May the Fourth! Tomorrow's the day we celebrate all things Star Wars — which makes it the perfect day to recognize one of the great unsung contributors to the galaxy far, far away: Leigh Brackett wrote the first script draft of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and her contributions helped make the saga epic.
But before Brackett had a major hand in creating the best Star Wars movie, she was a science fiction novelist in the 1940s, writing a slew of space adventure novels with titles like The Starmen and Alpha Centauri or Die!. People called her the Queen of Space Opera — and it was not always a compliment.
At that time, space opera (like Star Wars) was looked down upon as less worthy of appreciation than other types of pulp fiction, including other types of science fiction. Brackett also wrote a lot of pulp crime fiction, and had co-written the screenplay for The Big Sleep with William Faulkner. But she chose to spend a lot of her time writing these despised novels. As her friend Michael Moorcock explains in an essay:
Like so many of her heroes, Leigh preferred the outlaw life. She always said her first love was science fantasy. She said it defiantly, when it paid less than other pulp fiction. When it paid less, indeed, than other kinds of science fiction. If she had chosen, in her fiction, to hang out with the scum of the L.A. streets instead of the dregs of the spacelanes, she could have made a lot more money... Her keen sense of freedom made her, like many other fine writers of her generation, choose the more precarious life of writing science fantasy.... There was a time when the kind of science fantasy Brackett made her own was looked down upon as a kind of bastard progeny of science fiction (which was about scientific speculation) and fantasy (which was about magic).
As Andrew Liptak quotes in his great piece on Brackett's planetary romances in Kirkus:
An aunt once asked her: “Why don’t you write nice stories for the Ladies’ Home Journal?”, to which Brackett replied: “I wish I could, because they pay very well, but I can’t read the Ladies’ Home Journal, and I’m sure I couldn’t write for it.”
Of course, Brackett was a respected member of the L.A. science fiction writer community — and she was a mentor to Ray Bradbury, with whom she traded critiques and collaborated on some stories. But at the same time, her choice to write "science fantasy" or "space opera" wound up tarring her as a representative of a pulpy subgenre that many science fiction writers were embarrassed by, especially as science fiction tried to become more "mature" and sophisticated in the 1950s.
This 1976 interview with Brackett (and Edmond Hamilton) is a must-read, including the parts where she talks about the early hostility she received from some readers as a woman writing SF. She also says that many women became interested in SF after Sputnik was launched, because suddenly all of this stuff seemed real. Also in that interview, she talks about her love for Edgar Rice Burroughs and confesses, " I suppose most of my stuff would be called escape fiction. This is the type of stuff I love to read."
I'm interested mainly in never trying to mold [science fiction] into one particular thing. I think it should be free to have every type of thinking, every type of story. I think you should have the ecological stories, the political stories, the Big Think type of story. I mean, what anybody wants to write. What I hate to see are the occasional attempts that are made, periodically, none of them ever last very long, to mold the field into one particular thing, and say science fiction has to be such and such and so. In other words, just what I happen to think science fiction should be.
Also, in her introduction to The Best of Planet Stories #1 in 1976, Brackett describes "space opera" as "a pejorative term often applied to a story that has an element of adventure." And she offers a defense of space opera as "the folk-tale, the hero-tale, of our particular niche in history." Sputnik, she writes, startled the wits out of all the high-minded, important people who hadn't wanted to talk about space. But she adds:
But the space opera has been telling us tales of spaceflight, of journeys to other worlds in this solar system... These stories served to stretch our little minds, to draw us out beyond our narrow skies into the vast glooms of interstellar space, where the great suns ride in splendor and the bright nebulae fling their veils of fire parsecs-long across the universe; where the Coal-Sack and the Horsehead make patterns of black mystery; where the Cepheid variables blink their evil eyes and a billion nameless planets may harbor life-forms infinitely numerous and strange. Escape fiction? Yes, indeed! But in its own ironic way, as we see now, it was an escape into a reality which some people are even now trying to fight off.
(Also quoted in Kramer and Hartwell, Space Opera Renaissance.)
The irony is that, according to Michael Moorcock, Brackett's well-written stories, despite having larger-than-life heroes, actually helped to launch the movement to make the genre more adult, sophisticated and literary. Moorcock has called Brackett "one of the godmothers of the New Wave." She also stretched out in her later work, including one of the great post-apocalyptic novels, The Long Tomorrow.
(By the way, there's a great Leigh Brackett tribute site, run by Blue Tyson, over here.)
But if Brackett was feeling defensive about her contributions to space opera in 1976 (as the Planet Stories introduction shows she was), then she received some amazing vindication — even if some of it arrived after her death. Not only did Star Wars make the genre of space opera suddenly mainstream and huge, but Brackett was hired to write the screenplay for the sequel.
According to John Baxter's book Mythmaker (quoted here), a friend handed Lucas a copy of one of Brackett's books, and told Lucas: "Here is someone who did the Cantina scene better than you did." Baxter describes the phone conversation between Lucas and Brackett thusly:
Lucas: Have you ever written for the movies?
Brackett: Yes, I have. Rio Bravo, El Dorado, The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye...
Lucas: Are you that Leigh Brackett?
Brackett: Yes. Isn't that why you called me in?
Lucas: No, I called you in because you were a pulp science fiction writer!
After that, Lucas started out by having a week-long story conference with Brackett, according to The Secret History of Star Wars. During this time, he hashed out a lot of the story points that wound up in the final film, including the character of Yoda — and the notion that Luke has a twin sister, which isn't brought up until Return of the Jedi. After a Thanksgiving break, they resumed the story conference, which led to a 55-page transcript in which a lot of stuff was hashed out, according to J.W. Rinzler's The Making of The Empire Strikes Back.
It's fashionable to disparage Brackett's contributions to Empire — Lucas himself says that her script wasn't what he wanted at all, and she died of cancer before she could do any rewrites. Lucas is quoted in The Annotated Screenplays as saying, "During the story conferences I had with Leigh, my thought weren't fully formed and I felt that her script went in a completely different direction." (You can read the entire script draft here, and a list of differences from the final film here.)
But it's not true that none of Brackett's storyline winds up in the final movie — the basic story beats are the same. And there is at least one aspect of Brackett's draft that's way better than what Lucas eventually ended up with: the character of Luke's twin sister, named Nellis in Brackett's screenplay. From The Annotated Screenplays:
This concept of Luke's sister was discussed during story conference: The idea was that Luke's father had twin children and took one of them to an uncle and the second one to the other side of the universe so that if one was killed, another would survive. It was suggested that Luke's twin sister would be going through training at the same time that he was and become a Jedi master as well. Eventually, in another episode the story could deal with both Luke and his sister as Jedi Knights.
It's probably true, as Lawrence Kasdan says in Rinzler's book, that Brackett's screenplay doesn't quite get the feel of what George Lucas was going for, and that her work represents the sensibilities of an earlier era. Lucas was in the middle of revolutionizing space opera, for better or worse, and Brackett represented an earlier era, that was closer to the Burroughs planetary romances.
And yet, a lot of what makes Empire great is still traceable to those early story conferences that she and Lucas had together. And in a lot of ways, her credit as screenwriter for one of the greatest space adventures of all time is vindication for someone who chose to write space opera at a time when that term was considered a put-down.