Like a very rich schoolboy picking at a scab, George Lucas became famous for tinkering with the Star Wars saga. Over the years he made innumerable visits to the Skywalker Ranch editing room to refine and revise all six films, from the addition of modern CG effects in the original trilogy to Greedo shooting first. Twenty years after the original Special Editions were first released, we’ve charted the complete history of Star Wars alterations, from the major to the almost unnoticeable.
1977 - Star Wars
The original and (many fans claim) the best. This is the version that was released in cinemas in 1977, spawning – ironically – an empire for George Lucas. Mos Eisley is deserted, Han shoots first and everyone is happy. Except, of course, for Greedo. Oh, and Lucas himself.
1980 - The Empire Strikes Back - 70mm vs. 35mm
The Empire Strikes Back is released in cinemas, immediately becoming the benchmark for twist endings (sorry, Citizen Kane) and sequels improving on their predecessor (sorry, The Godfather Part II). Empire is widely distributed in 35mm, but there is also a subtly different 70mm version out there. In this, Luke Skywalker's sass quotient is severely reduced – when R2-D2 gets spat out of a swamp on Dagobah, Luke's line changes from "You're lucky you don't taste very good" to "You're lucky to get out of there," a dialogue change that was inexplicably kept for certain future editions. As well as this, the 70mm version includes alternate snippets of dialogue, different optical wipes and transitions between scenes and altered sound effects. In the end, though, the only 70mm tweak to be preserved was the above dialogue change, which resurfaced in the 1997 Special Edition and has featured in all subsequent altered versions. Overall, though, the differences between the 70mm and 35mm versions are fairly minor. And most significantly, both versions begin their opening crawl with some very significant words: "Episode V"...
1980 - Star Wars Strikes Back
In the wake of Empire's success, Lucas tinkers with the original Star Wars for the first time. The most significant (and possibly ominous) change is to the opening crawl, altered to match Empire's: it now bears the subtitle, "Episode IV: A New Hope". The wheels for the prequels have gradually begun to turn. There are also various audio changes made, including a few more growls from Chewbacca, the use of different takes of dialogue and a few more lines from Stormtroopers. The whole thing is re-released in cinemas, complete with a trailer keen to say the words "Star Wars" as many times as possible:
1983 - Return Of The Jedi
Return Of The Jedi is released. Although it isn't subjected to any alterations for a few years, its title is famously tinkered with right before release. It's originally called Revenge Of The Jedi, complete with posters...
...and a trailer...
Reportedly, Lawrence Kasdan had prompted Lucas to change his original title of Return Of The Jedi to something more dramatic. They plump for 'Revenge', before Lucas decides at the last minute that revenge isn't very Jedi-like, so switches it back. Movie poster collectors around the world rejoice.
1985 - VHS and LaserDisc releases
Sound supremo and Star Wars legend Ben Burtt supervises a digitally remastered audio track for A New Hope, vastly improving the quality and allowing viewers to properly hear C-3PO's classic line, "The tractor beam is coupled to the main reactor in seven locations. A power loss at one of the terminals will allow the ship to leave." The line had been lost in the film's original release on VHS and Betamax back in 1982...
The LaserDisc and CED videodisc versions are also sped up by 3 per cent in order to fit onto a single disc. There are other minor aspect ratio changes with certain releases, though nothing that changes the films' subsequent incarnations...
1993 - The Definitive Collection
The original trilogy is re-released on LaserDisc with what, in hindsight, is the highly inaccurate claim to be "definitive". In fairness, the films have been remastered to ensure the sound is THX quality, the soundtracks have been re-mixed and the visuals have been restored to rebalance the colours and get rid of scratches and dirt. It's worth noting that when the original trilogy was finally released on DVD free from Lucas' retrospective tinkering, Lucasfilm used the same master as this "Definitive Collection". But more on that later...
