20 Years Of The Star Wars Special Editions: A Commentary


January 31, 2017 marked an important but often overlooked anniversary in the long pop culture history of Star Wars. It’s the 20th anniversary of the Star Wars Special Editions, the first of which (ANH) was released in theaters January 31, 1997. TESB followed on February 21 and ROTJ on March 14. As is often the case with anything having to do with modern fandom and “geek” media, too much attention has been paid to the controversies and not enough on how really important those three months were in 1997. (For the record, I take the Harrison Ford position on the “who shot first” issue: I don’t care. I happen to think the 2004 DVD cut had the best version of the scene.)

1996’s “multimedia event” “Shadows Of The Empire” was a dress rehearsal for the Special Editions which in turn were a dress rehearsal for the prequels. Lucasfilm was riding a wave of resurgent popularity and this was to keep the momentum going while at the same time stretching muscles at everywhere from PR to licensing to ILM’s visual effects department that hadn’t been used for a long time, or at least not coordinated together since ROTJ’s release in 1983. But let me be clear: this wasn’t top-down manipulation.  There had been a renaissance of interest in Star Wars beginning in the early ’90s.  Moviegoers missed Star Wars. They missed the excitement those movies brought.  Meanwhile, there was a younger generation of fans whose only experience with Star Wars was on the boob tube. They yearned to see Star Wars the way God and Lucas intended them, on the big screen. They wanted to camp out on the sidewalk like fans did in the early ‘80s and dress up in costumes. They wanted to cheer with a big audience. Some of the most memorable ads for the Special Editions were aimed directly at that audience. Remember the one that started with the tinny sound and the X-wings on a little t.v. before it burst out onto the screen? It was genius.

This is why I had no doubts at all about the Special Editions succeeding. To a lot of the media, it seemed “risky” and a “gamble.” Why would people go to the theaters to pay to see movies that had been out on cable, network television, and home video for years? It seemed absurd. But Star Wars was different and at that time in 1997, there was a perfect storm ready to break out and astonish the world.

ANH:  SE had a shocking $35 million opening weekend, which set a record for a January opening and remains one of the biggest January openings even 20 years later.  It sat at the top of the box office for three weeks, racking up $138.6 million in its entire run and passing “E.T. The Extraterrestrial” to become the top-grossing film of all time (domestic) until James Cameron and Leonardo DiCaprio ruined everything a year later.  The three existing Star Wars film grossed a total of $447 million worldwide during their combined run.  That’s right…movies that were 14-20 years old made as much money if not more than just about every newly made hit released in 1997.

As per usual, complaining fans didn’t see the trees for the forest, preferring to dither on what was changed and how that made Lucas a horrible person.  It’s like your team wins the Super Bowl or the World Series and all you could do is complain about your team’s ugly uniforms and how much you hate the coach while everyone else around you is celebrating.  It probably indicated what was coming with the prequels.

But the Special Editions were a triumph for Star Wars and for George Lucas.  They proved that Star Wars was a permanent part of the cultural landscape and they introduced the theatrical experience to a new generation of fans.  In fact, the experience of seeing the films on the big screen after so many years and noticing how much was lost watching them on a t.v. influenced this fan to see the prequels as many times in the theater as possible when they were released.  The hype for new Star Wars films went into overdrive.  In fact, one could say this was the beginning of the prequel era.  I think TPM would’ve been a success even without the Special Editions but they probably would’ve had to have worked a lot harder to make the film an event.  The Special Editions pre-sold that audience two years in advance and built the excitement to make TPM the movie event of the decade.

This article has all of the info on how the Special Editions performed, making the process of writing this a lot easier and faster.  






29 Responses to “20 Years Of The Star Wars Special Editions: A Commentary”

  1. Logan Says:

    I grew up with the 2004 DVDs, and I have no problem with the Blu-ray changes. I actually really like the Vader saying No thing in Return of the Jedi. I read Lucas wanted to add in a Bail Organa scene to A New Hope. I would have loved that, too!

  2. Martin Hay Says:

    I’ve always felt that the 2004 SE’s were a bit of mixed bag. Don’t get me wrong, I love and respect George and I recognize that he had every right to do whatever he wanted with his movies. Despite what the overly entitled, so-called “fans” have convinced themselves, they have no right to demand anything from George at all. He doesn’t owe any of us a damn thing.

