25 Years Ago: ‘Star Wars’ Fans Upset by ‘Trilogy Special Edition’
When older Star Wars fans went to theaters on Jan. 31, 1997, there was a feeling of nostalgia alongside excitement. It had been 20 years since the first movie in George Lucas’ giant franchise arrived, and many attendees wanted simply to relive the experience of having seen it for the first time in 1977.
The plan was to reissue each of the three movies one month apart, billed together as the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition. Audiences could expect to see The Empire Strikes Back in February then Return of the Jedi in March (although the third installment was delayed slightly to take advantage of the box-office success of the first two). There were some changes in the story, however. For one, the movies’ names were officially changed. Star Wars was now titled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, and the others had their episode numbers, V and VI, prefixing the original names.
Those weren’t the changes that upset people; after all, they’d all been defined in the original opening crawling text by those numbers anyway. What did upset people were the number of tweaks Lucas made to the movies they came to love. He intended to take advantage of his influence and fortune to deliver his original vision, but that wasn’t necessarily what the audience wanted. While they’d probably have tolerated the tidy-ups that could be seen everywhere – from adding characters in the background to improving special effects and battle scenes – there were several things that, some felt, went too far.
Chief among those was the scene in the Mos Eisley Cantina in A New Hope when Han Solo is confronted by the bounty hunter Greedo. During a tense conversation at a table, Solo prepares his gun underneath, then suddenly shoots Greedo dead. Or at least that’s what seemed to have happened in 1977. In 1997 viewers watched Greedo shooting first and missing, then Solo firing back almost instantly. It was a big deal because it changed Solo’s character in a big way. He was no longer the kind of guy who fires first; he was much more lucky than skilled in that a professional killer had missed him at extremely short range, and his path from cowboy rogue to hero of the rebel alliance was now paved with doubt. It became known in fandom as “Han Shot First” – it’s never really gone away, and it’s become representative of the tension between people who make sci-fi movies and people who love them and feel they own them.
Watch the Original Han Solo and Greedo Scene From 'Star Wars'
Watch the Special-Edition Han Solo and Greedo Scene From 'Star Wars'
“Changes are not unusual,” Lucas said in his defense in 2012. For example, he had already tweaked Star Wars between its premiere in May 1977 and its wider release a few months later. “Most movies, when they release them, they make changes. But somehow, when I make the slightest change, everybody thinks it’s the end of the world.” He pointed out that, in many cases, film studios changed final cuts without the director’s permission or even involvement, which was surely worse than his own approach. “My job is to try to make the best possible movie it can be.”
Referring specifically to “Han Shot First,” he said what he "did was try to clean up the confusion, but obviously, it upset people because they wanted Solo to be a cold-blooded killer, but he actually isn’t. It had been done in all close-ups, and it was confusing about who did what to whom. I put a little wider shot in there that made it clear that Greedo is the one who shot first, but everyone wanted to think that Han shot first, because they wanted to think that he actually just gunned him down.” In a separate interview, he noted, "That morality had obviously slipped out of the current thinking of most young people, and they liked the idea that Han Solo was a cold-blooded killer.”
There were other significant changes, including the addition of a scene where Solo meets crime overlord Jabba the Hutt that was shot with Jabba as a humanoid, rebuilt so a CGI version of his slug-like body could be included. One of Lucas’ aims was to make the older movies better match the upcoming first three episodes, so they could be enjoyed in order without the trip-up of effects and budgets making the older films look out of place. Reports at the time suggested he had spent $10 million on touching up A New Hope – the same amount he had to make the entire feature in the first place.
“One of the great things about doing the Special Editions was we were able to go back and do the original Star Wars - A New Hope exactly the way George wanted it,” producer Rick McCallum said at the time. “The way he had written it. Whether people liked it, it didn't matter, it was his movie and he couldn't make it when he first made it because there were so many compromises he had to go through.”
Special effects artist Dennis Muren later said he was "fine with doing it." "I didn't feel at all that we were hurting anything," he explained. Still, "my feeling always was that the original version was always gonna be there, and I don't know if that's necessarily happened. George hasn't put the effort into doing an HD, super-good HD version of the original versions, and I don't know if that will ever happen. But at the time my feeling was that we could finally make these shots better, you know.”
Star Wars fans got used to Lucas’ tweaks, accepting it as part of fandom. A prime example was removing the Yoda puppet from the version of Episode I – The Phantom Menace released in 1999 and replacing it with a CGI version of the character. His position was that he had always intended to use the computer-generated Jedi master but ran out of time. “We couldn’t get the technology to work, so we had to use the puppet, but the puppet really wasn’t as good as the CGI,” he said. “So when we did the reissue, we had to put the CGI back in, which was what it was meant to be.”
He even went back to the “Han Shot First” scene at some point before 2012. When the movie appeared on Disney+ in 2019, a single additional word of speech that sounds like “maclunkey” is heard from Greedo before his death. "I think it's gone overboard," Muren admitted. "I think it's been done too many times and too many shots, but I just feel as long as the original version is always there that it's fine to be able to work on it later on, and sort of like ‘so what,’ you know?"
The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi included tweaks, too, but Lucas spent around half for both movies than he had spent on A New Hope, and they were less obvious and irritating. The first movie grossed the most of the trilogy – perhaps because some people began to wonder whether they were getting the nostalgia trip they wanted. At the same time, they began to wonder who owned that nostalgia and the potential income that goes with it. On top of that, they’d already been stung by another “special” in the form of the disastrous Star Wars Holiday Special, a production so bad that even Lucas has never tried to revisit it.
In recent years Star Wars fandom has become much more vocal about such subjects, which, for some, ruin the fun of the moment they first saw the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away … ”