In the anticipation of the Star Wars Original Trilogy DVDs, all of the old debates on whether George Lucas should be making more revisions to his films, the first of which was "completed" and released nearly thirty years ago. A lot of this stuff involves a lot of what I call "geekery of the highest order", in which arguments are advanced that the brief scene between Han Solo and the bounty hunter Greedo is so important to establishing Han's character that to change it seriously undermines the characterization. Personally, I don't agree, but I'm more interested in a larger issue about artists and the revisions of their work.
I'm generally forgiving of most of the alterations George Lucas has made, on the basis that they all seem to fall into one of two categories: effects enhancements, in which the visuals Lucas intended back in 1977 (or 1980 or 1983, depending) simply weren't possible either for technological or financial reasons. A number of the effects shots -- not that many, strikingly, but a number of them -- simply did not age well, and I have no problem with their replacement, especially since in most cases the new effects are, to my eyes, done tastefully and still in keeping with the general "look" of each film. I'm thinking of some of the individual shots during the final attack on the Death Star, for example.
The other type of revision Lucas is after can be called story enhancements. These are dicier, and I admit that not all of them work quite correctly. But what Lucas seems to be doing is trying to "retrofit" the original films so that their story more closely matches the story begun in the Prequel trilogy. In short, Lucas is trying to make sure that the entire film series tells a single story, and I really don't fault him for this, even if I may on occasion fault the results.
More interesting to me is the idea that many fans (and non-fans alike, to judge by the vehemence of the online griping and bitching) that a film is like a painting or a sculpture, and that "finishing" a film should be like the moment when an painter lays down the brush for the last time or the sculptor sets aside his chisel. In a number of discussion board threads I've followed on the subject, this analogy is brought up again and again, and I'm not sure it holds, for this reason: film is a plastic medium, not a static one. Film bears more resemblance to music or literature than it does to static arts like painting, sculpture and photography. And when I look at the history of literature and music, I find that artists revising their work -- sometimes many times over many years -- is not without precedent.
Many classical composers revisited, and revised, their earlier works over the years. Berlioz did this, as did Wagner, whose opera Tannhauser actually exists in two distinct versions. Anton Bruckner's music was so often heavily cut and revised and stitched back together that his scores present scholarship issues. And in literature, revision often occurs: consider how many versions of Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman produced, for example. I'm simply not convinced that the idea of a single, canonical version of a given work, be it a film, a symphony, a novel, a poem, or whatever else is an idea that has as much basis in reality as many seem to believe.