Sound In Space: The STAR WARS Radio Dramas

Originally published in the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker issue of Birth.Movies.Death magazine in 2019.

George Lucas has often described the Star Wars movies as silent films. Their stories are carried primarily by spectacular visuals and music; they’d play almost as clearly without dialogue. An official “silent” version of the films has never been released, save The Last Jedi as a bonus feature, but paradoxically, the opposite did take place: in the form of the Star Wars radio dramas.

The radio dramas were the brainchild of University of Southern California associate dean Richard Toscan and NPR producer Frank Mankiewicz, who sought to make radio cool again by piggybacking on the biggest cultural craze in existence. Luckily, USC happened to be George Lucas’ alma mater, and in 1981 a generous Lucas sold the rights for a fee of one dollar. NPR and the BBC spent $200,000 adapting the first film, utilising a sprawling cast and many of the original sound elements from the films. An Empire Strikes Back adaptation followed in 1983, with Return of the Jedi emerging much later.

Written by The Han Solo Adventures author Brian Daley, and helmed by future Shakespeare In Love director John Madden, the Star Wars radio dramas were a smashing success. NPR saw a 40% bump in listenership, and the dramas saw widespread critical acclaim. It’s hardly surprising: with roots in serials like Flash Gordon, Star Wars lends itself to cliffhanger-heavy radio melodrama spectacularly well. But the radio adaptations also saw a number of changes from the films.

Given how heavily Star Wars relies on visuals, a radio adaptation requires modifications by necessity. Writer Brian Daley employed classic radio drama techniques, adding a narrator to read the opening crawl and bridge between scenes, while having the characters describe what they’re seeing and doing more than they would onscreen. Some of this dialogue is clunky – Darth Vader’s silent menace is lessened no matter how poetically he narrates his actions – but Daley mostly fit the required information into dialogue without seeming too unnatural. Important, too, because as unlikely as it seems, at least a few listeners would never have seen the films.

By the time the radio dramas were in production, most of Star Wars’ cast was too busy or expensive to bring back. Mark Hamill returned to play Luke Skywalker, and Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, though neither were involved in the Return of the Jedi adaptation (to disappointing results). Of the original casts, only the ever-reliable Anthony Daniels reprised his role in all three series.

The rest of the cast was made up of voice and character actors, bringing delightful alternate takes to well-known material. In Ann Sachs’ performance, Leia became a more ideologically earnest character than in the films. Perry King, who had unsuccessfully auditioned for Han Solo onscreen, brought a Fonz-like swagger to the radio character that outdoes even Harrison Ford’s cocky performance. Brock Peters (To Kill A Mockingbird‘s Tom Robinson and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s Joseph Sisko) played Darth Vader as more actively emotive and sinister than James Earl Jones’ grander, more regal villain. John Lithgow of all people played Yoda, doing a half-decent-half-grating impression of Frank Oz, and incredibly, Jabba the Hutt was voiced by the great Ed Asner – known to today’s audiences as Carl from Up – speaking entirely in Huttese. Elsewhere, Sledge Hammer’s David Rasche played Admiral Piett in Empire, while omnipresent character actor Ed Begley Jr. played Boba Fett in Jedi. This isn’t quite the Star Wars you know, but it’s a damned interesting Star Wars.

Stripping Star Wars of its visuals only reinforces the importance of John Williams’ musical score and Ben Burtt’s sound design. Williams’ work was a gift to radio-show producers, who used his music to shape action and emotional arcs, while the actors’ performances could complement the music rather than doing the emotional heavy lifting on their own. And of course, Burtt’s sound design did more than just create pew-pew battles and alien worlds: entire characters, such as R2-D2 and Chewbacca, were created from scratch via sound design alone.

The Star Wars radio adaptations are perhaps most notable to fans for adding substantial additional material compared to the films. Much of this emerges as extra character notes, with heroes and villains expounding at length on their feelings and backstories, but plenty of scenes on radio straight-up do not appear in the films. The first series in particular, running at six hours, contains an enormous number of new scenes. We hear Leia and her father (“Prestor”) negotiate with the Empire on Alderaan; spend time with Luke’s friends on Tatooine; learn about Han’s past; and gain a deeper glimpse into Imperial politics. The sequels continued that trend, though mostly by expanding upon existing sequences. All three series are a gold mine for fans.

Until recently, this additional material actually counted as official Star Wars canon, as Lucasfilm drew the line under “the screenplays, the films, the radio dramas and the novelisations.” After the purchase of Lucasfilm by Disney, though, the canonicity of the radio dramas dropped away, with only the films, TV shows, and subsequent Disney-produced media remaining valid. Indeed, much of the added backstory directly contradicts Disney-sanctioned canon, and even the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Still, it’s a fascinating glimpse at an alternate-universe version of the world’s biggest movie franchise.

Today, radio drama is a thing of the past. Narrative podcasts exist, but this kind of big-budget audio-only show just isn’t made anymore. In fact, it was already on the decline during production: soon after Empire aired, federal funding cuts to NPR and disagreements between Lucasfilm and KUSC scuppered plans to adapt Return of the Jedi. Only over a decade later, in 1996, did Highbridge Audio step in to complete the audio trilogy, hiring most of the original team to do so – including Daley, who died mere hours after recording was completed. 

Collectively spanning fourteen hours, the Star Wars radio dramas are worth the time. We’ve all seen the films many times, but the radio dramas allow us to genuinely experience the stories anew, performed by different actors with different permutations of dialogue. They’re also a window into a lost art, a radio star killed by video. Lie back, relax, and listen to Star Wars for the first time all over again. You’ll just have to imagine the visual effects.