The hell of the “never-ending story”

It’s the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars. But there’s brewing controversy around the fact that it is, apparently, near-impossible to watch the original film.

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Turns out, most versions now shown in cinemas or sold on DVD are the 1997 Special Edition, tweaked on its 20th anniversary by the film’s creator ahead of the current, seemingly unending round of prequels and sequels.

Does it matter? Well yes, according to fans. They point to a key scene in the 1977 film in which anti-hero Han Solo casually shoots a would-be assassin in a bar: a scene changed in the Special Edition to appear as an act of self-defence.

That’s a pretty major revision of Solo’s character.

At heart, it’s technology that allows this kind of thing to happen. I don’t just mean the technology to beef up effects and insert computer-generated changes. I mean the evolving technology that’s shifting our consumption of films, books and music from an ownership model to an access model.

In years gone by, most artists and other creative types had to confront The End – the moment when their creation is finished and must be handed over to the public, for praise or brickbats.

Whether a VHS tape, an oil painting or a paperback book, the finished product couldn’t be changed once it hits the shelves.

Technology has changed this. Books on e-readers can be changed on the fly, films on streaming services can be tweaked, and whole albums can be reworked (as ably demonstrated by Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo album, now subject to constant revision in what his record company called an “innovative, continuous process”).

Is it fair on consumers? Imagine going back to Led Zeppelin’s IV album and finding the guitar solo to Stairway to Heaven chopped in half. We’re paying for the product, but if it can be constantly changed how do we know what we’re buying?

Is it fair on artists? For Kanye, an “innovative, continuous process” might be fun, but for other jobbing musicians it could be a never-ending hell. How will this be written into their contracts?

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