So, before talking about The Force Awakens, let me tell you a little bit about my introduction to Star Wars. A lot of fans my age will tell you they saw it on opening day, or at the advance world premiere. They camped out in line, or they stood that morning for hours, or they snuck in the side door with their friend, who was the adopted child of a great, forgotten film director, because they couldn’t pay, because they were orphans who lived in train stations…
Wait, that’s another movie, isn’t it?
Anyway, I didn’t see the film under any of those circumstances. I saw it, oh, sometime after it premiered in regular release. It might have been the first Saturday. But my first exposure to Star Wars was not the film.
You see, in 1977, none of us knew the word “spoiler” other than as it referred to something that went on the front end of a car. Studios were not paranoid about plot leaks, and no special measures were being taken to keep audiences from finding out in advance what happened in a film. That’s because, until 1977, there had never been a film like Star Wars. Indeed, except for the James Bond series, and things like Tarzan, Bulldog Drummond or the Thin Man, there hadn’t really been–well, damn. There really had been a lot of movie series, hadn’t there? I just named a bunch. But those series were all pretty episodic. No film really left you hanging on the edge of your seat, waiting to find out if Tarzan would find a son, or if Drummond would get married, or if Asta would chew off William Powell’s mustache.
And that’s because Star Wars wasn’t based upon any sort of previous film franchise, it was based on the movie serials which were made to run before the feature films, and which always ended each episode with a (sometimes literal) cliffhanger. Indeed, Star Wars began as George Lucas’s attempt to remake Flash Gordon. He just couldn’t get the rights.
What does all this have to do with how I was introduced to “The Adventures of Luke Skywalker,” as the series was originally subtitled? I’m glad you asked. In 1977, when a studio’s marketing arm had engineered a PR blitz to accompany a movie’s launch, said blitz began months ahead. Said blitz included the arrival, well before the film’s release, of books, record albums (yes, vinyl LPs), toys and coloring books in the stores.
So I first heard of Star Wars when I walked into Page One Books at the Columbia Mall and saw a huge dump of paperback novelizations. (The term “dump” refers to one of those cardboard stands you see in bookstores that hold usually about 50 or so copies of a mass market paperback. I think “dump” was originally meant to refer to the kind of display you literally dumped books in to be pawed through, but, in the library world, that’s what we called the nice, segmented display below. (See photo.) By the way, a photo of a paperback dump is not easy to Google. For some reason, the search engine is more interested in recipe books on dump cake.
I heard more about Star Wars when I saw the record albums–a two-LP set of John Williams’s music, and an adaptation of the story to audio. This latter predates the wonderful Brian Daly radio adaptations that ran on NPR.
It was from looking at this record album that I knew someone named Ben died–well before I had any idea who Ben was. And no one, not I nor anyone else, shouted “Spoilers!”
But my real introduction to Star Wars came courtesy of our local paper, The Washington Star. As did many papers around the country, I assume, the Star ran in its Style section a serialized abridgement of the novelization. I didn’t read newspapers when I was 12, except for the Sunday comics and the movie listings. But I faithfully clipped these Star Wars bits out and saved them. I saw right away the similarities between Star Wars and my beloved Flash Gordon, and was 100% behind this project. I may or may not still have copies of the newspaper serial. My parents’ 49-year-old house is a bit of a daunting place to look for things. But its over-stacked nature may bode well for those clippings. As my Dad said recently, “If it ever came into this house, it’s still here.”
Anyway, I believe the serial ran in seven segments, and it probably started the Saturday before the movie came out, and ran through the following Friday. Or maybe it started the day the movie came out. I really don’t remember. We weren’t a movie-going family. The closest theaters were not, as they had been for my Dad in Toledo, on the corner two buildings down from my house. They were ten or more miles away. That seemed to discourage us. So I knew, if I wanted Star Wars, I’d better read those newspaper articles.
(Why I didn’t just buy the book, I’m not sure. I already owned dozens of books of my own, bought with my meager allowance. $1.50 or $1.95 for Star Wars wouldn’t have broken me.)
Little did I know, when I was devouring those bits of newspaper goodness that they were written by Alan Dean Foster, at that time one of my two favorite authors. The other was Ray Bradbury. Foster had written the Star Trek Logs, which were among the first non-children’s novels I’d read cover to cover. Already the King of the Novelizations, he’d been signed to novelize Star Wars, but his contract specified that his name would not be on the book, and that he couldn’t tell anyone that it was he, not George Lucas, who’d written it.
Still, Foster’s magic touch shone through. I fell in love with the characters because of his writing. Six chapters in, I decided that, dammit, I was seeing this film! (Okay, at 12, I probably would have said, “Darn it.” Yes, babies, there was a time when I didn’t swear.) I put the final chapter of the serial aside, sight-unseen, and nagged my father to take me to the movies. I distinctly remember standing at his side in the living room, as he worked at the table saw, and asking, anytime the motor wasn’t running, “Are we going to see that movie?” He took me, probably just to shut me up.
