Ask a hardcore Star Wars fanboy/girl about their hopes and fears for The Force Awakens, the film coming out in two weeks (Have you heard? You might have), and somewhere in the middle of their half-hour monologue, they'll likely say that one thing that makes them optimistic is that George Lucas, the man from whose brain Star Wars sprung, had nothing to do with the new movie.
It's an odd thing, that the creator of what may be the most fecund work of art of the 20th century (Star Wars has spawned not just seven movies with many more on the way, but also hundreds of novels, comics, TV cartoons, video games, and more) is widely disliked by that work's most fervent fans. But it actually makes quite a lot of sense if you look at fans' alienation from Lucas as an early example of a profound transformation that has taken place in the way we as audiences relate to those who create the cultural products we love.
To understand that story, you have to know what the rallying cry "Han shot first" is all about. In a scene early in the original 1977 Star Wars, Han Solo is leaving the Mos Eisley cantina when he is confronted by Greedo, a bounty hunter who holds him at gunpoint, then explains that he is going to take him to Jabba the Hutt, who has put a price on Solo's head. Sitting at a table, Greedo explains this to Solo, who surreptitiously takes his gun out of its holster. Once Greedo reveals that he plans to kill him, we see an explosion of blaster fire and Greedo slumps over dead.
In 1997, Lucas produced a remastered version of the original film for a 20th anniversary theatrical release, in which he changed a number of things he said had bothered him over the years, including upgrading some special effects. But the most controversial change was in that scene, which now included a wide shot in which we see Greedo shoot at Solo and miss; it's only an instant later that Solo fires. Check out this side-by-side comparison of the different versions:
Fans were incensed. They felt that not only was Solo's shooting first completely justified under the circumstances (a wretched hive of scum and villainy like Mos Eisley surely had a "stand your ground" law), but that it was important to developing Solo's character. He isn't just a witty rogue, he's also dangerous, decisive, and (at that point) selfish. But Lucas insisted that he had always understood the scene as having Greedo shoot first, even if it wasn't clear in the way it was originally edited. Not only that, he was a little taken aback at how the fans viewed Han Solo. "Obviously it upset people because they wanted Solo to be a cold-blooded killer, but he actually isn't," Lucas said in 2012. In a new interview with The Washington Post, Lucas continues to defend the choice. "I was thinking mythologically — should he be a cowboy, should he be John Wayne? And I said, 'Yeah, he should be John Wayne.' And when you're John Wayne, you don't shoot people [first] — you let them have the first shot."
But to fans, Han Solo isn't John Wayne, adhering to some 1950s Western moral code about what distinguishes good guys from bad guys. Han is a realist, and if that means he has to shoot first, so be it.
What's fascinating about this controversy isn't that the audience took something different from the film than its creator did — that happens all the time. When we watch a film or read a novel or look at a sculpture, we take what the artist has done and add to it our own perspective to create its final meaning to us. The fascinating part here is that the audience simply rejected Lucas' explanation of what was in the film. These people, for whom Star Wars is one of if not the most meaningful cultural product of their lives, turned on the man who gave it to them and said, "No, you're wrong. You don't get it." You'd have to forgive Lucas if his response was, Hey, I'm the one who wrote and directed the damn thing! (not that he ever said that publicly, but it would be odd if he didn't think it at least sometimes).
The Han Shot First controversy was possible in 1997 because there were two competing versions of the text. But in the 18 years since then, this kind of adversarial relationship between artists and their audience has become more common. Yes, people used to throw rotten fruit at performers they didn't like, but some of the most intense arguments can now be had between the artist and the people who love his or her work the most. J.K. Rowling, for instance, has to endure endless tweets from people telling her who the characters in Harry Potter really are.
This change in our relationship to art comes not only because we have the opportunity to trade our theories and interpretations with as many people as we want via the internet, but also because we've come to see talking back to artists as part of the bargain, even if not every artist obliges. And now that we live in a world full of recaps and instant online analyses, the creators of cultural products that come in installments — television shows, film series with multiple installments, book series — are more aware than ever of the audience's opinions not just after it's all out there but while the act of creation is going on.
Some of them may take special care to avoid seeing what's being said, but many are eager to know how their work is being received — and will sometimes alter future installments based on the input of fans, whether it's about a character they love (Don't let Glen die!) or a narrative technique they find troubling (Enough with the sexposition!). The writers of The Simpsons have been in a years-long passive-aggressive argument with their fans, whom they sometimes embody in the form of the Comic Book Guy. (In one episode, he proclaims of his favorite TV show, "Last night's Itchy & Scratchy was, without a doubt, the worst episode ever. Rest assured that I was on the internet within minutes registering my disgust throughout the world.")
As the internet has heightened the collective aspect of fandom by letting us communicate more broadly with each other about culture, it has also allowed us to understand that we in the audience are the ones who are the final arbiters of its meaning, since we're creating that meaning together. If you're my age, The Force Awakens won't have as much of an emotional effect on you as Star Wars did, but that's mostly because you're no longer a kid. But a month from now — if you want it — you'll have taken in more information and perspectives and opinions about it than anyone could ever need. And that can only make the experience richer.
Oh, and just for the record, Han shot first.