The Return of the Jedi is my favorite movie of all-time. Typically, I refrain from saying something that definitive, especially about art. I don?t have a favorite song, a favorite book, a favorite meal, and so on. However, if I am asked which movie, Star Wars-centric or otherwise, is my favorite, I?ll answer Jedi without hesitation. I was five or six when I saw it in theaters, and it is the one I?ve watched the most often.
As deep and unconditional as my love is for this film, I also know that no one can objectively say it is the best Star Wars film. In the original trilogy alone, people make very compelling cases for A New Hope or Empire Strikes Back as the ?best? of the Star Wars chapters. But we?re not talking about the ?best,? we?re talking about my ?favorite.? I love it all. I love the overly-convoluted caper to spring Han from Jabba?s palace. I love kick-ass Leia and full-on Jedi Luke. I love the Emperor. I love the Ewoks. Hell, I even love that Boba Fett went out like a punk into the Pit of Karkoon.
But a video I saw making the rounds on Facebook reminded me of how the ?special edition? version of the films ruined perhaps the most magical moment of the film for me.
The above video focuses on a change made to the final scene of the film when the Force ghosts of the old Jedi masters appear before Luke. There?s Yoda, Old Ben (played by Alec Guinness), and the actor who portrayed Vader with his helmet removed, Sebastian Shaw. Shortly before the release of Revenge of the Sith, however, Shaw was removed in favor of Hayden Christensen, the actor future Star Wars fans would recognize as Anakin from the prequel films. But, I don?t give a shit about that change one way or another. What?s most offensive to me happened in 1998, when the special edition version of the film changed the score in the final scene.
I was born in 1980, so I was able to see the original version of every Star Wars film of the original trilogy in a theater at some point, especially post-Jedi. Those of you not old enough to remember what it was like before DVD players, VCRs, and premium cable channels put movies into people?s homes may be surprised to discover that the early blockbuster films would run for a very long time. It often took movies a year or more to make it to the two-screen, third-run theater just a block away from my childhood home.
I know I saw Empire in the theaters during it?s original run, because my mother was a good parent and took me to see it at the age of three or something ridiculous like that. However, I think I only saw it the once. I imagine I also saw the original Star Wars on television at some point, as well. I didn?t get to know that one until we dubbed copies of the film onto Betamax tapes. I essentially walked into the third movie only vaguely remembering who the characters were and what the hell was going on in the galaxy. It didn?t matter. I loved it. I felt it. In fairness, my memory of that trip to the theater is fuzzier now some 30-plus years later. However, I vividly and clearly remember the moment the film ended. I was young, so I worried that all of the good guys would die, because I had yet to figure out the secret formula of storytelling. (Though to be fair, at this time in cinema history, good guys died a lot, even in kids? stuff.)
Thus, I watched in relieved delight as the heroes danced in victory to the Ewoks? silly-but-catchy ?Yub Nub? song. This morphed into a choral rendition of the lyrics in English(?celebrate the love?). All of the heroes appeared together in a single frame (the only time they do that in the whole film), and then the soaring vocals of the chorus vanished in favor of the Star Wars ending fanfare. I remember feeling an electric chill up my spine. I knew I had just seen something amazing and wonderful. I also knew that it was the end of it, and that there?d be no more adventures with them. (Whoops.) I experienced joy and mourned that it was over. I wanted more, but thought what we got was absolutely perfect. It was perhaps the closest thing I?ve ever had to an honestly religious experience.
I am not being poetic or hyperbolic. This film changed my life. I acquired as many Star Wars toys as I could (and GI Joes who, with a little imagination, could fill the holes in my character roster). I would play with these toys for hours, setting up elaborate narratives and scenarios. Sometimes I would set my adventures before the end of the film (so Vader could be the bad guy) or after the fall of the Empire, using various Cobra goons as the badass with the lightsaber. These were the first stories I ever told, interactive fan-fiction. I only stopped playing with the toys when I got a typewriter and started writing my own Jedi stories. (None of which survived the passage of time, thankfully.)
I also had a tiny record player, meant for 45s. However ? no older than eight years old, I remind you ? I had a 78 rpm record of the Return of the Jedi soundtrack. I would score my playtime, when possible, and I would always end whatever scenario it was with a party while Yub Nub and the finale played. That music is ingrained in my childhood, into my very DNA as a storyteller. So much so, that to this day ? just moments before I typed these words, in fact ? I still get that electric chill when I hear that music. Like magic, I am transported for an instant back to childhood, connecting to those emotions like they are frozen in time.
To most Star Wars fans, this is likely not even the worst change made to the movie since its original release. There is the over-the-top song in Jabba?s palace replacing Sy Snoodles?s original, funky solo set. Others say that the addition of two lines of dialogue in the scene where Vader redeems himself by taking out the Emperor ? both of them the word ?no? ? literally ruins the climax of the film. It was the absence of dialogue from Vader, the quiet action in his redemption, that really sold that scene for original-edit viewers. But, again, I don?t really care much about them.
Without question, the original versions of those scenes are much better than what replaced them. However, if kids see the updated versions first, the original scenes may seem small-scale and cheesy in a very dated way. And neither change came for any truly narrative reason. The Jabba?s palace scene is simply George Lucas playing with CGI. The Vader scene is likely in the vein of his ?it?s like poetry; they rhyme? philosophy. The armored version of Darth Vader is born shouting ?No!? and now he dies shouting the same thing. (Because, after he tosses the Emperor into a patented Star Wars bottomless pit, he is no longer Vader but Anakin once more.) Maybe. But, the change in the song? Well, George Lucas said in the 2004 DVD commentary this change happened because he wanted to revisit prequel-era planets, showing the Empire falling all across the galaxy. In that sort of sequence, ?Yub Nub? doesn?t quite have the gravitas Lucas was looking for. (Also, pretty much anyone over the age of 15 hated ?Yub Nub? and the bug-eyed bears that sang it.)
Ironically, since Return of the Jedi was the story that taught me to love stories, you?d think I would be able to justify the change. I mean, it?s not like ?Yub Nub? no longer exists. As I mentioned paragraphs ago, I can listen to it whenever I want and the emotional memories associated with it are as strong as ever. But here?s the thing. The fucking Empire didn?t fall that day. There was like a whole year or more of war between the New Republic and the remnants of the Empire, including a dude who may or may not be Supreme Leader Snoke from The Force Awakens. This story ? which is a great addition to the Star Wars canon, incidentally? unfolds in Chuck Wendig?s Aftermath novel trilogy.
Again, you might be thinking that since I was so worried as a kid that I wouldn?t get any more Star Wars stories featuring my favorite characters (all but Luke make appearances in the books), why would I complain? Because, this addition to the tale makes Lucas?s rationale for changing the final score completely moot. In fact, one could easily argue that since the Empire didn?t crumble when Death Star II blew up, it makes better story sense to have kept the celebration local, on Endor. (Though, the Shattered Empire graphic novel reveals that there was way more war on Endor after that celebration. Like, not even 12 hours later.)
To be clear, I am not bashing George Lucas. With Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Willow, and even Howard The Duck his fingerprints are all over my childhood imagination. In fact there are some changes to the original trilogy they have made over the years that I like quite a bit. (That awkward Jabba scene added to A New Hope rules as far as I am concerned, especially the creative and silly way they fixed the ?Harrison Ford walked behind the actor playing Jabba? problem.) All of the changes he made to the films were done not thinking of those of us who grew up with his films, but rather the kids who hadn?t yet seen them. The films we loved and their scores still exist, but like the Jedi they are relics of a forgotten age.
Which ending did you like better? Let me know on Twitter @JoshuaMPatton or in the comments below.