In honor of the release of Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back 38 years ago today, I’ve decided to read the first screenplay written by the late Leigh Brackett. Brackett, who had been writing in Hollywood for decades, passed away before the release of the film and Lucas took to rewriting her original draft and also brought in Lawrence Kasdan to polish it up. In the end, both Kasdan and Brackett were given writing credits for the film with Lucas opting out, a seemingly generous gesture.
While much of what she wrote was changed, especially in the dialogue department, the concepts and structure more or less stayed the same. The tandem storyline thread is there along with the locations to match, it’s just that many of the names were changed. We’ll go through most of the major changes but it would be arduous to list them all because as mentioned, most of the key dialogue exchanges were altered or replaced.
We’ll discuss the changes in order of appearance that way if you’ve seen the film, you’ll be able to note them in a linear, more recognizable fashion. Again, we won’t get into the minutiae of the dialogue, for that you can seek out the script online and read it for yourself.
For starters, the film has no title yet and is simply referred to as “Star Wars Sequel” on title page of the screenplay. This is likely because Lucas hadn’t quite figured out yet where he wanted to go with it and didn’t give Brackett much to go on. Historically, we were told he had the trilogy threads figured out long before but it’s clear by some of the major changes made, this wasn’t the case.
Its starts off more or less the same with Han and Luke riding “White Snow Lizards” on a snowy ice planet, neither of which are given names. The Rebels are hiding out from the Empire and planning their next move. There is no mention of bounties or bounty hunters (no Boba Fett) with regards to Han, instead he is asked to go on a mission to find his powerful magnate step-father, Ovan Marekal, who they think can help their cause. This was supposed to carry over into the third film.
Luke is captured by a Wampa (not named) and escapes in a similar fashion, although he doesn’t see an image of Ben Kenobi at all, rather he just hears his voice inside the cave. Kenobi doesn’t say anything about Dagobah or Yoda, just, “Remember the Force, boy. Open your mind to it, open your heart...”
Luke is then eventually found by Han, Leia and a search party later that night, not in the morning by Snowspeeders. There is no famous Tauntaun stomach scene.
The Wampa’s have a considerably beefed up role in this version. In fact, they attack the Rebel base in great numbers causing lots of damage and multiple deaths. At one point, they are all engaging them and Chewbacca and a Wampa get into an epic battle.
The Empire does find them, with bought information instead of probe droids, and they attack the planet in a similar fashion. Gone is the massive all out ground assault with Luke famously taking down an AT-AT Walker by himself, and instead they just flee the base with little or no resistance.
Some things that jumped out right away are small in stature but have become synonymous with Star Wars nonetheless. In the finished version, Luke heals in a bacta tank ending up in recovery where Leia antagonistically kisses him to teach Han a lesson in chivalry. This of course is after she famously refers to Han as a “scruffy looking nerf herder”. None of these wonderful beats are in the script and in an odd twist; there is a romantic angle to the Luke/Leia relationship, although Han is still pursuing her.
By the final draft, Luke’s path and outlook have been fleshed out considerably compared to this version. In this screenplay, Luke is severely lacking confidence from the get go, especially after his run in with the “Wampa” in the cave and the Rebel base. He’s not the “hero” of the rebellion or ace Red Leader we see in The Empire Strikes Back.
Luke gets the location of Dagobah (not named) from a Memory Cell (crystal) he finds inside the hilt of his lightsaber. He has R2-D2 read it for him and it provides the coordinates to a remote star system which is where he assumes his father was taught and the he can also be trained. Again, Yoda is never mentioned nor is the name of place revealed.
So after the Empire attacks the base the Rebels flee in familiar directions with Luke and R2 heading for “Dagobah” and the rest of the gang on the run. They eventually hide out in an asteroid field (sorry, no Exogorth) and the scene plays out in much the same way. One minor change is that Luke isn’t flying an X-Wing here, but rather Leia’s personal ship called a “spacer”.
It is here we encounter the first really massive changes that Brackett had in this first screenplay that would eventually get changed by Lucas and Kasdan. Once Luke lands on the bog planet (Dagobah) we get many of the familiar training rhythms but the big difference right off the hop is that Yoda is called “Minch” in the screenplay.
Obi-Wan Kenobi does appear to Luke here, more than once in fact, and the second time he brings with him the ghost of Luke’s father, called only “Skywalker”! That’s right, in this early version; Darth Vader and Luke’s father are two different people! They explain to Luke the power of the Dark Side and that he has a sister (Nellith) they can’t reveal for fear of Vader finding out.