(Yes, the living room. It was his workshop. To this day, it’s never been carpeted or painted, and has never contained furniture.)
Why did I work so hard on my Dad? Well, my Mother wasn’t about to go see Star Wars. She was still working on forgiving me for Guy Williams in Captain Sinbad several years earlier. My sister was at college, and/or about to get married. She didn’t encourage my science fiction addiction because she thought it was making me into a pervert. I was constantly drawing pictures of super-heroines in skintight leotards (or less) and my reading habits were not worthy of a good little Southern Baptist boy. (Some day I’ll relate the tale of asking her to loan me 50 cents that I was short so I could buy a copy of Slave Girl of Gor. I think the Scopes trial was briefer and less histrionic.) Finally, my brother was recovering from his first year in college. We didn’t go out together much that year.
So I figured my Dad, the king of the “fly by night operation,” was my mark. My Dad loves to go out at night, to this day. If he could still drive, he’d probably still be out shopping at midnight. The 24-hour Wal-Mart was made for my Dad. He would come home late from work, eat, watch the news, let his food “slide down,” then work on the house (permanently under construction) for a couple of hours. ‘Round about 9:30 in the evening, he’d be ready to take a break, and he’d want to go out somewhere. Of course, in the 1970s, 10:00 PM was the latest any store stayed open, except 7-11. So we made a lot of mad dashes to the store and annoyed a lot of employees who just wanted to go home. Woe betide the employee who closed up early.
There was a 10:00 show of Star Wars. It was the weekend. I may even have been out of school. That was my last year of private school, and we got out in May. I didn’t have to get to bed, and a 10:00 movie was, like a 24-hour Wal-Mart, made for my Dad. (Note: Wal-Mart didn’t exist in my world in 1977. Wikipedia says the company was founded in 1962, but I think it only entered my reality after some kind of crisis collapsed a bunch of parallel universes together. It wasn’t there one moment, and it was so there the next.)
When we arrived at the Laurel Twin Cinemas (yeah, that was a lotta screens back then), the young lady in the ticket booth told my Dad, “I’m required to advise you that there’s about ten minutes of dirt on the film. Do you still want to buy tickets?”
What? Dirt on the film? There’s no dirt in Star Wars! I mean, I didn’t read that last chapter of the serial, but I don’t think Luke and Leia are suddenly going to have pre-marital relations. Did they add a nude scene for the Princess? What’s going on here? I began to panic. I was ready to drop down on my knees, turn on the cute and plead, like I did to get the coveted role of Nutty the Squirrel in the Fifth grade operetta. “P-p-p-leeeeeaase, Dad! I’m a grown-up! I’ve read Love and Sex in Plain Language. I can handle ten minutes of dirt! DON’T SAY NO!”
I know, right? “Pre-Marital Relations?” “Nutty the Squirrel?” If Keana Reeves had been around to see me at that point in my life, he would have declared, “Man, that is one messed-up little dude.” (For some reason, I always think of Keanu as being younger than me, but he’s a year older. So he could have been there.)
I’ve decided to find almost-twelve-year-old me adorable. All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
So… yeah… the dirt on the film was literal dirt on the 35mm print. It lasted from about the time Threepio and Artoo crashed until Luke and Uncle Owen bought them from the Jawas. Am I glad I didn’t do the Nutty the Squirrel act. That would have been almost as embarrassing as the actual performance of the operetta.
Of course I devoured the film, despite my Dad’s propensity for spoiling the special effects. Apparently the Jawa’s sand crawler was actually a particular make of Army Troop Transport. I only saw the movie once that Summer. (I didn’t see a film the theater twice! Are you kidding? Nobody does that. Why would anybody do that?) I bought all the action figures (Except the Jawa. Reading somewhere that the black around their eyes was neither skin nor a mask, but just a lot of bugs swarming, I was grossed out.) I asked my mother to buy me the novelization, and carried it with me to school most days that year. I drew pictures of the characters on every free scrap of paper I had, leading to conversations like:
“Why does Wilson draw space ladies?”
“Because he’ll never get near a real one!”
“Steve’s drawing Princess Leia.”
“Steve is Princess Leia!”
Sigh… Anyone who can manage to choke out the words “Geek Chic” did not live as a pre-teen fan in the 1970s.
But, yeah, I credit Alan Dean Foster with making me love Star Wars so much. So the fact that he’s back to novelize The Force Awakens is a very big deal to me.
And now we’re at over 1900 words and I haven’t reviewed the book that’s listed in the title of this article. That’s embarrassing. Not Nutty-the-Squirrel embarrassing, but, you get it.
Next week, I promise, I’ll review the book.