Star Wars: Return of the Jedi’s Original Title Was a Total Accident

The original title of Star Wars Episode VI was Revenge of the Jedi. Why did George Lucas change it to Return of the Jedi mere months before the theatrical release? It's a long-ish story...

Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
Photo: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

The finer details of George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy were anything but set in stone when the Maker first outlined his grand space fantasy saga back in the ’70s. Take the shifting relationship between Luke and Leia in across all three installments, for example, or the differences between the Emperor in the movies and his backstory in the novelization of A New Hope. In the rough draft of The Empire Strikes Back by Leigh Brackett, Lando was a clone, a veteran of the mythical Clone Wars, instead of Han’s smooth-talking counterpart. Then there all the ways Return of the Jedi changed during the writing process, and in the pivotal story meetings between Lucas and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan that would decide the fate of the galaxy.

Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays by film historian Laurent Bouzereau chronicles many of the discussion points from those meetings, and those transcripts paint a picture of just how differently Return of the Jedi would have turned out had Lucas and Kasdan gone with some of their other ideas for the trilogy closer. In one meeting, the creative duo flirted with the idea of killing off Luke at the end of the film, with the Jedi Knight sacrificing himself to defeat the Sith. Another idea was to have Luke turn to the dark side in the climactic scene, setting up a future installment where Leia would have to redeem her brother. In the “Revised Rough Draft” of the script, Lucas brought Obi-Wan back from the dead so that he could help Luke fight Darth Vader and the Emperor.

Even the title of the third Star Wars movie was in flux until just months before the film’s release in May 1983. After all, when the very first teasers for Episode VI debuted on theater screens in 1982, they were for a movie called Revenge of the Jedi, not Return. Below, you can see one of the earliest trailers for Revenge, screened in the UK ahead of a double-bill re-release of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back in May 1982.

A later teaser trailer featured an announcer promising that Revenge of the Jedi would be “an adventure as vast as the universe.”

Ad – content continues below

But in January 1983, the movie’s title changed to Return of the Jedi. This after months of marketing and merchandising work. By that point, Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox had not only released Revenge of the Jedi trailers, but also posters and shirts, and even licensed a comic strip with the title to introduce fans to Admiral Ackbar. New action figure packaging for the Revenge of the Jedi line of toys was all set to go over at Kenner.

So, what happened? Why did the studios decide to make the change so close to release? Well, as with all making-of tales concerning Lucas and Star Wars, there are several versions of the story. This is the version you’ve probably heard the most: while Lucas originally intended to call the movie Return of the Jedi — and very early script drafts do bear this title — it was Kasdan who convinced the Maker that this was a weak title. The title changed to Revenge of the Jedi, and that’s the title that made its way to the studios’ marketing teams. But Revenge never sat well with Lucas, who reasoned that seeking revenge was not the Jedi way. So he changed the title back to Return of the Jedi.

But the way Lucas tells it to Bouzereau, Revenge of the Jedi was only ever meant to be a working title in the first place, a way to throw fans off the scent of the real name of the film.

“By the time we got down to doing the third film, we’d had so many difficulties with people trying to report stuff with the media and the press and everything that we called the film Revenge of the Jedi to throw people off. The title was always intended to be Return of the Jedi,” Lucas explained to Bouzereau for The Annotated Screenplays. “Unfortunately, what happened is Fox started promoting the film before we could tell them not to use the title. We were lucky that they didn’t start promoting the film under the title ‘Blue Harvest,’ because we were also using that as a bogus title.”

In other words, the Revenge of the Jedi title was released to the public completely by accident, the result of a miscommunication between Lucasfilm and Fox, according to the Maker. As Lucas mentions, Revenge wasn’t even the first working title for the film. Return of the Jedi was shot under the production name “Blue Harvest” as a way to divert curious eyes. Blue Harvest even had a fake tagline: “Terror Beyond Imagination.”

But beyond crossed wires and blue harvests, there’s another potential reason why Lucas decided to nix Revenge and it involves the other space epic that was in production relatively around the same time: 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Paramount originally planned to call the movie The Vengeance of Khan, and it’s long been theorized that the similarities between Vengeance and Revenge caused both studios to rethink the titles of their movies. In fact, William Shatner confirmed as much in his 1994 memoir Star Trek Movie Memories, revealing that director Nicholas Meyer had wanted to call the film “The Undiscovered Country” but Paramount rejected that idea, instead choosing Vengeance, presumably because it had more kick. However, the studio eventually decided to rename the film Wrath to avoid confusion with Revenge of the Jedi. And while Lucas has never said Star Trek had anything to do with the switch from Revenge to Return, Lucasfilm and Fox would have also been keenly aware of what Paramount was working on in the final frontier.

Ad – content continues below

Of course, Lucas did finally get to have his Revenge in 2005 with the release of Episode III and no one would argue that isn’t a noun fit for the Sith.