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.”
From “Leigh Brackett’s Planetary Romances.” Andrew Liptak.
Since today, the 4th of May, is Star Wars day, what better way to celebrate than to tell the story of novelist and screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who wrote the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, and whose story has pretty much been obliterated in favour of George Lucas’s? Her contributions to the script were largely changed, as she tragically died of cancer before she could make any rewrites, but the main story beats remain the same, and she played a large role in making Princess Leia as awesome as she is. But let’s start at the beginning, with her origins and her roots in the Los Angeles science fiction writing scene.
Leigh Brackett was pretty much a lifelong Californian. She was born in 1915 in Los Angeles, and while she spent a time in Ohio after marrying, she eventually returned to her home state and died there in 1978. Leigh’s first story was called “Martian Quest”, and it was published in the February 1940 edition of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. This period, from 1940-1942, was one of her most prolific, and she wrote the bulk of her short stories at this time. Many of them explored social themes, such as colonialism, and her early work was often about the conflicts of frontier worlds. Her first novel, No Good from a Corpse, actually wasn’t science fiction, but rather a hardboiled noir mystery. Her first long sci-fi short story, which she also had published in 1944, was called “Shadow Over Mars”, and marked a distinct new style for the genre, one that is heavily influenced by mystery and noir.
Brackett took a break in the mid-’40s to concentrate on film work, but returned to science fiction in the late 1940s, where she started to write adventure stories much longer than any of her previous work. In 1949’s “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” she introduced a character whom she could often return to: Eric John Stark, an orphan raised by native Mercurians who are later murdered by humans, and is later adopted by an Earthling, though his native roots are never far behind. Her science fiction stories became what is now known as space opera, or science fiction romance, and while the style didn’t prove as popular as others at the time, her work, which was mature and well written, went a long way to legitimize the science fiction genre as one for adults. Her stories were for grownups, not kids, as most sci-fi was marketed to at the time. She also mentored and collaborated with Ray Bradbury.
Leigh continued to write stories off and on over the next few decades, taking breaks in between to work on more lucrative film and television projects. She wrote probably one of the greatest post-apocalyptic novels of the period, The Long Tomorrow. Her film and TV credits include: The Big Sleep (co-written with William Faulkner), Rio Bravo, The Long Goodbye (a deconstruction of the Raymond Chandler story), and El Dorado. How Brackett got involved with Star Wars is under some dispute, however. No one is quite sure if Lucas hired her to write the screenplay based on his outline, or if she was just asked to provide notes and discuss plot points with Lucas and help him flesh things out.
What we do know is that Brackett and Lucas met several times to talk about the story and characters, and that she wrote a first draft of the script (which you can see here). It’s pretty different from the final version that Lucas wrote, but you can’t really say that it had no influence. Pretty much all of the basic story beats are there, but in Brackett’s version, Leia (who is named Nellis in her script), is even fucking cooler than she is in the final film. Instead of just being a rebel princess, Luke and Leia actually meet up while both training to be Jedi Knights. HOW COOL WOULD THAT HAVE BEEN!? Ultimately though, her script wasn’t used both because she died and couldn’t do rewrites, and also because it represented an earlier sensibility to the space opera. There’s no denying her influence in the science fiction genre, and to Star Wars in particular, and she is definitely someone any aspiring sci-fi writer needs to read.
May the fourth be with you!