As a blind man, I’ve often said that I always put a voice to a name instead of a face. When I watch a TV show or film, it’s the actors’ voice’s that singe themselves into my brain and become the characters. From James Gandolfini and John Turturro’s twangy Italian rasps to Jonathan Banks’ gravely growl as senior Breaking Bad badass Mike, the vocal tone and timbre defines these people. I may never have drawn these types of connections to the Star Wars universe if NPR hadn’t adapted the classic trilogy into a set of radio dramas.
My first exposure to George Lucas’s galaxy was an audiobook from the expanded universe followed by a viewing of the original 1977 film with the whole family. My unformed retinas enabled me to make out some shapes but no faces. The one image that stuck in my head was the huge triangular spaceship in the opening scene, referred to as “the big cheese” by a few school pals. My parents gave me some feedback on what was happening on screen, consisting mostly of what the various alien creatures looked like. I could discern that Obi-Wan Kenobi was old, while the three protagonists were relatively young, but had no conception of what they looked like.
The following July, I sat by the pool opening presents for my seventh birthday. “Woo!” my sister announced after I ripped the wrapping paper off a box. “The Empire Strikes Back, the Original Radio Drama! Ten episodes on five cassette tapes!” She then proceeded to read the episode titles. “Freedom’s Winter”, “Fire and Ice”, “The Millennium Falcon Pursuit…” My favorite part of the original film had been the scene where Han and Luke shot down tie fighters in the Millennium Falcon (mostly due to the musical score). So during the next family car ride, I popped “The Millennium Falcon Pursuit” into my Walkman and put on headphones. I listened as Han and Leia flew through an asteroid field, arguing all the while, only to wind up inside some sort of space slug. I had no idea what a radio drama was, but it felt like a movie with extra dialogue to replace the visuals. Every scene was a visceral experience-in fact it almost felt like these adaptations had been written for someone with a visual disability. The sound editing and effects that spanned the stereo stage gave the recording a theater-esque quality when heard on headphones. The music, the sound, the voices, were all sublime, giving me the pigments needed to paint pictures of this far away world. It was a whole galaxy right between the ears, limitless and all my own. The film seemed gutted in comparison, with fewer scenes and less dialogue. Emotion was lacking in the actors’ voices-the opening scene when Luke is stuck in the blizzard had far less tension. Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian seemed particularly tame, not exuding nearly as much attitude as he did in the radio play.
Subsequent Christmases brought me the radio adaptations of A New Hope and Return of the Jedi, and they became the cream of vacation car rides and joyous snow days. I would occasionally listen on the family stereo, but preferred headphones whenever possible. Sharp dialogue like Han’s description of the ewoks as “furry butterballs” continued to fuel my imagination while making the movies seem like an afterthought. The adaptation of A New Hope contained so much extra material that it was nearly thrice the length of the film. The character most wonderfully transformed by this was Princess Leia. Devoting an entire episode to her just learning about the death star, followed by another of her acquiring the plans, made her character much more purposeful than on the silver screen. Depicting her as a senator privy to government secrets sparked my curiosity about politics for better or worse. At first I wasn’t sure what I liked so much about voice actress Ann Sachs’ performance as the princess. The way she sorta, but didn’t quite roll her Rs and Ls, or maybe it was her attitude for miles that always seemed lovely to me. Her sprightly, animated delivery was almost melodic at times. I kept coming back to one scene that parallels the opening of the film: her ship has just been boarded, and she’s scurrying to get the plans to R2D2 before being captured. She breathes frantically, muttering “Oh man” under her breath accompanied by the sounds of footsteps on metal grating. A stormtrooper shouts, “Search that passageway, secure the junction!” Leia lets out a gasp, leaving the listener with harrowing images of a woman who has just come of age but knows her life is over. Much later in life I read an article describing what men really desire to hear in a woman’s voice…breathiness, as it supposedly accentuates their femininity. Thinking back to Leia’s fate in that scene, I realized that my mind’s eye found feminine beauty in sound, not sight. When we reach Jabba’s sail barge in the Jedi radio production, Leia grunts and shouts “Now you know how it feels to have cold iron around your throat, Jabba!” accompanied by the sound of rattling chains. The images of a sweaty royal blooded lady with that sassy voice would give rise to recurring fantasies throughout adolescence. Eventually, in college, a friend told me that Leia looked “pretty hot in a metal bikini” in the film, and I realized that the radio crew had done their job. Viewing the scene in the film gave me nothing but aural chaos, and adding audio description only gave me a sterile account of what was on screen. It left me cold, feeling as though I were being myopically spoon-fed.
Even more affecting than the masochistic Jabba bit was a scene exclusive to the radio drama that immediately followed. In a voice just above a whisper, Leia asks Han if he’s figured out a way to thank her for rescuing him. Then she asks to be excused so she can go find some clothes that don’t require a “cabaret permit”. The use of the word “cabaret” expanded my vocabulary as a child, continuing to improve on the film in this area without spoon-feeding images. Sachs’ soft voice coming directly into my ear canals conjured sweet visions of a woman caressing a man. That’s why Carrie Fisher could never be Princess Leia to me, even though her name was cemented in the cultural canon long before my birth. Aside from “I love you”, she has no memorable lines in the movies that don’t involve scoundrels, stench, walking carpets or nerf-herders. There’s hardly any timbre to recount.
Nowadays, spunky women are a sci-fi genre convention nearly as common as faster-than-light travel. But Princess Leia was the original sci-fi babe-born through the intimacy of headphones. I couldn’t believe when an audio described copy of the film relayed that she was “A woman with her hair coiled into two buns on either side of her head.” This image certainly didn’t match my mind’s version of the tale, which remains fluid and ever-changing with every listen. By forcing the brain to build and internalize images, the radio shows have become more real to me than the films. It is human nature to want what we can’t have, so naturally I’d always been curious what people look like. I still am but it signifies nothing. It is just another spec of data spoon-fed, as sterile as a workman-like narration of a film. It will never touch me deeply like the sound of a voice.
There’s nothing like the wise innocence of youth, which the Star Wars radio dramas always return me to. They ignite my imagination like no single-narrator audiobook or hollywood film ever could. As Disney churns out Star Wars movies every year, the radio plays remain a timeless labor of love that every fan should hear. They are one of the earliest, greatest, and most unsung examples of how Lucas’ work is improved via outside input. They are also a perfect illustration of how just a few people and a set of microphones can turn the mind into a galaxy far, far away.