1997 - Star Wars Special Editions
With Episode I still two years away, Lucas makes by far the most drastic changes to the original trilogy in order to better realise his vision. They are released into cinemas separately before arriving together on VHS as a lovely golden box set (or silver if you wanted the Widescreen version – and who didn't?). Lucas spends a reported $10 million to rejig A New Hope – over a third of the original budget – and another $5 million collectively on Empire and Jedi. These are big changes, intended to unite the upcoming prequels with the original films and make them more aesthetically modern and consistent. For instance, the 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm logos at the start of the films have been updated and certainly look pretty. Unfortunately, that's the start of a very long list...
A New Hope – Special Edition (January)
The original Star Wars is subject to what are by far the most contentious and drastic changes of the three films. These include, but are not limited to:
- Matte paintings replaced with digital versions;
- More stormtroopers and new CG dewbacks, searching for R2-D2 and C-3PO and present in Mos Eisley;
- An entirely new external shot of Obi-Wan Kenobi's abode.
- Fixing the dodgy effects under the landspeeder.
- Digital aliens in the Cantina.
- A very busy Mos Eisley, complete with comedy Jawas.
- Fancy digital versions of the ships, including new X-Wings and Millennium Falcon.
- When Han chases stormtroopers down a hallway, he turns a corner to find a whole hanger full of 'troopers, instead of just the original squadron he had been chasing, thus altering the gag (for the worse).
- A new scene with Luke and Biggs.
- A bigger Death Star explosion, complete with shockwave ring.
- Greedo shoots at Han first, inexplicably missing at point blank range, and allowing Han to return fire in 'self defence'.
- A shoddy digital Jabba the Hutt corners Han outside the Millennium Falcon, re-hashing the entire conversation Han had with Greedo and rendering the entire previous scnene redundant. Han then walks over the feared crime boss' tail.
"Han shot first" quickly becomes a rallying cry for all self-respecting Star Wars nerds, haunting Harrison Ford wherever he goes. Finally, in 2014, he is confronted on Reddit about who shot first and gives the definitive answer: "I don't know and I don't care."
The Empire Strikes Back – Special Edition (February)
The second instalment is subject to fewer obvious changes, but still has its fair share, including far more digital cloud action at Cloud City, plenty of audio tweaking and a big scream from Luke when he jumps away from Darth Vader, newly shorn of his hand. However, the biggest changes are very subtle, as Lucasfilm cleaned up the whole opening battle on Hoth. According to Lucas, Empire actually boasts the most changes of all three films but it's mainly restricted to the removal of black compositing lines around the snow speeders.
Return Of The Jedi – Special Edition (March)
Return Of The Jedi's changes are quite substantial and at their most obvious with the band in Jabba's palace: the puppet version of singer Sy Snootles is replaced with a CGI version and now plays second fiddle to Joh Yowsa, while the band's song changes from 'Lapti Nek' to 'Jedi Rocks' (shudder). Following this, we see a Sarlacc with more tentacles and a beak (somewhat reminiscent of Little Shop Of Horrors), some altered dialogue and more CGI do-overs. Finally, we have the celebrations after the Empire's defeat – we see Coruscant for the very first time, an intriguing glimpse into the world of the as-yet-unseen prequels. Unfortunately, the original Ewok song, 'Yub Nub', has been replaced by a new John Williams piece.
2004 - The DVD Release
Seven years after the seismic changes of the Special Editions, Lucas bows to fan pressure and finally releases the trilogy on DVD (when asked why, he's remarkably honest: "piracy... has really eaten dramatically into the sales"). But wouldn't you know it? They've been tinkered with even more. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, there are some bad colour correction issues as well as audio problems. However, if we sidestep the apparently accidental changes, the main points of difference are:
- Obi-Wan Kenobi's scream to scare away the raiders has become higher pitched;
- CGI Jabba in A New Hope has been given a makeover.
- Greedo and Han now shoot at each other almost simultaneously.
- The Emperor's hologram in Empire is now played by Ian McDiarmid instead of Clive Revill, with new dialogue.
- Boba Fett's voice now comes courtesy of Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett in Episode II), instead of Jason Wingreen.
