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HBO Max Cuts Cigarette from Iconic Movie Poster

Modern tech gives entertainment companies the power to “retro-edit” material. How far could it go?

Last week, HBO Max, the Warner Bros.-owned TV streaming platform, cut more than just their costs — they’re cutting back on cigarettes too.

Keen observers noticed that HBO Max removed the cigarillo from the iconic movie poster from “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” Now, McCabe is awkwardly holding up two fingers with no smoking device in hand. They also scrubbed cigarettes from several other film posters, including “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean,”There Was a Crooked Man,” “Fallen Angels,” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

HBO hasn’t yet disclosed its reasoning for the cuts. Maybe they thought people wouldn’t notice the changes, or at least wouldn’t be concerned over them. But the decisions have garnered criticism and pose a bigger question: should entertainment companies tamper with historical films, and does a simple edit like this set precedent for more drastic changes in the future?

Charles Dickens (1812–1870) wrote two endings to his classic novel Great Expectations. In the first ending, Estelle walks away from Pip and they never see each other again. In the later conclusion, it is implied that Estelle and Pip marry and live happily ever after. Why? Fans wanted a happier ending and pressed Dickens to make the change. Back then, changing a novel was more of a challenge because of the technological limits of the printing press, but now, modern technology makes “retro-editing” effortless.

In theory, if fans hated the ending of the “Avengers” franchise, the film’s editors could go back and keep Tony Stark alive (sorry for the spoilers). The creators of the Star Wars show “The Mandalorian” brought back a computer-generated Luke Skywalker, which fans loved. Modern movies and shows, then, are not necessarily set in stone anymore. With the technology we have today, visual entertainment is an open-ended book.

While there’s no telling if entertainment companies will tamper older films to greater degrees, it may be worth wondering what this means for the industry. Referring to the Dickens example, if a certain fan base hates the direction a show is going, or decries a character’s death and demands a change, the tech allows for that. And if the pressure is heavy enough, will those in the entertainment industry be allowed to tell the stories we need as a society?

I recently finished reading The Children of Hurin, a pre-Lord of the Rings legend by J.R.R. Tolkien. The book is without a doubt among the most tragic I’ve ever read. It’s hard to find one note of optimism in the whole piece, but Tolkien still managed to tell a story of piercing beauty and emotion that yet pointed to goodness and truth. The book, although a fantasy (perhaps because it was a fantasy) offers a realistic portrait of the evil and sadness that exists in our own world, and how redemption often feels delayed. Better that, perhaps, than have a sentimentalized “happy ending” that pleases the crowd but writes off tragedy as if it’s no big deal. Again, we don’t know if something to that scale will happen in the entertainment world; our technology simply allows for it now, and that’s something to keep in mind.

Going back to the cigarette story, the urge to subtly reframe history is also a concern. The question is not whether smoking cigarettes is bad for you. We know that it is. But smoking was nonetheless a significant aspect of daily life in American culture when these films were produced. Trying to get rid of it feels like abusing our technological capacities. Why can’t we interact with these stories for what they are and make our own judgments about them? And if this is about promoting physical health, why not place disclaimers at the front of the films that warn of the negative effects of smoking? There are other ways to discourage cigarette use than trying to pretend they weren’t a part of the movies.

It will be interesting to see how entertainment companies use their technological prowess in the future. Will fans have more influence on filmmakers? Will ideological pressure cause people to edit out “problematic” material in old movies? Who knows. What we do know is that our technology is powerful, and if we fail to use it well, can serve bad purposes.

You may also wish to read: Can deepfakes substitute for actors? Would you care if the actor is a real person or not? A big issue is compensation for the person who created, if you like, the “brand” that made you care in the first place. (January 2021)

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and serves as Managing Editor of Mind Matters.

HBO Max Cuts Cigarette from Iconic Movie Poster