When Star Wars was on the radio

Yoda. Image courtesy StarWars.com
Yoda. Image courtesy StarWars.com /

The original three Star Wars movies have been adapted more times than you can count. The movies have been adapted into novelizations, comic books, video games, and more picture books than you can imagine. But one of the interesting adaptations that doesn’t get talked about much is the radio drama adaptations.

While radio dramas were popular in the early days of the format, as televisions became standard editions to the home, the radio drama fell out of popularity. However, in the 1980s, a man named Richard Toscan who was an employee at the University of Southern California continued to champion the format as a unique way of telling stories. Working with the school’s campus radio and NPR affiliate, Toscan began to work on a way to promote the radio drama and revitalize NPR Playhouse, the name of NPR’s radio drama productions. At the suggestion of one of Toscan’s students, they began to look into the idea of adapting Star Wars as a radio drama, as it was one of the most popular movies in the country at the time and would no doubt garner a great deal of interest from younger audiences.

While the project seemed doomed from the start, due to how prohibitively expensive such a production would be, the rights to Star Wars ended up being surprisingly easy for the radio station to secure. It turns out that George Lucas graduated from USC and was interested in the idea. Lucasfilm ended up granting the rights for the radio adaptation for a total of one dollar, and even allowed the production to use Lucasfilm’s library of original Star Wars music and sound effects for the production.

In order to secure the rest of the funding, NPR partnered with the BBC. Radio Dramas were still a more popular format in England at the time, and with BBC helping to foot the bill, the production of the Star Wars radio drama could move forward. The first Star Wars radio drama was an adaptation of A New Hope and it aired in 1981. Some of the original cast returned to reprise their roles for the radio version of A New Hope, including Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels. The series was thirteen episodes long and was nearly six hours long in total. Because the series was adapting a two hour movie into a six hour radio drama, several elements were added to the story, some coming from earlier drafts of the script for Star Wars, and some being added by Brian Daley, the writer who had been hired to adapt the story and is credited for writing the scripts for all thirteen episodes.

For example, the first two episodes of the radio drama feature action that takes place before the events of the movie even start. The first episode introduces Luke and his life on Tatooine, taking elements from some scenes that were filmed for the first movie, but ultimately cut out from the final product, while the second episode provides additional backstory for Princess Leia before the events of the movie. The radio drama adaptation also added back the scene where Han Solo encounters Jabba the Hutt before taking off from Mos Eisley, a scene that movie audiences would eventually get to see years later when it was added to the special edition version of the movie.

All in all, the Star Wars radio drama was an incredible success, bringing in hundreds of thousands of new listeners for NPR and in some cases boosting the audiences as much as 40%. With the critical and commercial response to the radio drama, it’s no surprise that a radio adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back quickly went into production.

The Empire Strikes Back radio drama was released in February of 1983, two years after the release of the first radio drama. While it was shorter than the first one ( about four and a half hours over ten episodes), it was still much longer than the movie it was adapting, and once again, the plot was expanded, incorporating new elements of the story including events that took place before the beginning of the movie. Like the first radio drama, some of the film’s cast returned to reprise their roles, including Billy Dee Williams coming back to play Lando. The role of Yoda went to John Lithgow who actually had radio drama experience prior to his part in Star Wars, having appeared in ten episodes of CBS Radio Mystery Theater in the 1970s.

While a third radio drama was planned after the completion of The Empire Strikes Back, plans for that production fell apart, most likely due to financial issues. It wouldn’t be until over a decade later that the radio drama trilogy was finally complete with an adaptation of Return of the Jedi. The final chapter of the radio drama trilogy was finally able to be created with the support of Highbridge Audio, the company that had released the cassette and CD versions of the first two Star Wars radio dramas.

While Return of the Jedi was the shortest of the three radio dramas (a little over three hours split across six episodes), it was still able to make some minor expansions to the story by adapting some of the film’s deleted scenes and putting them back in the narrative. While many members of the cast for the earlier radio dramas reprised their roles for Return of the Jedi, some of the original film actors didn’t return for the final radio drama, and characters such as Luke and Lando had to be recast. In fact, Anthony Daniels was the only actor to appear in all three parts of the original trilogy in both the film and radio versions.

Brian Dailey who had written the first two radio dramas, also returned to write the Return of the Jedi adaption, but he unfortunately passed away shortly after the recording of his script. Because Return of the Jedi was being released so close to the upcoming prequel trilogies, some minor things had to be changed after the initial recording, in order to not contradict the upcoming new installments of Star Wars, making the small changes the only part of the entire radio drama trilogy that wasn’t written by Dailey.

Today, the radio dramas are probably one of the more obscure ways that people can experience the original trilogy, however they still have their fans. The radio dramas have been released for a home audience multiple times, and even some of the more modern reviews have people claiming that these are their preferred versions of the original Star Wars trilogy, given how much detail each adaptation goes into. Fans of the radio dramas have kept the idea alive, by producing fan created adaptations of some of the other Star Wars movies that never got the official treatment. So, if you’re looking for a new way to experience the Star Wars movies you’ve already seen a hundred times, see if you can track down the radio dramas.