns in his plot.
Anderson’s revised edition of The Broken Sword supplanted the original for almost 30 years until the original version was printed by Gollancz as part of its Fantasy Masterworks series. For 30 years, readers could only read a version of The Broken Sword that lacked energetic poetic prose and a religiously-nuanced plot.
Some readers, of course, will likely pick the revised edition if given the choice. This is a topic that will always be subjective. But it seems wrong that readers don’t have that choice. Just as Lucas’ latest version of Star Wars (maclunkey and all) is the only version on offer, so too was Anderson’s simplified novel the only one on the shelves.
And this could just be the beginning.
Will we see more creator meddling?
Overwriting a version of a book is as easy as uploading a few new files.
One of the beauties of indie publishing is the speed with which a book can come to market. There are no cumbersome processes and lumbering production lines; the author can drive her book to market as quickly as she can write, her editor can edit, and her cover designer can design. But the ease with which a book can be published also means that a book can easily be rewritten.
This is fantastic when there’s a frustrating typo to fix, but what if a writer decides he can do a better job with a few more years under his belt?
For instance, author R. T. Kaelin substantially rewrote his indie published book in an effort to get a traditional publishing deal. Amanda Hocking made changes to her novels when she went to a traditional publisher. But an author needn’t be making a publishing deal to overwrite a version of their book; it’s as easy as uploading a few new files and poof: the original is gone.
You could argue that those authors made their work better, improved it in every way, and that’s entirely possible. But it’s also possible that, in trying to appeal to a publisher, a writer might remove characters, plotlines, or themes they deem risky or lacking mass appeal. In short, removing what made the novel special in the first place.
I’m not saying that’s what Kaelin or Hocking did, by the way. Not at all. But it’s not only possible for an author to accidentally ruin what made their book great; it’s actually very easy. Just look at Ray Bradbury.
Creators don’t always understand their own work
If you’ve read Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, you’ll probably agree that it’s about censorship. After all, it’s all about book-burning. Books represent free thought, so they are burnt. Television can be controlled, so it remains.
But Bradbury would disagree. In his mind, he wrote a novel about the dangers of television, and strongly believes that most readers have misinterpreted Farenheit 451.
Now imagine that Bradbury decides to go back to his novel a few years later. He edits a few lines of dialogue and rewrites a few scenes to remove what he sees to be confusion. All of a sudden, the novel isn’t Farenheit 451. It’s become a polemic against television that belongs in its time, unlike the enduring classic that readers made of the original novel.
Because here’s the rub: the audience own the work, not the creator.
The audience own the work, not the creator
This is what Bradbury couldn’t stand: once he’d created his work, he didn’t own it anymore. The rest of the world took it, decided what it was and, in his view, got it wrong. But popular opinion rules the roost. Readers decided Farenheit 451 was about censorship.
Equally, the audience decided that Han was the kind of smuggler that shot first. Readers eventually decided they preferred the poetic, rough, nuanced version of The Broken Sword. And the world is united in its certainty that witches and wizards don’t soil themselves thank you very much.
As creators, we could try to dictate how people interpret our work. But then we’re fighting a constant rear-guard action, tweaking and reworking our creations as new theories, interpretations, and fan-canon comes to light. Just look at the works of Shakespeare to see just how many ways a piece of art can be interpreted. Trying to eliminate all but your favourite would be nigh-on impossible.
What should creators do?
So, in the end, I have just one message for creators. In the words of Obi-wan Kenobi: let go, Luke. Let your creations step out into the world on their own merits, and let the world embrace them as it will. Don’t keep going back. Don’t step between the world and your work. Your work is good enough to stand on its own two feet and, if people are “misinterpreting it”, let them. If they enjoy it, that’s all that matters. Anyway, you’re too busy to meddle; you’ve got your hands full working on your next project.
Besides, you don’t want to be known as a maclunkey, do you?