December 20, 2012

Leigh Brackett and the Unknown Empire



Guest post by John Rivers

As speculation grows over the story lines of three new Star Wars movies (THREE. NEW. STAR WARS. MOVIES!) and people scrutinise what Michael Arndt, Lawrence Kasdan and Simon Kinberg will deliver, I thought it would be great to take a look at the scripting behind the original trilogy. However, as luck would have it, I found that I had arrived at a collection of Leigh Brackett stories in my reading list. It was Brackett who delivered the first screenplay of The Empire Strikes Back.

Brackett was a science-fiction author and screenplay writer who had enjoyed writing genre material from a young age and had broken into screenwriting through the success of her detective novel No Good from a Corpse in 1944. She therefore found herself being able to write the SF and fantasy stories she loved as well as work on movies. During the mid-forties, Brackett struck up friendships with other authors such as Edmond Hamilton (whom she later married) and Ray Bradbury. Brackett talked about Sundays being spent at the beach with her friends and reading each others' work. In 1946 Brackett had begun a story entitled "Lorelei of the Red Mist" when she was called on by Howard Hawks to work on the screenplay of The Big Sleep, a job she shared with William Faulkner, an alcoholic who would disappear drunk for days. Bradbury meanwhile stepped in and finished "Lorelei of the Red Mist".

By the late 70s Brackett had continued to write both prose fiction and screenplays before being approached by George Lucas to write the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back. Lucas had the story planned out (albeit, different to the one we know), and invited Brackett to write the first draft. Her experience in pulp SF and screenwriting clearly impressed Lucas as, being the best person for the job. Remarkably then, almost none of Brackett's work makes it to the finished movie.

The reasons for this are clearer if we look at the screenplay Brackett delivered. Overall this feels like a slower movie than the Empire that we know. There's a sense of urgency that the Kasdan screenplay has, lacking in Brackett's version. For a start it takes the Empire a fair while to get to the Ice Planet the Rebels are hiding on. Snow creatures are attempting to undermine the Rebel base (literally) before the Imperial Navy makes an appearance. Otherwise the overall structure is there - the Rebels flee, Luke flies to a Bog Planet, Leia and Han evade the Empire in an asteroid field, meanwhile Darth Vader broods in his castle - that's right, his castle and they all meet up on a city in the clouds called Hoth. Luke and Vader fight and Luke learns nothing about his true parentage. The revelation at the end of Empire only came about in later script meetings between Lucas, Kasdan and Gary Kurtz.

The screenplay also has intriguing details about the characters that never happen in the Star Wars universe as we know it. Han Solo has a stepfather called Ovan Merekal (though Han claims he's not his stepfather), who controls the biggest transport guild in the galaxy. Leia is desperate to bring Merekal into the Alliance and at the end of the script Han is dispatched to persuade Merekal to join them. It takes the death of Lando's foster dad Bahiri to persuade Lando to go back on his deal with Vader. Also interesting is Leia wondering if Lando is a clone, you know, from the Clone Wars. Finally, Yoda is called Minch and he's grumpy.

It's a glimpse of a Star Wars that never was and as much as I enjoy Brackett's writing, Kasdan's screenplay has more pace, the stakes feel higher. In fact I'd go as far to say that Splinter of the Mind's Eye would have made a better movie than Brackett's Empire. Luckily things turned out a different way.

Meanwhile it's worth reading Brackett's short stories. They are fantastic explorations of the ancient civilisations of Mars and Venus, full of magic and wonder. The guys are tough and some of the women are tougher, but they have a genuine sense of adventure which is great to read. In fact, given that Brackett's stories feature grave robber-come-archaeologist types one wonders if she was an influence in Lucas's creation of Indiana Jones? He definitely feels like a Brackett creation!

The collection I read was the Fantasy Masterworks edition of The Sea-Kings of Mars. It's quite pricey to buy as a secondhand paperback, but a rewarding experience.