Variants and Canonicity

Star Wars has changed a lot over the years.  There are the theatrical release versions (at least two of those in the case of ANH), the remastered and slightly modified THX VHS versions, the heavily modified Special Editions from the late 1990's, and finally the still-more-modified 2004 Special Edition DVDs.

Though some argued that the 1990's Special Editions of the original trilogy were nothing more than "historical revisionism", Lucas and Lucasfilm made it abundantly clear that the Special Edition versions of the original films constituted the true, canonical version of events.

Steve Sansweet, in a 1997 radio interview with Sci-Fi Talk, explained that the original films were going to simply be re-released in the theaters for the 20th Anniversary of Star Wars, but that the original film stock was discovered to be in a state of profound disrepair.  A large and expensive clean-up operation was planned, at which point Lucas intervened:

It was at that point that George said hey, as long as we're going to spend the time and the money to do that, how about we spend a little more time and a little more money and let me get the film that I always wanted."

In a rather lovely coup, it was 20th Century Fox that footed the bill for the Special Editions, at Lucas's suggestion.  According to the New Yorker, they were only too happy to put the millions into it so as to get the distribution rights.   Far from this being a studio-based endeavour, though, this was Fox jumping at the chance to please George Lucas.  Sansweet described how the money was spent to Sci-Fi Talk:

They spent a total of about ten million dollars on Star Wars, and a total of about five million on Empire and Jedi, which needed a lot less work and were much closer to George's original vision.  But, there were so many things about Star Wars that bothered him, both technically, and in particular, one scene that he really wanted in the movie -- especially after he was able to complete all three movies -- that he just couldn't do because of the time, the money, and the technology that was then available.

When the Special Editions were coming out, Lucas and others had this to say:

"The digital technology that ILM pioneered in films like 'Jurassic Park' and 'Forrest Gump' allows me to revise a few scenes which bring the movie closer to my original vision, Lucas said in a prepared statement."

(That last quoted word is sometimes reported online as "version", incidentally, but elsewhere is "vision".  "Vision" makes more sense in context.)

Note clearly the fact that Lucas stated in the above that the Special Editions were closer to what he was aiming for.   And, from Howard Roffman, then Lucas Licensing's VP:

"There were parts of the movie that didn't live up to his vision, and now he has the ability to fix and add to the movie."

(From a Reuters/Variety press release, reprinted here and reported as also appearing in a 1994 "Daily Variety" here.)

And, Lucas has this to say in the 1997 VHS release of the ANH Special Edition:

"At some point, a famous filmmaker once said, 'Films are never completed, they're only abandoned,' and, rather than living with my abandoned movie I really wanted to go back and complete it."

Also, there were scene-specific comments.  In Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays (see reprint), Lucas refers to a particular Special Edition scene as being what "it was supposed to be in the first place":

"The scene in Jabba's palace was supposed to have a big musical number, but unfortunately, we ended up with only a couple of shots. Now, thanks to digital technology, we're able to turn this scene into the real musical number that it was supposed to be in the first place."

And to again reiterate the point, we have the following transcript of part of an audio recording from a Q&A session held with Lucas at a 2003 ILM tribute that featured Lucas:

"Do you think that filmmaking technology will change such in the next, y'know, 20-25 years that you'd be able to go back and do Special Editions of Episode I and II the way that you did with the first three films?

Well, I don't think I have to, because the first three films fell short of what I wanted to do . . . we ran out of money, and we had ran out of time, we didn't have the technology to do what we wanted.   Uh, and so I was frustrated, I was really angry that I couldn't actually bring the vision I had in mind, uh, even as it was scripted, uh, together to be the movie I wanted it to be.  Which is one of the reasons I wanted to do the Special Editions [...]"

This position has been maintained over the years.  In preparation for the 2004 DVD release of the original trilogy, the Associated Press interviewed Lucas.

"AP: Why did you rework the original trilogy into the special-edition versions in the late 1990s?

Lucas: To me, the special edition ones are the films I wanted to make. Anybody that makes films knows the film is never finished. It's abandoned or it's ripped out of your hands, and it's thrown into the marketplace, never finished. It's a very rare experience where you find a filmmaker who says, That's exactly what I wanted. I got everything I needed. I made it just perfect. I'm going to put it out there. And even most artists, most painters, even composers would want to come back and redo their work now. They've got a new perspective on it, they've got more resources, they have better technology, and they can fix or finish the things that were never done. ... I wanted to actually finish the film the way it was meant to be when I was originally doing it. At the beginning, people went, Don't you like it? I said, Well, the film only came out to be 25 or 30 percent of what I wanted it to be. They said, What are you talking about? So finally, I stopped saying that, but if you read any interviews for about an eight- or nine-year period there, it was all about how disappointed I was and how unhappy I was and what a dismal experience it was. You know, it's too bad you need to get kind of half a job done and never get to finish it. So this was my chance to finish it."

Thus, it is clear that the Special Editions superceded the THX version or the original theatrical releases.  Lucas could have easily simply re-released the trilogy for the 20th Anniversary and raked in the cash, but instead he chose to spend twenty million dollars to bring them closer to the way he wanted them to be.  Similarly, the 2004 DVD versions supercede even the previous 1990's SE version.  Indeed, Lucas seems to make no distinction between the two.  In the AP interview, Lucas was asked "Why not release both the originals and special editions on DVD?"   

"The special edition, that's the one I wanted out there."

Thus, despite the differences, Lucas takes the DVD release to be the Special Editions, the fixed version of the trilogy, the way it is supposed to be in order to make it closer to Lucas's vision.   Even in the cases of a readily-apparent change of Lucas's mind (such as his decision to make Greedo shoot first in the Tatooine cantina, and then to shoot at the same time), we must accept the Special Edition DVDs of the films as the true version of events.  To do otherwise is to choose to ignore the canon, not to mention it's maker and owner.

Yes, Greedo shooting first sucks.  But, many other SE changes were extremely spiffy, especially the ones that were barely noticeable.  For a good breakdown of the 1997 ANH:SE changes (and other fun tidbits from ANH), click here for Pablo Hidalgo's "Indexed Trilogy".