That Time NPR Turned 'Star Wars' Into A Radio Drama
May 16, 2020 11:10 AM   Subscribe

NPR bought the rights for $1, and created an expanded story using original music, original sound effects, original actors, and truly brought the Star Wars universe into everyone's headphones in a glorious manner. Star Wars: The Original Radio Drama (podcast link, 13 half-hour episodes).

Sadly I can't find the ESB or ROTJ adaptations for easy listening online, but this first series was really brilliant.
posted by hippybear (32 comments total) 76 users marked this as a favorite
Can’t wait to add these to the 4000 looping here, as long as bare MP3 files are available for them.
posted by metasunday at 11:36 AM on May 16

Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are available on
posted by blob at 11:42 AM on May 16 [12 favorites]

This adaptation is truly excellent, absolutely the best thing in the larger Star Wars mediaverse outside the first three movies (and maybe the Mandalorian). I clearly remember listening to it on initial broadcast and being absolutely rapt.

It aired in a slot that was held, both before and after, by Doug Adams’ original BBC Hitchhiker’s guide episodes and subsequent projects. I think there may have been other SF radio adaptations aired in that slot as well - I want to say I have a vague memory of a Dune adaptation? Hm.
posted by mwhybark at 11:46 AM on May 16 [5 favorites]

The Force is strong with this one.

(By which I mean awesome post, thanks for bringing this to my attention).
posted by nubs at 12:07 PM on May 16

Adding my voice to those who say that if you haven't heard these before, they're truly excellent. Among the best produced radio dramas by any measure, and even if the movie hadn't existed and these radio plays were all "Star Wars" was, it would have been popular (in their genre).
posted by tclark at 12:13 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]

Oh man, I remember listening to these when they aired. I think I recorded cassette tapes of them off the air, in fact. It seemed really good at the time, and I'm glad to hear it holds up well.
posted by rmd1023 at 12:23 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]

Living where I did at the time, I only got two NPR stations on my radio. One of them was classical music exclusively and the other one was more general. It was also harder to tune in on a regular basis due to distance, so I didn't listen to it as much. But one night in the spring of '99 before TPM came out, I found the second episode of ESB and it was incredible. It had a different Han and Leia, but Luke was Mark Hamill and C-3PO was Anthony Daniels.

The second episode included the scene where Han and Leia faced off in the south passage. The dialog between the two was more or less the same, but had key lines that were different and expanded upon. The actors also played the scene much different from how Harrison and Carrie played it in the movie. It was excellent. In fact, I actually prefer it in some ways.

After the episode was over, they had a special preview of "Duel of the Fates."

I never caught another episode. Woe!
posted by Fukiyama at 12:30 PM on May 16

My Dad taped these when they first aired and I remember listening to them with my brother during the summer.
posted by nestor_makhno at 12:38 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]

Is this the same team that adapted A Canticle for Leibowitz? Because I could never get through the book but was rapt during the radio drama version.
posted by Flannery Culp at 1:01 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]

Is this the same team that adapted A Canticle for Leibowitz?

No, entirely unrelated. But it's truly great audio drama. In my life, I've listened to a lot of radio stuff, including a bunch of old time radio (*fist bump* Fibber McGee & Molly and Jack Benny) and CBS Radio Mystries and such, but the three best things i've heard in that genre (taking a full summary of production, story, and aural presentation) have been Hitchhikers Guide, Star Wars, and Canticle. Canticle is a bit less produced, but the story is so very well conveyed, much better than the book IMO.
posted by hippybear at 1:32 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]

Arye Gross as Lando Calrissian
Edward Asner as Jabba The Hutt
John Lithgow as Yoda

That's... well, that's an interesting bit of casting.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 1:46 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]

That's... well, that's an interesting bit of casting.

Relatedly, a whole lot of these folks would go on to become the founding repertory core of L.A. Theatre Works, which was for quite a long time the largest and most expansive audio drama organization in the USA. They're still cranking out new shows (not so much right this moment) but their catalog is amazing and worthy of your quarantined ears. (Disclaimer: I was their senior radio producer for a long spell in the '10s.)
posted by mykescipark at 2:27 PM on May 16 [12 favorites]

Well, audio drama.. they were/are more readers' theater than anything else. Not much in the way of sonic space creation through sound effects or anything.

Not disparaging them at all, I love them, but what LA Theatre Works does is more "stand on a stage and read" than "create a world through audio that a listener can get lost inside".
posted by hippybear at 2:32 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]

My parents recorded these on cassette tapes when they first aired and we would relisten to them for years. I bet the cassettes are still up in their attic.
posted by fimbulvetr at 3:00 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]

I bought these all on cassette in a neat boxed set and then left them in the back of my car during a New Mexico summer. The resulting bubbles and warps could possibly have been exhibited as Modern Art as a commentary on fan culture, only it was years too early for that to even have developed.
posted by hippybear at 3:08 PM on May 16

I can’t believe I didn’t know about this! Thank you!!
posted by blurker at 4:45 PM on May 16

They're great going-to-bed listening. The guy who plays Han really shows what a different way the character could have gone.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:34 PM on May 16

So I'm not seeing Episode 4...
posted by rochrobbb at 5:39 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]

Looks like this series is also available on (including Episode 4).
posted by rochrobbb at 5:56 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]

Back in the day both the SW & ESB adaptaions were broadcast in Australia on ABC-FM (just before noon on Sundays, IIRC) and, as a teen SW fan, I recorded them all. An episode of the latter was directly responsible for my eventual career.