    But, like I said, I still think the SE’s are a mixed bag. Some of the changes make perfect sense (e.g switching Jason Wingreen’s voice for Temuera Morrison) and many of the special effects were greatly improved. And yet I never have understood what was the point of making Greedo shoot first. I mean, it doesn’t actually alter the scene in any meaningful way. There’s no legal or moral difference between shooting someone who’s pointing a gun and threatening to kill you and shooting someone who shot at you first. Either way, it’s an act of self defense. Han never was a cold-blooded killer no matter what certain people have convinced themselves. So what purpose does the change serve? It just inserts a brief but jarring (to my eyes) piece of CGI into the scene that never needed to be there.

    I’ve also never understood why Yub Nub was removed in favor of Victory Celebration. I guess maybe they needed something a little longer to fit in the scenes of Coruscant and Naboo. But Victory Celebration has a real melancholy feel to it whereas Yub Nub is triumphant and up-beat and fits the scene so much better IMHO.

    • Hoggle Says:

      I have never understood the complaints about the end song ( i wouldn’t have known it was not the original one if not for those), it’s a far better piece of music and really encapsulates the ending of the film, OT saga, & PT to OT saga, to me – It’s got a joyish light heartedness combined with heavy weight been lifted sigh of relief about it i’d say, i find it absolutely fitting. The SE’s are great all round i think.

      That said, the original versions of the films are avaliable, & i don’t have a problem with that.

      The blue ray changes i’m meh about though.

      The bigger door to Jabba’s palace i could get behind. Could have gone further and doubled the size of Jabba’s inner sanctum with background inserts, as it (& that section of film) feels very cramped (one of the probs with RotJ) to the story concept. I would toy with digital replacement of some of the lesser puppets, like the snake, & perhaps Jabba himself, giving him appearance of free movement on the slab – perhaps using his tail to swipe some characters into the back wall when he’s not happy also, ha.

      I’d say the non ‘No’ is better but it ultimately doesn’t make a huge difference.

  3. Matthew Riggio Says:

    Great point! Here are a couple observations of the some of the changes that stick out the most for me:

    The good:
    ANH – The enhanced special effects in the attack on the Death Star really opens up the battle and makes it easier to understand.

    ANH – Adding Jabba was fine…it’s a funny, charming scene that has grown on me but clearly computer characters were in their infancy and were tough to blend seamlessly with aged film.

    ROTJ – Replacing Anakin’s force ghost with Hayden is bittersweet and a borderline tear jerker.

    ROTJ – Adding Jar Jar’s “Weeza free!” during the end victory sequence when we visit Naboo. It’s appropriate and also serves as a giant middle finger to the freak show “fans” that have coniption fits over the entire PT. I love it!

    The bad:
    TESB – Replacing Vader’s “bring my shuttle!” with “alert my star destroyer to prepare for my arrival.” That was one of my favorite Vader moments from the OT and the replacement line completely drains Vader’s anger from the scene. Add that to the inserted and copied docking bay footage from ROTJ and the sequence loses its urgency and suspense.

    ROTJ – The new Sy Snoodles musical number. It’s too hokey for me and I think the old number is edgier and therfore a better fit for Jabba’s personality.

    • Martin Hay Says:

      Personally, I’m not a fan of the Jabba scene in ANH. Not only is it redundant from a story-telling perspective but it looks nothing like Jabba in ROTJ and the CGI has not aged well. I agree with you about the Sy Snoodles thing though. I miss Lapti Nek.

    • jarjarbacktattooguy Says:


      Why is Anakin suddenly young again but Obi-Wan still old? Anakin is beautiful and can get chicks and Ob-Wan is a Golden Girls guest star. How is that fair?

      I think Jar Jar belongs in every movie…however, someone only watching the OT would have no idea what planet he was seeing at the end of ROTJ.

      • Hoggle Says:

        Why is Anakin suddenly young again but Obi-Wan still old?

        I think that’s a good question JarJarbacktattooguy.
        There are probably many different answers for it.

        For what it’s worth mine is something like this:

        Anakin’s spirit is still young because when he leaves the galaxy, he is going to cease to be. Obi and Yoda, leaving the neatherworlds of the galaxy for greater manifestations of power will remain Obi & Yoda in who they are, if not memory of who they were.

