Saturday, August 15, 2009

For Your Ears Only: NPR's Star Wars

Link to STAR WARS on CD from Amazon
The NPR adaptation of STAR WARS is a bit of a legend among audio theatre buffs, for reasons that aren’t too difficult to guess at; it’s a large-scale, professional adaptation of a beloved story, one that doesn’t seem at first glance to lend itself to an audio-only format, and in most people’s opinion, it worked. But the STAR WARS radio drama is more than just a translation of the story from one medium to another. Three times as long as the movie and then some, the radio mini-series takes time to expand on the characters and universe we all know and love, adding backstories and interstitial scenes that frame the story in an interesting context. It’s better when it’s introducing this new material than when it’s replaying familiar scenes, but the overall effect is pleasurable, like getting to know a friend in greater detail.

You probably know the basic story. Galactic war, rebels vs. empire, a young farmhand buys a couple of robots and meets a Jedi which leads to high adventure and princess-rescuing on an enemy battle station. But it’s actually not until three episodes in that we get to the action that we saw in the first minutes of the film. The first and second episodes are all backstory, the first revolving around Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill again) and his friends on Tattooine, including Biggs Darklighter (Kale Browne), a pilot at the Imperial Academy who’s planning to jump ship for the Rebellion shortly. This is based on material that was actually shot for the movie but left on the cutting room floor, and it’s interesting to hear it play out (without having to search video sites.) The second episode gives us some of Princess Leia’s story, as the young Senator (played by Ann Sachs) witnesses the cruelty of the Empire firsthand and comes into possession of the plans for the dreaded Death Star.

As the familiar story unfolds, we’re treated to scenes like C-3PO (Anthony Daniels again) and R2 hiding from Stormtroopers in Mos Eisley, Han Solo (Perry King) meeting with Jabba the Hutt’s representative Heater (Joel Brooks) in a scene like that which was eventually completed for the Special Edition of the film, and most interestingly a lot more material set on the Death Star, with Grand Moff Tarkin (Keene Curtis) seeing himself as a potential challenger to the Emperor and Darth Vader (Brock Peters) now that he’s in command of the Empire’s main means of keeping order in the universe. It’s a neat bit of pageantry that foreshadows the villainous double-crosses that would drive the action of the next two installments.

I guess what I find most interesting about all this is that the universe of the first STAR WARS is so very simple. The sequels and prequels and various Expanded Universe stories would do a lot to flesh out the details and feel of Star Wars as a franchise, but the spin-offs which were built solely on the first movie seemed to rely more on its purer blend of fairy tale and space opera. The mental images conjured up by the radio play are iconic; the rugged gulches of Beggar’s Canyon where Luke and friends race T-16s, the pastoral peace of Alderaan, the oppressive machinery of the Death Star. It’s all rendered with high spirited performances and appropriately hammy dialogue (and it’s nice to remember a time when bad dialogue in Star Wars was part of the fun rather than something to be ashamed of.)

Things are a bit more scattershot when we’re replaying the action of the film. Given that this was, at the time of broadcast, still the highest grossing movie ever, and with Lucasfilm watching over the whole thing, the adaptation is faithful to a fault. A good example of this is Han Solo’s now infamous confrontation with small time bounty-hunter and eternal mook Greedo; in the play, as in the film, Greedo speaks an alien language, except on radio there are no subtitles, so Han has to give us leading lines like “Yes, Greedo, I was going somewhere...” to make sure we know what’s happening. When he shoots (presumably first, but don’t get me started), he has to exposit that he shot from under the table because that’s how it happened on screen. Some of the action sequences are adapted pretty smoothly, but there are times when the dialogue tries too hard to spell out the action, as when Luke swings with Leia across a chasm on the Death Star.

Now, I need to point out two things; one, the action sequences are never, ever incomprehensible or even terribly hard to follow. This is a big deal, because when you’re dealing only with auditory information it’s possible to lose track of the action more easily than if you’re looking at something. A bit of clumsiness on the dialogue’s part can be forgiven, because writer Daley was nice enough to err on the side of clarity. Just as importantly, the climactic action sequence, the Death Star attack, is executed terrifically, generating the same suspense as its cinematic counterpart. NPR ended up using most of the original film’s signature sound effects and, of course, John Williams’ music, and this helps drive home to fans that it is the same world after all.

With strong voice acting (listen closely for Adam Arkin as one of Luke’s friends), solid production values and unobtrusive narration, STAR WARS is a fun listening experience. It’s not quite as good as the film- it inevitably drags in a couple of places (and the story’s first act was pretty long to start with)- but it’s a great companion piece, letting us spend more time with the characters and learn a little more about everything. If you liked STAR WARS on film, you pretty much can’t go wrong. And anything that gets more people listening to quality audio theater is good by me.

Based on characters and situations by George Lucas
Written for radio by Brian Daley
Directed by John Madden

Grade: A-

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