Star Wars: The Force Awakens drowned us this summer, with merchandising ranging from mascara to oranges on store shelves. Once I saw the new film, I wanted to see the original theatrical versions, undiluted by George Lucas’ meddling. Lucasfilm insists they no longer exist. Of course, legions of fans took it upon themselves to reconstruct the films using a variety of sources. The most controversial change in the first film takes place in the Mos Eisley cantina scene. (spoiler alert – but really, you should’ve seen Star Wars by now!) Green gilled and bug-eyed Greedo corners smuggler Han Solo. Han’s a marked man and Greedo’s itching to collect. In the original version, (after stalling and Han drawing his blaster) Han shoots Greedo “in cold blood.” Here’s what the shooting script says:
“Suddenly the slimy alien disappears in a blinding flash of light. Han pulls his smoking gun from beneath the table as the other patrons look on in bemused amazement.”
Later revisions show Greedo shooting first, then Han and Greedo shooting at the same time. “So what?” you might think. This visually insignificant change is one that contains multitudes.
It’s supposed to inform viewers that Solo isn’t so trustworthy. Ben and Luke have put in their lot with this low-life braggart. We’re supposed to feel uneasy about this hasty alliance. It changes the tenor of the film. Han could have sold Ben and Luke if captured by the Imperials, left them for dead at any time, etc.
Another far more tragic example of subtle changes having long reaching effects was during the last gasp of World War II. Japan, threatened by invasion from the United States and fast running out of resources, was determined to fight until the last man. The “Big Three” (United Kingdom, Soviet Union and the US) issued an ultimatum for surrender to the Japanese. The Japanese responded in the negative, but suffered from mistranslation. A word – mokusatsu – has two meanings in Japanese. The first being “ignore” and the other, “refrain from comment.” It was the difference between “let us think about it” and “We refuse!” If the message was translated as “no comment,” the Japanese and US may have arrived at a surrender deal, preventing the twin atomic horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This misinterpretation struck consequences far beyond the imaginations of its writers and readers.
It’s a chilling lesson for clarity and precision in communication. We may think that subtle differences make no difference, although we're proven wrong time and time again. If you believe that words are your ally, do – keep in mind words might turn on you without provocation. Remember always: "Expect to misunderstand and expect to be misunderstood."