        Anakin will not remain Anakin, he is destined to fade out in the neatherworlds of this galaxy. Padme will remain Padme though. Padme will reunite with the different Anakin, back in their Guardian Order, of which he was the second to Leia’s first among the Firsts, which oversaw the creation of the galaxy at the beginnings – because they were that order’s first embodiment of romantic love. But the legacy of Anakin will no longer be the second to Leia’s first in terms of overall power, he will take his place among the geldings of the guardians, below now Luke, who was a lesser First lientenant, & will remain as Luke when he returns, if not in memory of who he was.

        Obi & Yoda, like most of the galaxy, were not part of this Guardian group to start with. They were infinites of a different background & less specialised to the galaxy.

        I hope that’s not too bombad an early briskin munching type of answer.

  4. Kingpun Says:

    People seem to plug their ears and ignore the improvements. Just that little bit more with Biggs sold theirs friendship so much better than the original cut. Or Bespin finally matching the grandeur of all that great concept art. One really shocking difference I noticed when I got the theatrical cuts on DVD, was how poorly edited the music was in Empire. I haven’t studied it well enough to know if John Williams rescored things for the SE or if they used alternate original tales, but it sounds so much smoother than tracked in sections of the suite version of Imperial March. And if you’re in it for the whole ride from I through VI, how could you not love the new victory celebration?

  5. Colress Plasma Says:

    i was called a Lucas Apologist for saying i enjoyed return of the jedi especial edition

  6. ladylavinia1932 Says:

    For the record, I take the Harrison Ford position on the “who shot first” issue: I don’t care.

    Same here. I never understood the brouhaha over the scene. I’ve always found Han’s refusal to help Luke save Leia aboard the Death Star a lot more cold-blooded.

    As for the Special Editions, I tend to watch them instead of the original version of the OT. I had no problem with the additions, aside from Luke’s scream, when he was falling through one of Bespin’s shafts in “ESB”.

  7. jonedney124 Says:

    I am mostly familiar with the Special Editions, having seen the original versions about three times each (twice from an old recorded TV version with adverts and the third time on the DVD). I agree about the shooting, in many ways I see the argument but it is 3 seconds out of a 2 hour movie. The special effects have been for the most part improved (if they did a cinema screening of the original versions, esp. New Hope, you would see how dated it looks at times). Most of the changes I am happy with, even if I don’t think they were entirely necessary. I do think Jabba in NH doesn’t look great nor is the scene necessary, as it recycles dialogue from the Greedo scene and I can just about live with the singing in Jabba’s palace (maybe hearing the song on Battlefront II helped with that). Some changes were essential, the most obvious being the Emperor in Empire (come on, can ANYONE argue against that?) and I prefer Victory Celebration to Yub Nub, it feels like it was written more organically for the scene. Until 2015, the SE ending brought the saga to a close that felt more befitting of the entire saga and when I watched the whole saga (and Clone Wars) before FA, the final shots of Hayden Christensen just hit their mark, as that is ultimately what George Lucas was going for. You watch the movies in chronological order and you can see the rise, fall and redemption of the Skywalkers and you see the Anakin Skywalker who is actually Anakin Skywalker rather than the old guy who plays him only in his final moments in ROTJ and was never a Jedi in Jedi robes. These are the versions that work with the prequels to form the saga and that is precisely what many fans can’t get over.

  8. Keith Palmer Says:

    I remember the theatrical Special Edition experiences myself; it happened to be the first time I’d seen The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi at the movies (and I was pretty young when I was taken to one of the reissues of Star Wars at the beginning of the 1980s). Maybe remembering those university residence group trips to the movies helps me, and perhaps also remembering the constant impression of the matte lines standing out on VHS helps too… I suppose I can be honest enough to say the idea of “picking and choosing specific moments” does strike my imagination a bit, but to do that in the real world seems more work than it’s worth, so I’m generally quite willing to stick with the Blu-Rays and not provoke upset feelings I can’t do anything about by listing just how I might put things together.

  9. Colress Plasma Says:

    guys why people including south park red letter media and Simmon pegg always saying George lucas raped their childhoods the prequels were amazing and the special editions were cool what do they see wrong in this

  10. Jacobesico Says:

    Twenty years since I’ve been a Star Wars fan, then.

    I was introduced to Star Wars via the Special Editions and I was hooked ever since.

    I’ve seen the unaltered versions and I understand why the changes were made and I fully support the changes.

