Film

To Us, She’s Royalty: How Carrie Fisher Gave Leia Real Life

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Carrie Fisher was always smarter than the words and roles written for her, smarter than what Hollywood thought it wanted out of a princess. On Christmas Eve of the all-devouring Sarlacc that is 2016, after word had spread that Fisher had suffered a heart attack, a page from her original The Empire Strikes Back script turned up on Twitter, courtesy of Will McCrabb.

You could guide a bantha herd through the gulf between the words as written and Fisher’s revisions. First, there’s that warm, somewhat lyrical scene when Han Solo detaches the Millenium Falcon from its hiding spot on the rear of the Imperial Star Destroyer. The Star Destroyer has just dropped its trash into space, and Solo lets the Falcon drift away with it.

“Not bad, hot shot, not bad,” Princess Leia was scripted to say.

Fisher, though, took a red pen to those words. Instead, she wrote – and said – “With the rest of the garbage.”

There’s a sense of wry admiration to that line, a tender amusement whose spirit soaks through the finished scene, one of the rare moments when the original Star Wars films invite us to enjoy the company of their characters — to see them being themselves. “With the rest of the garbage” is the kind of sardonic poetry someone who lives in a Star War might take a breath to speak, but usually the characters dashing through these films never catch that breath. We’re meant to take it as tragic when characters in a Star Wars die, but that might sting more if we more often saw them live.

Fisher knew about living. Further down that page, she sharpened bald exposition into something much more emotionally engaging: flirty banter. Solo is searching for a system to hole up in and repair the Falcon’s hyperdrive. “Ah-hah!” he says, consulting his charts. “I knew it. Lando. Now this should be interesting.”

Princess Leia was supposed to say “Never heard of that system,” a line that expresses nothing but what it says. Fisher Xed this out and wrote “Lando system.” Onscreen, she makes a quick playful question of it, swiping at the way Solo is caught up in his own head and not bothering to explain what he’s thinking.

It’s the kind of touch that sells their romance, that convinces us these characters listen to and amuse each other, that lifts Star Wars out of its spaceships and spiritualism. Leia is a particular person, with a particular sensibility. As obituaries for Fisher — who died Tuesday morning — will note, Star Wars let its princess-in-peril shoot and crack jokes along with the boys, but it’s Fisher who made Leia a person rather than an action figure. Not that she was a bad action figure, of course! When I was 7 years old, a parent called my mother to express concern that I had volunteered to play the role of Leia in our neighborhood Star Wars battles two days in a row. Leia, like Han, was a compelling adult with an adult’s sensibility, a figure to aspire to in ways that the naive-ish Luke Skywalker never was.

There are no lines like those in this year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, where the dialogue never betrays anything like a character’s sense of self. Nobody but the robot says anything worth saying in Rogue One; instead, its rebels are forever shouting about which lever needs to be pulled when the shield goes down. That film’s nadir comes early, when Forrest Whittaker’s character has to ask the heroine “What do you want, Jyn?” Felicity Jones’ Jyn never quite answers, because her writers weren’t ever sure, either — they just don’t know who she is.

Fisher, of course, wrote penetrating and hilarious novels, memoirs and theatrical monologues, and she served as a script doctor on dozens of films. Imagine how much sharper and more engaging Rogue One might have been if Fisher’s involvement had not been limited to a ghoulish CGI cameo — what if she’d taken a pass at finding Jyn a soul? At showing us what she’s like when the pew-pew relents, and she has a breath to live?

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