With DVDs, director’s cuts and extended cuts of movies are all the rage. While some director’s cuts are substantially different from their theatrical release (e.g., Bladerunner), most seem to include only extra scenes, which don’t substantially change the meaning or feel of the movie. The thinking seems to be “longer is better.” Personally, I don’t always believe this—I thought the extended cut of The Abyss was abysmal—although I did like the extended cuts for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In some cases, the director’s cuts are significant improvements on the theatrical release, as Bladerunner demonstrates.
It’s not often you see a “writer’s cut” of a story (e.g., unabridged versions), but there are examples: Stephen King’s The Stand, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War come to mind in the speculative fiction field. I’ve not read either version of The Stand (it’s on my to-read list), but of the few people I know who have read both, most have said the edited version is better. I have read both versions of A Clockwork Orange and The Forever War. While the final chapter of A Clockwork Orange substantially changes the ending of the book, I could take it or leave it (this might be because I read the original US-version sans the last chapter at an impressionable age, and it’s much darker ending stuck with me). I feel the same about the middle section of The Forever War, which in my opinion doesn’t significantly alter the story or add much additional clarity to the overall theme.
A comment I received on my last post got me wondering: should authors change their text after it’s been published? In the case of The Forever War, the original, edited version won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1976. A Clockwork Orange is considered one of the best English language books written (Stanley Kubrick’s highly acclaimed film was based on the edited version). Should the author change stories that are already recognized as among the best in their field?
There’s no easy answer here. Usually I would side with the editor’s on this one. More isn’t necessarily better, and often writers are poor judges of their own work. A good editor can improve the flow, pace, and clarity of book by working with the writer (note I said a good editor). Often longer doesn’t mean better. Anthony Burgess’ case for A Clockwork Orange is a little different, however; I think his “writer’s cut” is justified because the final chapter is critical to the overall tone and structure of the novel, and it was cut from the U.S. version at the insistence of its U.S. publisher; the full 21-chapter novel had been released elsewhere. Restoring the final chapter for U.S.-editions makes sense to me.
For short stories, I’m less convinced that “writer’s cuts” are necessary. I’m not sure there’s a point. While rewrite requests from editors are not uncommon, I believe if the writer the doesn’t agree with the requested changes, then decline and shop the story elsewhere. In my experience, however, rewrite requests have significantly improved my stories, and I wouldn’t want to go back my original version. That said, I’m sure exceptions exist (see my post on what a bad editor can do to a story). I’d be curious to hear what others think.
Of course with the advent of ebooks, it’s only a matter of time before writers start releasing bonus material such as behind the scenes commentary (“The Writing of X”), interviews, and most importantly deleted scenes.