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Revisiting the Star Wars Radio Drama

Revisiting the Star Wars Radio Drama by Dom Nardi

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After I saw Star Wars: A New Hope for the first time, I asked my grandfather if he had seen the movie yet. He told me he had not and generally avoided movies with lots of special effects and unrealistic action scenes. Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away before I could convince him to watch Star Wars. I have since met many other people who look down upon the Star Wars films, as if good storytelling and stunning visuals were somehow incompatible. Yet, having now watched the film dozens of times over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate that A New Hope is not only fun because of its special effects, but also a good story despite its special effects. The story has even thrived in media that lack any visual component at all.

In 1981, National Public Radio (NPR) made history with the unprecedented success of Brian Daley’s radio adaptation of Star Wars. Although the radio drama initially appealed to fans because it allowed them to relive the film, it has remained popular long after Star Wars was released on VHS in 1982. In 1996, over a decade after the Empire Strikes Back radio drama, NPR even went back and finished the series with a Return of the Jedi radio drama—despite the fact that by then fans could watch Return of the Jedi on Laserdisc, with all of its glorious space battles. The radio drama is still one of the best-selling Star Wars audiobooks on Audible (only behind the latest novels). In 2013, Highbridge Audio even released a collector’s edition of all three shows.

The success of the radio drama sheds light on how and why Star Wars appealed to so many people. Unlike the film, the radio drama lacks “stunning visuals” (although it does use Ben Burtt’s sound effects and John Williams’ score), so this is an example of the Star Wars story succeeding independent of Industrial Light & Magic’s groundbreaking effects work. If Brian Daley believed that the action scenes had been primarily responsible for the movie’s success, he could well have written the radio drama to include more action. Given the low cost of producing effects for a radio drama relative to film, he could have included even more space battles, more gunfights, and more chase scenes than Lucas could have afforded in 1977. Instead, the radio drama has less action and focuses more on the characters, distilling Star Wars down to its core.

In fact, the radio drama begins not with a space battle, as the film does, but rather on Tatooine with Luke Skywalker. This first chapter is a character piece about a young man frustrated with his life and lack of opportunities. The movie hints at Luke’s angst, but the radio drama reveals that Luke doesn’t even fit in with his friends on Tatooine, all of who seem resigned to life far from the bright center of the universe. We also get a greater sense than in the film that Luke is reluctant to take that first step towards adventure. When Luke claims he has to stay on Tatooine to help his uncle, his best friend Biggs Darklighter argues that Luke should stop making excuses and just leave. By showing Luke’s hopelessness before meeting R2-D2 and C-3PO, the chapter makes Luke’s arc over the course of the story all the more inspiring.

Star-Wars-The-Original-Radio-Drama

The radio drama provides even more material on Princess Leia, who in the film has relatively few lines of dialogue. The second chapter covers Leia’s “mercy mission” to the planet Ralltir and her attempts to uncover the Death Star plans. Although Leia certainly comes across as feisty in the film, she spends the majority of the film as Darth Vader’s prisoner, a victim in fact if not in temperment. In the radio drama we see Leia take the initiative in outwitting Imperial officers. The new scenes also demonstrate Leia’s leadership and courage. She convinces her father to let her take risks on behalf of the Rebel Alliance, asking to lead the mission to deliver the Death Star plans to the Rebellion. Jimmy Mac, co-host of the popular RebelForce Radio podcast, goes so far as to claim that the radio drama was crucial to establishing Leia’s character during the early period of Star Wars fandom.1

It is especially telling that the radio drama takes time to further develop Grand Moff Tarkin, a relatively peripheral character. Near the end of the film, when an Imperial officer asks Tarkin about the Rebel attack, Tarkin responds haughtily, “Evacuate? In our moment of triumph? I think you overestimate their chances.” Daley could easily have omitted this line from the radio drama as it contains no new information about the situation and tells us little we did not already know about Tarkin. Instead, the radio drama uses this moment to further develop Tarkin. Before uttering that line, Tarkin asks a subordinate to prepare his evacuation shuttle, but Admiral Motti convinces him not to show any sign of weakness. Motti also encourages Tarkin to use the Death Star to overthrow the Emperor and rule in his place. Thus, the radio drama recasts Tarkin’s response as false bravado and adds a new dimension to the character.

Listeners do not need this extra background material in order to understand or enjoy the story; after all, the film does an admirable job of quickly introducing the characters without it. The film begins in media res, so we don’t even meet Luke and Leia until they have received the call to adventure. However, the fact that the radio drama spends so much time providing background on Luke and Leia suggests that audiences genuinely responded to the characters in the film. People tuned in to the radio drama to learn more about the characters, not just to relive space battles or gunfights. It is almost as if Luke and Leia had become so real that audiences believed the characters had lives and histories outside the boundaries of the film. Other films, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, wowed audiences with their special effects, but few people came away from Stanley Kubrick’s opus eager to learn about Dave’s childhood.

Ultimately, the success of the radio drama demonstrates that, for all its stunning visuals, the Star Wars phenomenon is first and foremost about the characters. Star Wars has thrived in countless tie-in media and merchandising, most of which relates to the characters. Kids buy action figures of Luke, Leia, and Han because they want to recreate the adventures of their favorite heroes. Readers who pick up a Star Wars novel want to spend more time with the characters (and regularly complain if an author doesn’t get their voices right). Some of the highest-ranked Star Wars novels on Goodreads,2 including Kenobi and Darth Plagueis, are character pieces and have few action scenes. Hopefully, Disney and Lucasfilm commission a radio drama for The Force Awakens as a way to learn more about the new characters.

[Sources]
1.RebelForce Radio, “Star Wars Influences #13: John Carter of Mars & Marvel Star Wars,” Shotglass Digital (August 12, 2015), available at http://www.shotglassdigital.com/release/star-wars-influences-13-john-carter-of-mars-marvel-star-wars/.
2.Ranking available at: http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/494.Best_Star_Wars_Books.

Dom Nardi

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Dom Nardi is the Contributing Writer for Star Wars at Legendarium Media. He has worked as a political scientist and as a consultant throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published articles about politics in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. You can find more of his writing at NardiViews.

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  • James Robert Crews Wylder

    This audio drama is still one of my all time favorites. I love it, and it holds up incredibly well. The fact that its structured to have about the same length as if Star Wars had been a Sci-Fi serial in the traditional sense is an extra tickle of fun ^_^.

    The Empire Strikes Back audio drama holds up the worst of the three, as the Han/Leia Romance scenes have none of the charm and chemistry of the film version, and in fact are downright creepy at times. Alas.

    But these audio dramas really set a gold standard over all for what you can achieve with Audio dramas as a format. Brian Daley did a wondrous job in taking the origional story, but not sticking to the same strict sequence of showing the audience events to make the story really fit as audio… Its just a fantastic accomplishment. I wish there was a version of these for the prequels!

  • Zarm

    A fantastic article recalling a fantastic product. This was my introduction to Star Wars- to this day, I prefer Brock Peters Vader to JEJ’s take. If only we would get fresh versions; but even if the heyday of Star Wars audio was only in the 90s, and these three (plus the comics adaptations of Dark Empire, Crimson, Empire, Tales of the Jedi, Dark Forces, etc.) are all that we get, I’ll be get happy- these stories remain the cream of the crop, and a wonderful expansion of an already-wonderful set of stories.