Sunday, September 16, 2007

Star Wars: The Original Radio Drama

National Public Radio, with the cooperation of George Lucas, adapted Star Wars into a 13-part, 6 and a half hour radio drama in 1981. I remember driving around with my dad and him turning it on in the car for us to listen to. I also have memories of listening to radio editions of either The Empire Strikes Back or Return Of The Jedi, but in no case do I remember the content of the shows. I'm concerned that I might have been underwhelmed at the time. If I was for whatever reason then it's too bad, because they're actually pretty awesome.

George Lucas sold the rights to make the series (for $1), and gave away the rights to use the film's music and sound effects, to the local NPR station based out of the University of Southern California. Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels and Ben Burtt also all reprise their roles (as Luke, C-3PO and Sound Designer, respectively).

This must count as one of the best donations NPR has ever received (though I can't find any information on whether or how it was also lucrative). I'm surprised you don't hear about CD sets being given away to the higher donors during the pledge drives; it seems like that would be more appealing than a coffee mug or shirt. But maybe there are rights issues with the CDs, or maybe coffee mugs really are a better inducement than a 20-year old radio serial based on movies that are (understandably) almost exclusively associated with visual pleasure and stimulation. (I can also imagine that, at the time, such rank commercialization was not part of a nonprofit entity's fundraising strategy, and now NPR doesn't control them, or something like that.)

At any rate, radio's lack of visual capacity is not a problem. The writers have ingeniously decided not to re-tell the events of the movie (at least not so far, I'm a few episodes in to Star Wars), but rather to fill in some expositional blanks; it's all context and character development (which Lucas apparently thought up for, but didn't use in, the movie). The radio serial is a nice, even fun, complement to the films (and, according to the Star Wars Wiki, considered part of the canon).

The first episode is particularly good. This episode depicts Luke's life on Tatooine. We get a sense of the day-to-day, season-to-season responsibilities of not only tending a moisture farm, but also of life under the Empire. Luke and a friend fear being drafted to fight the rebellion, but are cautious in how and when they express sympathy for the rebels. There's also an affecting scene where Luke and Aunt Beru argue with Uncle Owen over Luke's desire to buy new robots to help around the farm. Another nice moment has Luke watching through binoculars, in wonderment and terror, what appears to be a star destroyer attacking a smaller ship in the upper atmosphere. In showing Luke as a just a kid, specifically a teenager seeking something to get him away from home, and also in the drag racing theme, this episode recalls George Lucas's American Graffiti as much as the Star Wars movies.

The second episode tells the backstory to Princess Leia's search for Obi Wan Kenobi. It also describes how she came to possess the Death Star blueprints, and presages the destruction of Alderaan by the Death Star.

The Empire and Jedi radio dramas were made later (1983) and much later (1996), and are also much shorter (5 hours, 3 hours). Jedi was also the only not not produced by NPR, though it was broadcast on it. The North Village Branch library has those on, CD, too.

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