On long car trips, S has a habit of putting on the plays while I nap. I've tried to listen a few times, with no success. I considered this a defect on my part: clearly, I had missed the critical period for learning how to reconstruct a story from a radio play. It's a very particular genre, requiring different work from the audience than a novel. So when we got on the road to go house-hunting, and she put on the first CD, I closed my eyes and settled in. Only this time, the switch flipped for me and the story made sense. And now I've got to explain to you that these things are absolutely brilliant. And they are, no question, the canonical version of the story.
ETA: houseboatonstyx points out, correctly, that there are spoilers for both movies and radio plays here. I am the queen of spoiler-shyness and should have remembered to include the warning.
The first movie--what's now called A New Hope--was adapted for NPR, by slightly obscure science fiction writer Brian Daley, shortly after it came out in theaters. It was wildly successful and led to a 40% increase in NPR's audience. Daley had a remarkable talent for picking out the things missing from Lucas's story, and adding them back in. For the first movie, that means four extra hours of material and a few key line changes. For the second two, it's a few crucial minutes. We've been watching the movies in between the plays, so I've gotten to make the comparison with the differences fresh in my mind. And boy, are there differences.
The first play starts with a couple of hours of backstory. Some of this just helps the movie make more sense--we see Luke on Tatooine being a hotshot drag racer, and get to see his friendship with Bigs. So the gun that gets fired at the climax actually gets put on the mantlepiece at the start. More importantly, we see the things Leia has done leading up to her capture by Darth Vader. We get to see her tag-teaming with Bail Organa on politics, and the fine line Alderan walks between supporting the rebellion and presenting themselves to the Empire as firm pacifists. Leia is the one who learns about the Death Star, coordinates the op that captures the plans, and orders the captain and crew of her diplomatic ship to hold against the storm troopers--essentially using their lives to buy the few minutes it takes to send off R2D2 with the plans. In the movie, she's a princess to rescue and a prize for the male leads. In the radio plays, she's a protagonist in her own right, with full agency and her own agenda.
This continues in little ways throughout: a few extra lines here and there make a real difference. The most notable scene is one that's fade-to-black in the movie: Vader uses an hypnotic drug to torture her in the hopes of finding out where the plans have gone. This starts with the nicely ambiguous "Your father wants you to give me the plans. You wouldn't want to disappoint your father, would you?" and goes up to more direct and painful pressure. And then he seems proud when she resists. Creepy. And awesome, because it parallels and foreshadows Vader's temptation of Luke.
Speaking of creepy, you know how in the movie Alderan is destroyed and then never mentioned again? In the plays, it's a rallying cry for the rebellion. And you see Leia being enough of a politician to use it that way, and truly mourning at the same time.
Also speaking of creepy, you may or may not have noticed that the droids are slaves. I missed it on my first watch--distracted, I suppose, by the exciting explosions. The movie narrative is more or less okay with this. In particular, C3PO's yes-master obsequiousness is clearly intended as comic relief, marking the start of Lucas's tendency to dress up racist stereotypes in science-fictional veneers. The characters in the radio play don't question this set-up any more than those in the movie, but the narrative has noticed that it's Not Okay. Again, it's a matter of a few key line changes. For example, at the beginning of the movie, R2D2 is getting in the escape pod and C3PO flips out: "We're not allowed in there!" In the play it's "Only humans are allowed in there." The human supervising the droids is called an overseer. And there are several mentions of typical threats to droids for misbehavior: getting their memories wiped, or getting sent to the spice mines of a particular planet. As S points out, one doesn't make such threats to things that are legitimately property, only to people who you consider responsible for their own actions. All of this causes R2D2 to become one of my favorite characters, and C3PO to look like a f***ing collaborator who might profitably be shoved out an airlock. And causes me to lose some respect for every other character except Obi-Wan Kenobi, who in both versions is the only one who clearly sees droids as people. In the movie, that's a single line: "I don't believe I've ever owned a droid."
We finished watching the last play just before getting to our new house, and haven't had the chance to watch the last movie yet. The major change that I noticed, from my memories, is a lot more of Leia snarking at Han--clearly having fallen for him, but more her own person than in the movies. I particularly liked Han starting to explain that the odds were against a relationship between a princess and a smuggler, and her interrupting him: "Never tell me the odds." Daley seems to have understood story balance better than Lucas as well. I'm very much looking forward to tracking down the rest of his work.