An exercise in imagination
Another Saturday come and gone, another new Star Wars collectible has found a home on my shelf. The last few yard sales have produced some interesting items, perhaps none more so than the Star Wars radio dramas on cassette. Although I've seen the movies countless times, I never had the opportunity to experience them in this format. After the runaway success of Star Wars in 1977, director George Lucas gave away the rights to produce a dramatized audio version of the movie to his alma mater's public radio affiliate, KUSC-FM. Science fiction writer Brian Daley was given the arduous task of expanding the two hour special effects-driven film into a six hour, 13 part radio serial.
A team of talented voice actors was assembled to bring the story to life, including original cast members Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels. Lucas also gave the producers permission to use John William's classic score and Ben Burtt's Oscar-winning sound effects. Sound engineer Tom Voegeli would spend months melding the three elements together. Released in 1981, the initial broadcast was a runaway smash, with 750,000 tuning in and NPR listenership spiking 40%*. The Empire Strikes Back was given similar treatment in 1986, when cast member Billy Dee Williams joined the mix. In 1996, HighBridge audio (who purchased the rights to the first two) produced Return of the Jedi, completing the trilogy.
I was fortunate to land all three dramas on cassette, and I've been listening to them on my ride to and from work the past few weeks. I'll admit listening to Star Wars without seeing the signature visuals takes some getting used to. Many of the characters' voices and dialogue are different, and certain scenes have been shifted to accommodate the radio serial format. A childhood spent endlessly watching these films on VHS have left an indelible mark, making it difficult to let go of each actor's unique vocal inflections and delivery. If put to the test, I could probably recite 80% of the movie's dialogue. That type of conditioning is difficult to break. You have to listen to a few episodes before you finally began to relax your ears. Once you do, your mind is anxious to fill in the details with its own imagery.
I listened to The Empire Strikes Back first (my favorite film of the series). The narrative changes focus by expanding on the rebel's occupation and eventual exodus from Hoth; included are exchanges between Han and Luke before their rescue as well as Luke's 'promotion' to the head of Rogue Squadron. In fact, so much time is spent expanding on the first third of the film that the drama is forced to gloss over the emotional 'meat' of the story, namely the burgeoning love affair between Han and Leia and Luke's Jedi training. In particular, actors Perry King and Ann Sachs do a competent job of voicing Han Solo and Princess Leia, but they have little time to develop the chemistry necessary to make us believe the princess has fallen for the pirate. Likewise, John Lithgow does a surprisingly good impression of Yoda, but it's difficult (and sometimes even comical) to describe the force. In the end, the program is interesting but feels somewhat derivative.
By contrast, the radio drama of Star Wars is something wholly original. Perhaps because the first narrative was so tight, the drama's 13 episodes have plenty of time to expand on the characters. Luke, Leia, C-3PO and R2-D2 are all flushed out in greater detail, providing us with the reasons behind their motivation. Luke comes across less like a restless farm boy and more like a young man caught between family obligations and his own destiny. The actions that lead to Leia joining the rebellion are also described, giving her character a certain vulnerability missing from the film. The Darth Vader torture sequence aboard the Death Star is particularly gut-wrenching, far too visceral for a movie aimed at children.
In total, these changes make the story feel richer and help the audience connect with the characters on a deeper level. After listening to the drama, I can say I have a renewed appreciation for the film. I strongly recommend them to any Star Wars fan, casual or otherwise. The tag line used to originally promote the broadcast, “wait until you hear it”, is apt in this case.
Fun Fact: The director of the first two entries in the series, John Madden, would later go on to direct Oscar Winner Shakespeare in Love.
Stats taken from Star Wars. HighBridge Audio. http://www.highbridgeaudio.com/starwars.html