In the beginning, there was just “Star Wars.” But then, fans of the most popular science fiction movie of all time were thrown a hyperspace curveball. The film known as Star Wars wasn’t the beginning of a story, it was the middle. And 37 years ago this week, four years after the original film hit theaters, it was released again. And this time, it was called Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Here’s how the very first Star Wars retcon went down.
On April 10, 1981, roughly a year after The Empire Strikes Back was released in theaters, 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm re-released the original film, too. Only this time, George Lucas decided to add “Episode IV” and “A New Hope” to the famous opening title crawl. His motivation was to match the original Star Wars with the opening crawl of Empire, which just a year prior had blown people’s minds by throwing an “Episode V” on the screen when everyone thought they were there to see “Star Wars 2.”
In other words, if you think George Lucas started retroactively messing around with the canon of Star Wars in 1997 with the controversial special editions, then you don’t know the history of Star Wars.
Interestingly, there is a mild controversy as to exactly when “Episode IV” was added to the title crawl of Star Wars. One 2005 book, The Cinema of Geoge Lucas, claims that it was the 1978 reissue in which Lucas added “Episode IV” to the crawl. But, all official Lucasfilm sources, including the Lucasfilm website, clearly state it was the 1981 release in which this change was made.
In the book Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays, it seems like Lucas’s decision to make The Empire Strikes Back the fifth installment in a series and not the second was made retroactively after the original screenwriter, Leigh Brackett, passed away. Here’s a quote from George Lucas from that book.
“During the story conferences I had with Leigh, my thoughts weren’t fully formed and I felt her script when in a completely different direction….that’s when I sat down and wrote two drafts, which are closer to the film.”
Though Lucas eventually hired Raiders of the Lost Ark scribe Lawrence Kasdan (who, incidentally, wrote the screenplay for the upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story) to finish Empire, it was during this process in which the idea of Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker’s father emerges, thus necessitating the need for Star Wars to have a backstory. In the Leigh Brackett drafts of the story — when Lucas’s “thoughts weren’t fully formed” — Luke Skywalker’s father is a friendly Force ghost that appears to him and gives him advice. Really!
So, to recap, here’s how these Star Wars dominos fell. In March of 1978, science fiction author Leigh Brackett dies, and George Lucas takes over the writing of The Empire Strikes Back, a task which he shares with Lawrence Kasdan.
Next, Lucas decided that there’s a bigger backstory to all of Star Wars, which means that Empire isn’t “part two,” but instead, “Episode V.” In 1980, The Empire Strikes Back carries that subtitle, and then in 1981, Star Wars is released as Episode IV to match it.
And there you have it: The short and strange history of how the first film in a mega-popular series became the fourth, and how the galaxy of cinema was never the same because of it.
The next new Star Wars film, which doesn’t have an episode number at all, is Solo: A Star Wars Story, and it will be out in theaters everywhere on May 25, 2018.