Late last year, “The Wire” in HD premiered on HBO Go and on Jan. 5, it was made available to digitally purchase, and this week it arrives on Blu-ray. It’s a remastered version of the show that’ll look better than those DVDs you’ve watched a hundred times, though it will also look slightly different: The show has been changed to fit to a more widescreen-friendly aspect ratio. Last December, when this news was announced, David Simon posted a blog on his website, “The Wire in HD,” that explains why he is, ostensibly, OK with this adjustment to his masterpiece—not that he had much of a say in the matter.
To explain, “The Wire” was shot in 4:3, which is the typical “full-frame” or square aspect ratio of most television shows in the ’00s. To make it fit the currently popular 16:9 aspect ratio, a rectangle, they have to alter the image, which means you are not seeing this incredibly thought-out and highly conceptualized show as it was intended to be seen. Because this was a particularly studious remastering, it does mean they didn’t just crop the image; rather, they went to the original negatives and extended the image outside of what you saw on television, so you’re seeing, on the left and right, new visual information that was initially shot when the show was being put together, though it was outside of the frame when it aired on HBO. This is certainly better than haphazardly cropping the show, but it’s still unfortunate, especially when you consider why this is happening: so that the show fits the modern widescreen television/computer monitor without black bars appearing to the left and right of the image.
Simon is a reasonable but firm kind of fellow and updated his blog post with clips of the show as it previously looked in its proper 4:3 and how it now looks, cleaned up and remastered but also changed to fit 16:9. He even presented an example where he thinks the change assists the look of the show and one where changes lead to a scene “los[ing] some of [its] purpose and power.” Simon calls it an “arguable trade-off, but one that reveals the cost of taking something made in one construct and recasting it for another format.”
But this is an unnecessary “trade-off.” The very reason the widescreen TVs exist is to afford viewers options; a way to adjust their TVs to different aspect ratios (because movies and now television shows are shot in a number of slightly different aspect ratios) and this is only happening right now because this way people can watch “The Wire” without those pesky black bars on the sides of the image. That’s what this is all about. Black bars on the sides of the image when you watch it.
Simon was typically transparent about the process: “This new version, after all, exists in an aspect ratio that simply wasn’t intended or serviced by the filmmakers when the camera was rolling and the shot was framed.” Calling this a “new version” veers on spin, but the bottom line is that Simon really has no control over how HBO changes his show and if you read the blog post, it’s clear that Simon and other key collaborators on “The Wire” stepped in once they saw how HBO was adjusting the show and oversaw these adjustments. They found a compromise and Simon makes that clear. Read between the lines though, and Simon is basically saying, “HBO could’ve fucked this up way more.”
If you compare and contrast the examples Simon provides, the differences are subtle but significant. The framing is slightly off now giving the HD-altered version a kind of heightened, cinematic quality that, when it was on, it intentionally rejected. For example, one scene that Simon posted on his blog, between Wee-Bey Brice and D’Angelo Barksdale in front of New York Fried Chicken, now has a “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”-style grandiosity to it in 16:9. The characters are dwarfed by their surroundings. But what was so powerful about “The Wire” is how it gave all of its characters a kind of shabby, realistic nobility and never elevated their actions to some sort of pomp-and-circumstance-filled street opera (think of how “unimpressive,” in a dramatic sense, Omar Little’s murder was). The original version of the scene between Wee-Bey and D’Angelo is a bit tighter, and as a result, it’s like you’re observing these characters from across the street. It feels more like a regular-ass chat between two guys; the dialogue and acting tells you it’s important, not the framing of the camera.
It would be pointless for Simon to take a stand against these changes to his show, but it’s worth stressing that it sets a bad precedent for how other movies and shows are treated when they’re remastered. Art should be presented as it was originally intended to be seen if and when possible, and in this case, it was certainly possible. One more time: This is all so that an audience, who we assume sees themselves as smart and sophisticated and concerned with art because they’re about to blow 100-plus bucks on “The Wire” on Blu-ray, doesn’t have to endure black bars on the sides of their image. Simon sympathizes with and mocks HD-obsessed dullards at one point in his blog post: “There can be no denying that an ever-greater portion of the television audience has HD widescreen televisions staring at them from across the living room, and that they feel notably oppressed if all of their entertainments do not advantage themselves of the new hardware.”
If you recall, the entire aspect-ratio conversation came about decades ago because earlier technology frequently cropped all images to fit television. Movies were given the “pan and scan” treatment, which means the sides of the image were haphazardly cropped to so that a movie could fit the square shape of a television. The widescreen television and monitor were a way to fix this cropping problem and allow for a multitude of aspect ratios. But now widescreen, a format developed to maintain the integrity of a movie, is the reason for changing the show. The mind boggles.
This is a big deal and if you don’t think so then you’re just kind of dim. HBO and the tech-head side of film and television culture buying into this are wrong here. David Simon has afforded his fans a transparency about this adjustment to his show that most creators would not, but it still must be stressed that this is a show celebrated for its uncompromising attitude being compromised.