    I love the Victory Celebration soundtrack in Return of The Jedi. Much more emotional then Yub Yub and I loved the way Hayden appeared in the 2004 version. It fully knits the two trillogies together and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the true ending to the Saga and Disney can’t ruin that for me.

    • jarjarbacktattooguy Says:

      They need to bring back the Yub. There’s no such thing as having too much Ewok or Gungan culture in one movie.

  11. Hoggle Says:

    I remember my last TPM theater viewing. It had been out for months, & i had done my burst of seeing it at the movies. Was on a trip in another country staying in a big city had never been to before, & TPM was playing at a theatre in town late showing. So i ended up going to see that, which involved me walking home some distance in the middle of the night through deserted inner city that i didn’t know back to the hotel.

    It was great though, always remember, it was one of those old type of movie Theatres, with a top and bottom seperate verander type level, classical look. I still remember being in the top part of this old classical type of pretty empty theatre, with the TPM starting to play. Excellent time at the movies.

  12. jarjarbacktattooguy Says:

    I have many fond memories of the 1997 theatrical releases. These films are meant to be seen in a theater. At the time, I really enjoyed most of the new scenes and F/X shots. It was so exciting to get “new” Star Wars images on film again.

    I do understand George’s goals with the S.E.’s. He saw the PT and OT as one story and thought that by adding modern F/X to the OT, the viewer could more easily watch the entire saga in chronological order, starting with Episode I.

    As I’ve stated in a previous post, my enjoyment of the S.E.’s have changed over time. Today, I believe that no film should be altered by adding newly created scenes or imagery. Multiple generations have enjoyed Wizard of Oz, a fantasy film using technology from the 1930s. Subsequent generations can enjoy “dated”, tech-heavy vintage films if they are open minded.

    I never understood why George felt so insecure about the F/X and production values in ANH. His company had proven it could accomplish greater things with ESB, ROTJ and all the many other productions ILM worked on over the years.

    However, if the original theatrical versions are available for purchase, then it’s really not a big deal at all.

    The promotion and merchandizing for the S.E.’s were unquestionably a success. The massive Taco Bell/Pizza Hut and Pepsi/Frito Lay promos would return for Episode I. The General Cinema and various theater give-a-way promos were fun. The Drew Struzan posters were gorgeous. The Topps 20th Anniversary magazine was well produced. Kenner 12-inch! Micro Machines! LucasArts! IMAX! PlayStation! Service Merchandise! LaserDisc! VHS! Tiger Electronics! The Internet! Oh, my!

    • LadyJediScientist (@LJediScientist) Says:

      I don’t think it was a case of George being insecure or even the effects being dated in certain scenes. If he was so concerned about the effects being dated, then he would have updated everything including Yoda.

      Instead, George only changed certain aspects of the films. It wasn’t about updating the effects. George wanted the films to better match his vision of this universe. More changes were made to A New Hope because he had more issues during production with that film than any of the other films: budget cuts, incomplete makeup, studio interference, etc. With Empire and Jedi, George was funding those films himself, which meant greater creative freedom. 😉

  13. LadyJediScientist (@LJediScientist) Says:

    I’ve always loved SE! Some of my best memories from college were the times I went with friends to Star Wars at the theater. I had never seen any of them on the big screen before, only VHS in pan-scan. I couldn’t wait to see new prints of all three films on the big screen! It was just as amazing as I thought it would be! I took time out from classes just so I could see each film three times before they left the theater. It was an amazing spring semester!!! 🙂

  14. AdmiralShadow Says:

    I’ve been following this site for quite a while now, but this is the first time I’ve ever commented here. I am not only a supporter of the Prequel Trilogy but the Special Editions as well.

    There have been a few changes over the years that I didn’t agree with:
    -Luke’s scream (actually Palpatine’s) in TESB (thankfully, it was taken out in later releases).
    -Obi-Wan’s krayt dragon call in the Blu-Ray version of ANH (the 2004 DVD had a better version, in my opinion).
    -Vader’s “No!!” in ROTJ

    But none of them have ruined the movies for me. In fact, I’ve always thought most of the changes were for the better. Especially Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine in TESB and young Anakin in ROTJ. The Special Editions were very much a part of how I experienced Star Wars as a kid.

    Looking back on it, my experience was actually kind of odd. I was introduced to the series when my dad took me to see TPM in theaters. We also saw AOTC when it came out, and that got me interested in more Star Wars material, including the Original Trilogy. First, I saw ANH (the ’97 version) on TV sometime in 2003, and I taped it. My dad and I later rented TESB and ROTJ (the theatrical versions) from a local video store.

