You can imagine a mother having said to her child this Halloween, "No, you're not going as a terrorist."
Those actually are the words that the mother in the movie "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" says to her son. Or at least that is what she used to say. When Steven Spielberg's family classic gets its 20th anniversary re-release in March, that line will be gone.
So will the guns that the cops carry as they chase the bicycle-riding kids and E.T. Through the magic of computer graphics, the police now will be armed with walkie-talkies. This change already can be seen in the "E.T." trailer that runs on the new DVD for "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas."
In a sense, Spielberg is following the lead of George Lucas, who digitally altered his original "Star Wars" trilogy when the films were re-released in 1997 in "special editions."
Those changes included the insertion of a computer-generated Jabba the Hut in the first "Star Wars," a new musical number to end "Return of the Jedi," numerous added effects to fill out various landscapes and--in the move that incensed die-hards--the first movie's re-editing of Han Solo's shootout with the villainous Greedo so that Han no longer fires first.
What's next? Will it be a "special edition" of the Spielberg-directed, Lucas-produced "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in which Indiana Jones no longer shoots that show-off swordsman?
Kathleen Kennedy, Spielberg's longtime producer, said she wouldn't speculate on other Spielberg plans to rethink older films, but she considers the changes to "E.T." minor compared with Lucas' "Star Wars" revisions.
"There's no comparison, because George went in and he redid whole scenes and sequences," she said. In contrast, "E.T." is receiving "a wide variety of subtle changes."
Two previously deleted scenes are being added: one with Elliot and E.T. sharing a bathtub, and one that plays alongside the Halloween scene. But the bulk of the work involves tweaking E.T.'s performance through computer graphics, "a tool that didn't exist when we made the movie before," Kennedy said.
"E.T., as you know, was at its time an animatronic like no one had really seen before, but still it had flaws because it was cable operated, and there were days when he worked better than others," she said. "And we were able to go in now and subtly make those adjustments."
As for the walkie-talkie substitution, that had been planned for years.
The other day, Universal's publicity chief faxed over an excerpt of a 1995 interview in which Spielberg said, "I regret that a gun was used as a threat to stop children on bicycles. And I regret that last cut, before E.T. opens his eyes and the bikes take off, of the gun coming up.... And if I ever reissue the picture, I'll use the digital miracle of, you know, CGI [computer-generated imagery] to take the guns out of the cops' hands. And I'll just simply delete the shot of the cop holding the gun up, which, in the current film, causes E.T. to fly. I think those were, you know, distasteful moments to me."
In other words, the gun removal is not another example of what Kennedy considers some filmmakers' "overreaction" to recent events. (She said, for instance, that the images of the half-sunken World Trade Center towers will remain in future versions of "A.I. Artificial Intelligence.") However, the decision to remove the terrorist line, which was spoken off camera, was made after Sept. 11.
"We were running the movie looking at the finished shots, and we heard the line, and both Steven and I had completely forgotten that it was even in there, and we just felt hearing it that it was probably, in light of what has happened, an inappropriate line, and we elected to take it out," she said.
Internet reports of these changes have reflected the kind of alarmist tone you'd expect if, say, Yoko Ono had decided to add harmonizing vocals to John Lennon's "Imagine" album. A printout of the readers' "Talk Back" responses to Web site Ain't It Cool News walkie-talkie story ran 43 pages. Sample comments: "Spielberg, you are becoming a soccer mom," and, "Instead of hunters shooting Bambi's mother, we have to have her captured by government agents [with walkie-talkies]."
"I don't quite understand what the controversy is all about," Kennedy said. "It would be a big controversy if the studio was going in making a bunch of changes to movies and then releasing DVDs because they felt the movie was better or something. But if a director is reissuing a movie and wants to go in and make adjustments, that's entirely up to the vision of the director."
Is the Director or
the Viewer the Owner?
Here we've reached the core of the issue: Who really owns a film, the director who created it (with the help of hundreds of crew members, actors, executives, etc.), or the viewers who embraced it and cherish it in their memories?
When Frank Zappa re-recorded new bass and drum parts for the first CD issues of his 1960s Mothers of Invention albums, he caught flak from his fans until the original versions finally were released on CD and the revised versions were deleted.
"How can they be upset if Frank Zappa wants to go back in and re-record something?" Kennedy said. "I just don't understand the argument."
Many filmmakers no doubt wish they had the luxury of "fixing" their movies, which often were produced under strict deadline, budget and running-time pressures. It's great that Francis Ford Coppola could take the time and money to create a newly constructed "Apocalypse Now Redux," although the title change indicates his acknowledgment that this movie is distinct from the original "Apocalypse Now."
Movies also are products of their times. Countless pre-Civil Rights films, including many so-called classics, feature embarrassing, offensive portrayals of eye-rolling, 'fraidy-cat black characters. The early James Bond movies were unapologetically sexist--and he often shot first. You could make socially strong arguments that these images have no place in modern entertainment, just as removing guns from "E.T." seems justifiable given that generations of new kids will be viewing the movie for the first time.
But if their filmmakers were alive to make the changes, would we be better served if the blatant racism of D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" or the tacit racism of Victor Fleming's "Gone With the Wind" were excised from all future showings? With each change, a bit of our cultural history is erased.
"I think it's wonderful that people want it to remain pure, but I think that people should see what gets done," Kennedy said. "For instance, I loved seeing the French plantation scene in 'Apocalypse Redux.'
"It's seductive when tools come along in the process of making art that allow you to do things you wish you could have done or you wish you could have done better at the time that you did something. And if you get an opportunity to redo it and use those tools and make it better, I think it's just human nature that you would want to try to do that."
Mark Caro writes about movies for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.