Friday, December 18, 2015

On Star Wars and Killing Your Darlings

(I haven't seen episode VII so I cannot spoil it for you; this is about the first two trilogies. Minor spoilers, I guess, but the statute of limitations is up on those, so… too bad.)

Like most people in the developed world, we've been preparing ourselves for a new Star Wars movie. We've been watching the first six all week long, ready to see the seventh on Friday morning. While watching them, I thought specifically about George Lucas killing his darlings and what I can learn from his example. 

We own the bluray edition. This means the versions of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi are not the versions I grew up with, but are the digitally enhanced versions with new "cool" CGI scenes inserted in. 

Since I first saw the new version of Episode IV, the scene I hated the most is the scene where Jabba visits Tatooine to threaten Han. Jabba's just walking around (squirming around???), looking all non-threatening and insignificant. Han steps on his tail. 

Let me repeat that so you really think about it: 

Han Solo, a lowly human with no allies in the immediate vicinity, steps on Jabba's tail and Jabba, the supposedly terrifying and cold-hearted gangster, is surprised and makes a stupid tongue-hanging-out-in-shock-and-pain face. In one move, Han is mocking Jabba and Jabba lets him do so. Jabba's guards don't do anything about it. 

The scene is an eyesore; even late-90s technology didn't help much and it's obvious that Harrison Ford is superimposed against the digital Jabba. Jabba acts against character, and the idea of a menacing monster is undermined, changing the way we would think of him in episode VI. The conversation is stilted, the wide shots make Jabba look like a child's toy, and the overall impact is a negative one. 

Had that scene been in the original movie (especially if it had been done with 1970s special effects), it very well could have ruined the movie altogether. A campy  space opera is one thing; a campy space opera with inconsistent characters and terrible special effects is another.

George Lucas obviously loves that scene. It was cut from the original version of the film, but was one of only a handful added back in, and the only one (as far as I can remember) to be added in that actually had any plot-related substance to it. As soon as it was possible to do so, he added that scene right back in. 

And it was a mistake. 

Without that scene, Lucas had to resort to Hitchcockian methods to introduce to the legend who is Jabba the Hut for two movies. The first time we see him, he is truly a terrifying monster. Sure, he looks like a fat blob, but that's all the more reason to fear him. He wields all that power and strikes fear into the heart of our great, beloved Han Solo without ever getting up off his couch. 

With the added scene, our first impression of Jabba is a silly turd-like worm-man. 

The movie was better without that scene, despite how much Lucas obviously loved it and wanted it to be there. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that cutting that scene was a significant reason Star Wars was the hit that it was back in 1977. 

Sometimes, you have kill your darlings. You have to take out the scene you love. Maybe it doesn't fit thematically, or it puts your characters in a slightly different light. Maybe it's unnecessary, or maybe the special effects just look really stupid and amateurish (sorry… I can't think of a book-equivalent for that one). 

Lucas got to add his darling back in, because he's George FRAKKING Lucas and can do whatever he wants, but even he felt the heat for putting that scene in the new version of the movie. And while there's an argument to be made that the backlash was just from a bunch of over-protective needs who didn't want their precious movie to change at all, I think it goes much deeper than that, and even the angriest of nerds knows it. 

So kill your darlings. Kill them dead and don't look back. Don't be George Lucas. Except for the part where he created an unforgettable story and world full of characters we love. Do that part.