Altered states: why we’re suckers for different cuts of the same films

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Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner – perhaps the film that did the most to establish the phenomenon of the ‘director’s cut’

 

If you’ve had a conversation with a friend about whether they have seen Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, you may also have found yourself asking a follow-up question: Which version did you see?

That film is a few minutes longer in the version intended for cinemas that can show it in 70mm format. Tarantino reportedly felt the extra footage would suit the bigger screen. But you have to wonder whether there’s another issue at play here. Nothing helps sustain interest in a film quite like the prospect that there are other, possibly better, versions in existence.

colin clive frankenstein
Colin Clive in Frankenstein

Genre fans have probably been talking about what might have been in an unseen cut of a favourite movie ever since we had films to obsess about. I remember, as a teenager, feeling quite the expert for knowing there was an earlier edit of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) in which Frankenstein says “Now I know what it feels like to be God” and in which the monster is seen unintentionally drowning a little girl. These days, that uncut version has pretty much supplanted the edition that the world knew for sixty-odd years. Naturally, I hanker to see the old one.

Since the 1950s, horror fans have also been aware that films could exist in different versions in various parts of the world, in order to take into account differing tastes in matters of sex and violence – although the truth around those versions was often surrounded by a lot of rumour and exaggeration.

 

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Steven Spielberg was allowed to re-visit his 1977 hit in the Special Edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind

But the idea of studios deliberately releasing and promoting more than one cut of a film can surely be traced to Close Engineers of the Third Kind. The 1980 Special Edition of Steven Spielberg’s UFO movie was a way of simultaneously indulging Hollywood’s wunderkind and wringing some more money out of the 1977 hit. Spielberg was dissatisfied with some of the creative choices he had made while hurrying to finish the film the first time around. Now, he could re-edit the movie as he wanted, as long as he satisfied the studio by adding some footage of the mother ship interior.

However, the film that really showed how intensely interested genre fans could be in the existence of an alternative cut was surely Blade Runner. Ridley Scott’s 1982 film was always a cult favourite, rather than a popular blockbuster. The knowledge that there had been screenings of a work print which represented Scott’s vision, prior to meddling by the studio, helped sustain discussion about the film. In 1990, the work print was shown again, once only, helping pave the way for the release of a director’s cut. There’s something almost religious about this phenomenon – the knowledge that there was a select group of disciples to whom the truth of Ridley’s vision had been revealed.

All this was tremendously exciting at the time, but in the 1990s, the concept of the ‘director’s cut’ became commonplace, well understood even by people who had little interest in how films were made. We would sometimes see extended home video releases of films whose directors had enjoyed the right of final cut in the first place. Studios had become aware that re-inserting some discarded footage into a film could generate some more interest.

There is a completism common in fandom that can make us suckers for this kind of thing. I’m not judging; I’m like that myself. (I’m a UK resident who ordered an American DVD of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, because the British cut was missing one solitary second of the fight between Obi-Wan and Jango Fett, for goodness’ sake.) But sometimes it seems as though the studios are exploiting that obsessiveness a bit.

hobbit five armies
More to come? The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

There are two circumstances when I have a problem with alternative versions of movies. The first is when a ‘special’ edition is intended to supplant the version seen by the movie-going audience first time around. (I’ve got this far without mentioning “Han shot first”.) The second is when the cinema audience is left with the feeling that the film-maker is holding out on them because an extended cut is on the way.

I felt that way about the last film in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy had been completely satisfying on the big screen, yet the extended versions for home viewing had added more incident, colour and story, rather than padding. But the Hobbit cycle, despite taking three long films to adapt a relatively short book, ended with an instalment that was full of loose ends, muddle and illogicality. You couldn’t help but think that some of these flaws would be taken care of in the expanded version – but when you have laid out a serious amount of cash to take a family to the movie, you’re surely entitled to expect a finished and satisfying work.

Releasing different cuts of a film can be a way of encouraging a conversation about it, as well as appealing to the collector’s mentality in us fans. But sometimes, I wish film-makers would just release the best film they can at the time – and then let it go.

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