19 Years Ago, Star Wars Made One Controversial Change — And It Paid Off
Will the real Anakin Skywalker please shimmer into view?
On May 4, 2023, Return of the Jedi will complete its limited theatrical re-release celebrating the 40th anniversary of the beloved film’s first release. However, the version of Return of the Jedi that’s briefly given some contemporary blockbusters a run for their money is not the same version of the film released four decades ago. It’s not even the same version that hit theaters in 1997 for the infamous George Lucas-led “Special Editions.” Instead, the version currently on the big screen is actually one that originated on the small screen.
Although the 1997 changes to the classic Star Wars trilogy have been endlessly discussed and debated, less attention is paid to the additional changes made by George Lucas after 1997. In terms of truly altering the canon, the biggest change happened in 2004, after Hayden Christensen joined the Star Wars family.
Hayden Christensen appears as the ghost of Anakin Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, a controversial decision first seen in 2004 that was stranger than fans may remember. First, this was about eight months before Revenge of the Sith even hit theaters. The first canonical glimpse fans got of Christensen’s “look” in Sith comes from his ghostly Return of the Jedi scene. Yes, his big Jedi mullet debuted on DVD, two months before the first Sith teaser trailer even dropped.
The change stuck, and fan outcry has died down, likely because a younger generation of fans more sympathetic to the prequels and Christensen’s role in them took over the discourse. Now, when one watches Return of the Jedi, the idea of Anakin’s ghost looking like Christensen hardly scans as strange, because it’s been that way for almost 20 years. When the 1997 special editions first hit theaters, it had been 20 years since the classic trilogy began. In 2023, it’s been nearly the same amount of time since Hayden Christensen replaced Sebastian Shaw as the ghost of Anakin.
Hayden Christensen’s ghostly Anakin has never before been on the big screen in a wide release until the 2023 Return of the Jedi re-release. This trilogy-capper has existed for 40 years, and Return of the Jedi’s lifespan is neatly bisected between the time before and after Christensen joined the franchise.
Over the years, George Lucas has defended the choice to replace Shaw with Christensen, saying the visage of the younger Anakin was the last time he was truly a Jedi and thus truly himself. The move changed the way we thought about how Force Ghosts work, but it also repositioned Return of the Jedi as the epicenter of a much bigger story. It no longer ends a trilogy; it finishes an epic sextet of space opera.
In 2004, before Revenge of the Sith hit theaters, the prequels were regarded much as the sequels are today, in that a cultural consensus had yet to be reached. But 19 years ago, when George Lucas stuck Hayden Christensen in Return of the Jedi, he saw through time. He knew that after a certain period of time, the new version would become the old version. He was right.
After Return of the Jedi leaves theaters, you can watch it on Disney+.