It’s unclear whether his sister is someone else or that Leia was referred to as “Nellith” to maintain her anonymity. But the romantic nature of their relationship at the beginning suggests it’s someone else, another major change that was made. Then they get Luke to take the "Oath of the Jedi"…
“I Luke Skywalker, do swear on my honor, and on the faith of the brotherhood of knights, to use the Force only for good, turning always from the Dark Side, to dedicate my life to the cause of freedom, and Justice. If I should fail of this vow, my life shall be forfeit, here and hereafter.”
What’s also different is that Luke and Vader are connected through the Force in a much different more deliberate way in this version. And it’s here we get to see Vader in his castle surrounded by gargoyles while he is meditating and reaching out to the Force. They don't mention the castle or location by name but what she does describe is very reminiscent of his castle on Mustafar..."A grim castle of black iron that squats on a rock in the midst of a crimson sea." If that's the case, its very cool that what she's describing wouldn't appear on screen for the first time until 2005's Revenge of the Sith, roughly 27 years later.
When he senses Luke tapping into the Force with Minch’s help, he summons the Emperor and they speak for the only time in the screenplay. The way Vader and Luke connect with each other is more in line with the way Rey and Kylo Ren converse in The Last Jedi, face to face as opposed to strictly telepathically.
Having Luke's father and Vader be different characters is obviously the biggest and most impactful change that was made by Lucas who clearly hadn’t fully fleshed out the Skywalker storyline. Whether he was simply leaving his options open or just hadn’t reached that conclusion yet we’ll never know, but I think we can all agree it was for the best.
Mirroring the final draft, as Luke is training; the others end up escaping the asteroid field and looking for a place to put up safely. They head to "Cloud City", which in is this version is called “Hoth” oddly enough, and meet up with Han’s old smuggling buddy Lando who in this screenplay has the last name “Kadar” and is a clone! Other than no Lobot, the sequence on “Hoth” plays mostly the same except for one big omission, no carbon freezing chamber and no Boba Fett. When Lando has his eventual change of heart, he helps all of them, including a completely un-frozen Han escape.
As in the film, Luke is lured to the city to rescue his friends but finds Vader waiting for him. The big variance mentioned earlier of course changes the entire dynamic of their encounter as there is no big father reveal and Luke never loses his hand. Interestingly, he taps into the Dark Side of the Force during their fight, something which was abandoned later on, as Vader taunts him with the death of his father.
The end is more or less the same but instead of the Rebel Alliance in space preparing for a daring rescue of Han; they are gathered on “Besspin” saying goodbye to Han as he heads off with Chewie to fulfill his original mission of finding his step-father, Ovan Marekal, and asking him for help.
It’s clear from the final product, Brackett’s general outline remained ntact. Almost every word of her dialogue would be changed but it’s impossible to not see the very distinct lines drawn from her screenplay to what ended up on screen. I would generally agree with most of the changes, even the innocuous ones such as names and the omission of the Wampa assault on the Rebel base. While idea of Wampa’s attacking the Rebel Base is cinematically a fun one, the snowy plains battle is a high mark for the Saga and me personally and I wouldn’t want it omitted.
Luke and Han seemed to incur the most changes as far as character developments go. Luke is tepid at first and not entirely as sure of himself as he is in the finished product. His clumsiness and insecurity on display are not indicative of the Luke we know by the end of A New Hope.
For Han, by removing the” bounty on his head” angle and making him affable, dare I say agreeable, Brackett takes the teeth out of the Solo character and the final version is much improved and more in line with scoundrel we know and love.
After reading this, I’m kind of disappointed they scaled back Lando’s story a bit. To make room for more exposition, something had to go and I suppose Lando was the most expendable. But the thought of him being a clone and having his adopted father Bahiri die, makes for compelling storytelling. I’m sure it’s something they would have explored in Episode VI.
One interesting thing the screenplay has is what would amount to the first recorded account of what happened to Darth Vader after the first Death Star blew up…
“Could be. We know he was picked up by an Imperial Ship after the Death Star blew up.”
There are so many memorable moments, lines and scenes from The Empire Strikes Back that we love that are nowhere to be found in this script. If Brackett hadn’t died, we can only wonder how it would have turned out and if she would have been allowed to participate in revisions. As rough as this draft is, remember, it was her first pass at it so to compare it to the final draft is premature.
Thanks to the internet we’ve got this piece of history available to read anytime and I highly suggest you give it a go sometime.
Till next time…MTFBWY.