- In amongst the final celebrations in Jedi, we have one more addition: cheering crowds on Naboo, with a Gungan (though apparently not Jar-Jar himself) shouting, "We-sa free!".
- The helmet-less Darth Vader (Sebastian Shaw) no longer has any eyebrows, what with all the lava in Episode III.
- When Anakin, Yoda and Obi-Wan appear in spirit form to Luke, Anakin is no longer played by Sebastian Shaw but a young Hayden Christensen. Which makes absolutely no sense, given that Obi-Wan is still played by Alec Guinness — not Ewan McGregor — in the same shot.
Still, Lucas seems happy with it, telling MSNBC how, "it's too bad you need to get kind of half a job done and never get to finish it. So this was my chance to finish it." When pressed about whether the theatrical versions would ever be released again, he gave a pretty definitive answer: "The special edition, that's the one I wanted out there. The other movie, it's on VHS, if anybody wants it... I'm not going to spend the, we're talking millions of dollars here, the money and the time to refurbish that, because to me, it doesn't really exist anymore."
2006 - The Limited Edition Discs
Despite George's assurances that the original versions of the trilogy would never be seen again, Lucasfilm finally bows to public pressure and issues the "Limited Edition" discs – these are pretty much just the same as the 2004 versions, with added bonus discs of the theatrical versions. Actually, that's not quite true. What are on these bonus discs are the same films that are on the LaserDisc Definitive Collection, though with 'Episode IV: A New Hope' excised from the credits of the first film to match with the 1977 version. Unfortunately, the quality of the transfer is laughably bad, with a non-anamorphic letterboxed 4:3 aspect ratio creating huge black bars on all sides of the film, if watched on a widescreen TV. All this ensures that the whole release (seemingly against Lucas' will) comes across as a rather pointed exercise in passive aggression – particularly after Lucas says to MTV, "Now we'll find out whether they really wanted the original or whether they wanted the improved versions. It'll all come out in the end."
2011 - The Blu-Ray Release
Perhaps recognising this as his last chance to tinker with his babies, Lucas makes changes to every single Star Wars film for the Blu-ray release, including the prequels. As such, Episode I's puppet Yoda is made digital, a voiceover from Anakin's mum Shmi during a nightmare in Episode II and additional dialogue from clone troopers in Episode III. No one really minds about these changes too much. Nonetheless, the original trilogy is attacked once more, correcting colours, inserting rocks to hide R2-D2 from Obi-Wan, putting in new close-ups in Jedi, giving the Ewoks CG eyelids and much more. Most controversial of all, when Darth Vader picks up the Emperor to throw him to his doom at the climax of Jedi, he now screams "Nooooooo" as he does so. It sounds awful, although it does add some clumsy symmetry with his cry at the end of Episode III.
An exhaustive gallery of all the blu-ray changes can be found here: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi. Or you can watch side-by-side comparison footage of the changes below...
A New Hope
The Empire Strikes Back
Return Of The Jedi
2012 - The Third Dimension
Riding the sudden resurgence in popularity of 3D (at least among Hollywood executives) ignited by James Cameron's Avatar, The Phantom Menace is converted into 3D and re-released in cinemas. It doesn't do very well, but Lucasfilm still presses ahead with a plan to convert the rest of the saga into 3D as well. Thankfully, Disney subsequently buys Lucasfilm and starts a whole new trilogy, ensuring that the rest of the mooted conversions have fallen by the wayside.
2015 - The Digital Edition
With physical media quickly becoming an outdated concept, and with Disney keen to introduce Star Wars to a new generation in time for the release of The Force Awakens, the saga becomes available as a digital download for the first time. These versions are essentially identical to the 2011 Blu-ray editions, with one small change, to the lament of purists: reflecting the new managment, the iconic 20th Century Fox opening logo and fanfare is removed from all films (except A New Hope, which Fox still owns), replaced with a new Lucasfilm logo and fanfare. Mercifully, Disney's usual ident – Cinderella's castle – was omitted from the Star Wars films out of respect for the fans.