One episode of ESB - from memory, the second or third one; the one that starts off with Luke landing on Dagobah - suffered from a playout error that made the first 5 minutes or so unintelligible. Being a perfectionist completionist, I was distraught! I even rang the ABC several times trying to convince them to replay it - they'd done that earlier for an episode of SW that was interrupted by power blackouts - but to no avail.

A couple of weeks later, after calming down, it clicked - the audio was there, and even in stereo, just buried under a huge amount of mono / common-mode noise! So I thought about it some more, and came up with an idea. These days you'd just spend a few minutes cancelling and tweaking it in Audition or Audacity or some other DAW; back in the early 80's I had to spend all my pocket money on some electronic parts I'd never used or really understood before (op-amps!) and design something to fix it.

Which quickly escalated into a stereo separator / vocal canceller with steerable common-mode noise cancellation, low frequency spatial bypass (in most music bass is centred - typical vocal cancellers of that era either cancelled the bass too or let just one channel's bass through; since the radio plays included spatially-located bass sounds I didn't want to do that), and, most importantly, stereo out.

Let's just say I impressed myself with how well it worked... 😉

Later that year I was finishing school and had applied for a few apprenticeships. Being the son of an electrician, one was with the local power company; being interested in electronics, another was for technicians with the local phone company. After sitting the entrance exams and making it through to the next stage of both, each suggested I bring along to the interview something I'd built. I remember the only stipulation for the telco interview was 'no motorbikes' - the previous year they'd interviewed someone who'd built a mini-bike from scratch & brought it up to the office…

(I met him years later; a really nice quiet, thoughtful, fiercely intelligent guy who was an excellent tech and an even better completely self-taught mechanical engineer. By that time he was building multi-engine drag bikes that, powered by nitros and the rider's balls of steel, were winning championships.)

Anyway, I took my little device to both those interviews. Being a 16 year old straight out of school, it'd be fair to say I didn't blitz them; I was nervous as hell, stuttered, blanked on simple questions, etc. Worse still, at the power company interview the panel was completely disinterested in my little box. But at the telco interview, the technical guy on the panel was fascinated and impressed - so, after we'd got the silly questions out of the way, we spent half the interview and a good 10 minutes outside afterwards chatting about why I built it, how it worked, what I'd done to get around problems, etc.

I never did hear back from the power company. But I got accepted in the first round of telco technician apprentices that year…
posted by Pinback at 6:05 PM on May 16 [64 favorites]

Dammit, I was trying to flag Pinback's comment as fantastic but ended up hitting a different option by accident and now I can't change it. Fantastic comment, Pinback!
posted by hippybear at 6:13 PM on May 16

[Pinback's comment flagged as Fantastic :) ]

Pinback, do you still have that bit o' kit?
posted by filthy light thief at 7:20 PM on May 16

Somehow when I read Pinback’s recounting of how the audio got fixed, I can only see Chewbacca with his opera-glass welding goggles doing some arc welding on the hull of the Falcon.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:34 AM on May 17 [3 favorites]

the radio drama has convinced me there is a serious dearth of noo yawk accents in the actual film

"AYYYY, youze seen dat new BT-16?"
"yo, summa other fellas was telling me 'bout it. they says you gotta see it"
posted by entropicamericana at 7:38 AM on May 17 [2 favorites]

The guy who plays Han really shows what a different way the character could have gone.

Likewise with Brock Peters as Darth Vader. His performance is still recognizably Darth Vader, but without doing an impression of James Earl Jones, if that makes sense.

The adaptations of the first two films are really great, but I feel like they lost a lot of steam by the time they got to ROTJ.
posted by MrBadExample at 1:41 PM on May 17 [2 favorites]

posted by oneswellfoop at 2:46 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]

i wonder how much of the clunky expanded/alternate dialogue is from lucas's script before the film was saved in the edit. after watching the prequels, some of it seems less like exposition for radio and more like "you can type this shit, george, but you can't say it" as harrison ford so aptly put it
posted by entropicamericana at 3:29 PM on May 17

RotJ suffered because Brian Daley, who wrote the adaptations was dying of cancer at the time.
posted by Ignorantsavage at 7:42 PM on May 17 [2 favorites]

Thanks for this, I'm really enjoying it. I probably could have done without the Princess Leia torture scene actually being dramatized, though.
posted by bowline at 1:10 PM on May 18

It does bring Darth Vader into a relief that he didn't have before, though. I think the only time I've been equally impressed with his evil was the scene in Rogue One where he's just throwing people against the ceiling in a fit of rage. That interrogation scene is intense, and is specifically referenced in the main article.
posted by hippybear at 1:49 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]

One of the weirdest things about being an old crone who has loved Star Wars since it first came out is meeting and learning to appreciate a whole generation of fans who grew up not seeing Vader primarily as an evil villain.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:36 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]

Fair point hippybear, and thanks for reminding me of the original article, which I had not yet read.
posted by bowline at 7:53 AM on May 20

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