    At some point that year, I borrowed copies of those two films (also the theatrical versions) from my aunt and uncle and made copies of them using two VCRs (the quality was really bad because of the anti-piracy feature). But that was what I had until the 2004 DVDs came out. My family never actually owned any official copies of the OT on VHS (we did have TPM and AOTC, though). It was either because our local stores just didn’t have them anymore, or because we never thought to look for them.

    As I said, the TV airing of ANH I recorded was the ’97 SE (I had no idea that the Jabba scene wasn’t originally in the film until years later!), but the versions of TESB and ROTJ that I knew were the theatrical versions. This created some confusion for me. The “Star Wars Connections” video at the beginning of the AOTC tape featured the Coruscant scene from the Special Edition of ROTJ. I remember seeing that and wondering “when did they EVER show Coruscant in ROTJ?” Not only that, the “Making of Attack of the Clones” book also included a screenshot of that scene, comparing the endings of all the films made up to that point. It confused the heck out of me until my dad finally bought the 2004 DVDs. The image quality was so much better than those tapes, and I was fine with the majority of the changes, so I’ve stuck with the SEs ever since.

  15. culturevulture73 Says:

    The only problem I have with the “new” end of Jedi is that you lose the one long bit of Luke coming back, hugging Leia with Han just grinning behind them, then Leia pushing him to go hug Han, sort of the same progression as Yavin. It’s intercut now.

    What I think is funny is the same dudebros who will scream about Han shooting first have no problem with the damage done to the character in TFA.

    In fact, they have no problem with all the things that happen in TFA, even down to it being pretty much a remake of New Hope. But if Lucas had done it, they’ve tarred and feathered him. I’ve now seen people even say “well, Phantom Menace is the same! So there!” It’s appalling.

    • lazypadawan Says:

      It baffled me too but the dudebros never cared about things like character arcs or growth. They sounded like they did but the real issue was that something familiar was changed and they weren’t the changes they would’ve made.

    • andywylde77 Says:

      You bring up a really great point about Han shooting first and how he was portrayed in TFA. It is very sad that people think his portrayal in TFA was “awesome!” and yet whine about him shooting first. Han’s character arc was completely destroyed in TFA. Along with Luke and Leia but that is another matter. In TFA he seemed like a confused old man that didn’t know what was going on around him. In ROTJ he was a proud general and great friend to those close to him. In TFA they turned him into Fred Sanford. And he was turned into a deadbeat dad. A failed smuggler in huge debt that abandoned his family is considered “awesome?”

      Man, it just goes to show that some people have mighty low standards to watch a series hero make his final run as a wash out. Yeah, “awesome” indeed…

      • culturevulture73 Says:

        Exactly. I just can’t fathom it – people who whine about Lucas destroying their childhood watch the OT heroes turned into cowards and terrible parents and because it “looks like a SW movie” whatever that means (and has as much or more CGI than the prequels) it’s great. I just have to shake my head…

      • andywylde77 Says:

        Yeah these people seem pretty confused with what they like and dislike about SW. I mean they whined about CGI in the PT and now all the CGI in the new films is awesome? Then I ask, what was all the whining about for all those years about CGI?

        But I drew the conclusion that all these fans praising all the new junk are just superficial fans at best. They only care about the outside. And couldn’t care less about what is on the inside.

  16. Stefan Kraft Says:

    I am okay with most of the changes or find them awesome, but also have some issues with (luckily) few ones.
    I have read that many do not realize how many age issues (scratches etc.) were removed in the SE.

    This brings me to my personal experience:
    I was introduced to SW with the SE on VHS (that must have been in 1997 or more probably in 1998 – it was obviously awesome when I learned that new SW movies were coming!) The VHS were borrowed from our public library and therefore quite worn-out. When we bought the DVDs in 2004, I was really surprised how many details I could see now e.g. on the walls in Cloud City. 🙂

    Anyway, nice article, LP, which shows what went on in the background before the release of the SE and why their release was so important.

  17. joe Says:

    i should mention that i haven’t seen tfa yet but hearing about what was done to the heroes of the ot is difficult to bear i’ll probaly see it eventually

  18. joe Says:

    and now there’s a rumor that the original versions of the ot are finally coming to blu-ray but it’s just a rumor for the moment

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