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9 ways George Lucas totally nerfed Return of the Jedi

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Dec 18, 2018, 12:00 AM EST (Updated)

It's been 32 long years since we last saw our heroes on the big screen in Return of The Jedi. But on Dec. 18, one of the most famous franchises -- if not THE most famous franchise -- in movie history is returning to theaters in the much-anticipated next chapter of their story with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Over the next 20 weeks, we will celebrate the franchise by looking back and ranking the best, the worst, the weirdest and the most amusing moments in Star Wars history.

Of the (currently) six primary Star Wars films, none is more polarizing than Return of the Jedi. My wife calls it "riveting family fun," whereas I refer to it as "that stupid Ewok adventure that nearly ruined my childhood with cuteness." The discrepancy has a good foundation, as George Lucas intentionally shifted the tone of this film to be more child-friendly. The reason? Lucas was making the bulk of his Star Wars money from a lucrative share of toy sales, and he wanted to beef that up. To that end, he made a series of changes to the once-gritty production to make it less like a gripping drama and more like a two-hour toy commercial.

What were his greatest transgressions? Let me count the ways.

Originally, Han Solo died

In early drafts, Han Solo was going to kick the bucket. Writers planned to jerk moviegoers' chains by having Solo rescued from carbonite only to perish during a raid on an imperial base. But nobody wants to buy a toy of a dead guy, so Lucas nixed the death, robbing us of a moment of real emotional resonance. 

Initially, the Ewoks weren't talking teddy bears

The Ewoks were conceived as a slithering race of lizard creatures. This would not only up the creep factor of the movie, but also provided more drama from the Rebels being forced to partner with evil-looking reptilians. George Lucas, who gave up on selling films with quality drama sometime around 1980, said, "Hey, remember that song `Teddy Bear Picnic'? Why couldn't that be on Endor?" Or something to that effect.

The film's title was softened

Lucas was so uptight about making sure every element of Return of the Jedi resonated with his less hard-edged vision for Star Wars that even the word "revenge" was considered too harsh. "Revenge" conjured images of bloody battles, treachery, and the Pink Panther -- none of which were considered the purview of the Jedi (until the prequels, when they totally did all of that). That's why the film's original title, Revenge of the Jedi, was changed. 

The Rebel forces were supposed to lose

The filmed ending, where all the good guys live happily ever after, ran contrary to many of the plot points in the movie's original vision. The Rebel forces weren't intended to win, until George Lucas made it happen. Toy sales are driven by winners, which is why Mickey Mouse dolls are so popular, and Big Bad Pete plushies are nowhere to be seen (even though he looks way more cuddly than a rat).

Darth Vader's relationship to Luke was never supposed to be clarified

Whether or not Darth Vader was lying about his relationship to Luke was to be kept ambiguous, with the original adoption records probably sealed away in a dusty storage unit of the Death Star. But a child psychologist warned Lucas that leaving this bit up in the air might be maybe kinda sorta damaging to kids a little. Lucas overreacted with course correction, having Yoda drop everything and come tell Skywalker the truth. 

Gary Kurtz got fired for being too good at his job

Lucas' name is obviously synonymous with the Star Wars saga, but most fans are unaware of another figure who had a huge influence in shaping the series: Gary Kurtz. Kurtz served as producer of the original Star Wars and had a major hand in many creative aspects of Empire Stikes Back. In many interviews and retellings of the production process, Kurtz comes off as the grit to Lucas' gleam. He kept the story from becoming a bright-and-shiny fairy tale, much of Empire's beloved darkness comes from Kurtz' collaboration.

So, it was natural that Lucas, who wanted to polish Return of the Jedi into a toy promotion, would butt heads with Kurtz. Kurtz wanted to keep the story gritty: Rebels losing, Han Solo dying, etc. You know, keep the storytelling tone that had made the previous two films insanely popular. Lucas responded by firing Kurtz, which allowed Lucas much more freedom to paint the film with bright sunshine, rainbows, and merchandisable chatacters.

Darth Vader Force choke cut

Everyone associates the Force choke with Darth Vader. Even today, I can't telepathically pick a dude up by the neck without someone remarking, "Stop Darth Vadering that poor parking meter attendant!" Vader does his signature move in both Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back. So, when it came time to reestablish his menace in Return of the Jedi, it was obvious he would reprise the Force choke one last time. In fact, a scene was scripted and filmed involving Vader Force choking someone, probably one of his own employees. But Lucas deemed this scene a bit too gritty for kids (yes, the same kids who had probably already seen Darth Vader Force choke someone at least twice before), and the scene was cut.


Boba Fett exterminated without fanfare

Credit: Lucasfilm

By the time the production of Return of the Jedi started ramping up, Lucas was making a lot of decisions based on toy marketability. Luke, Leia, Solo, and Vader made for popular toys, so they were given tons of screentime. Crowded in were the new Ewoks, which were sure to sell to the "I'm six and I don't realize how lame these are" crowd. That left little room for characters that were just plain awesome, such as bounty hunter Boba Fett. As such, Fett was cast off without much ado. Lucas later admitted he didn't give Boba Fett a memorable death scene because he didn't realize the character was popular.


Luke Was Going to Turn Heel

It would have made for quite a striking ending: Luke vanquishes his father for the forces of good, and then...dons the Darth Vader mask, himself. Leaving it up in the air as to whether Luke would join the dark side was quite a compelling finish, but it wasn't one that would, you gussed it, sell toys. So, instead, Luke sees the smiling ghosts of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin (now available in stores!)

What do you think? Was Return of the Jedi a fitting end to the original trilogy, or did George Lucas undercut the drama with his more kid-friendly vibe? Let us know in the comments.

Previously in 20 Weeks of Star Wars:

The best Star Wars stunt scenes ranked by a professional stuntwoman