The Forever War On Screen

I’ve written before about The Forever War, which is one of my all-time favorite books.

The book is the story of William Mandella, a brainy but essentially non-martial physicist drafted to fight in a never-ending war that combines time dilation, terror, and pointlessness.  Because Earth’s battleships and soldiers reach the faraway planets to fight the Taurans through “collapsar jumps” that invoke Einstein’s theory of relativity, Mandella keeps returning from battles to a society that has changed by decades and then by hundreds of years.

Richard sent me a link to this story, which reports that Ridley Scott — the director of Blade Runner and other classic films — has acquired the rights to bring The Forever War to the big screen and is working with the screenwriter for Blade Runner on the effort.

I’m holding my breath.  I would love to see The Forever War made into a movie.  It is a great story from a visual standpoint, and I think Ridley Scott is well-suited to bringing out the weirdness, humor, and sense of utter dislocation that Mandella experienced.  At the same time, when I see that the screenplay is in its fourth draft, I think:  please don’t change the story too much!  Sometimes movie versions absolutely nail the book and capture the characters perfectly — the epic TV series Lonesome Dove is a great example of that.  In other cases, however, the movie version will change characters in fundamental and unwanted ways, or modify the plot to the point of being unrecognizable.  I don’t want that to happen to Mandella, Marygay Potter, and other beloved characters.

As I said, I’m holding my breath.

The Rules for Revising Movies

In 1997, when George Lucas re-released heavily modified versions of the original Star Wars films, fans reacted as if he had airbrushed a blemish off the face of the Mona Lisa. Even before Jar-Jar Binks, the re-releases gave Lucas a reputation for caring more about making money than preserving the legacy of his films.

The most offensive of Lucas’ changes occurs during the showdown between Han Solo and the bounty hunter Greedo. In the original film, Han shoots Greedo under the table while they’re chatting away. This was not only an amusing comeuppance for the despicable insectoid Greedo, but a good set-up for Solo’s character, a hardened drifter who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.

For the 1997 rerelease, Lucas changed the scene so that Greedo shot before Solo but missed. According to Wikipedia, Lucas did this because “he wanted to make clear to children that Han had no choice but to shoot Greedo.” Basically, he was worried that the scene made Solo appear cold-hearted – which was the entire point of the original scene.

This is an unforgiveable transformation of Solo’s character – if he existed, Han would probably zap off one of Lucas’ thumbs for making the change, and then steal his fortune and gamble it away.

Yet for many movies, the re-release is considered by fans to be the “true” version. This is the case for Blade Runner. When the film was originally released in 1982, the studio forced director Ridley Scott to put in a voice-over because they worried that the audience wouldn’t understand the film. Scott removed the odious voice-over for the 2007 “Final Cut” edition, the first cut he had complete control over. I’m confident that most fans and critics would call this the “official” version of the film.

Why is George Lucas evil when he redoes the Star Wars movies, while Ridley Scott is a hero for changing Blade Runner? Because Lucas didn’t follow the golden rule for changing movies:

The only good reason for changing a movie is to bring it closer to the original artistic vision.

If a studio interferes with a director’s control of a movie, the director gets a pass to fix the movie by reediting it. Somehow, I don’t think this was George Lucas’ reason for changing the Greedo scene; he was either trying to impose a middle-aged sensibility on a movie he made in his early 30s, or a ’90s blockbuster sensibility on a ’70s film. The George Lucas of 1977 would be appalled to see Greedo shoot first.

That’s one of the most tragic things about directors modifying old movies – they interfere with the energy the movie received from the era it was made in. Part of Star Wars’ charm comes from the shaggy haircuts, the somewhat grainy film and the earnest but dated special effects. I’m sure that, like most films, Star Wars also contains some of the zeitgeist of its time, but I don’t have the time to examine it like that now.

So even the small changes Lucas made in 1997, like adding new extras to the scenes in Mos Eisley to make it seem more crowded, or cleaning up the special effects with computers, hurt the film’s feel, which leads me to the second and last rule:

No new footage can be filmed or special effects added.

Fortunately, the trend seems to be moving away from George Lucas-style revisions. I can’t remember any after 2002, when Steven Spielberg changed the police officers’ guns to walkie-talkies in the re-release of E.T. Maybe South Park’s vicious parody of Lucas’ and Spielberg’s practices had something to do with that. I hope we will continue to see edits of classic movies like Blade Runner that needed only meet the approval of the director – the way movies should be in the first place.