Revisiting the Collective: This Isn’t the Movie You’re Looking For: 10 Motion Pictures That Could Have Turned Out Very Different

(CS: I wanted actually get back on track with written reviews this weekennd, but life had other plans.  This week I will start delivering on my end with reviews and articles this week. Here is an article from 2012 that will be fun to revisit.)

We all know that it is a long journey from idea to the motion picture we enjoy on the big screen. For those not actively involved in creative process of storytelling and art, it is easy to assume the original idea that sparked the making of the film is largely intact by the end. The reality is that many times during the formation of the picture that the vision changes and maybe even the genre of the film can completely shift to something else. Here are 10 motion pictures that started out very differently than the final product and if it wasn’t for a few seemingly minor events we may not have ever had these particular pictures. (CS: I've always been a huge fan of the little write-up Stephen King has done before his short stories or some of his novels, where he reveals what he originally thought he was writing to what ended up actually being crafted. The creative process is a fascinating thing, and I've always been a sucker for discovering how different original plans were to what gets created)

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982): In the late 1970s, Columbia Pictures was eager for a sequel to Steven Spielberg’s hit, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, especially since sci-fi suddenly became more desirable than pants thanks to a little picture called Star Wars. (CS: Screw pants!) Spielberg didn’t want to make a sequel, but he also didn’t want a repeat of Jaws where Universal Pictures made a second film without his involvement. He sent in a story treatment called Watch the Skies, which later was retitled Night Skies, that was based on the accounts of a family who claimed to have been terrorized on their Kentucky farm by aliens. (CS: Because Spielberg directed Jaws, my mom actually initially believed E.T. to be horror and thus had no interest in seeing it. It wasn't until my dad took me, so she could get an evening break from me, that she realized it was her kind of movie)

The aliens in the initial screenplay had long bony fingers that glowed but unlike E.T. where he healed cuts, it was used to mutilate the livestock. Instead of a heartwarming tale about a kind alien creating a special bond with a boy, it almost became a bloody heart ripping from cows horror. Spielberg didn’t believe aliens would travel all this way just to torment humans, (CS: Roland Emmerich disagrees) and after filming Raiders of the Lost Ark, he really wanted to direct a spiritual and uplifting story.

The picture he really wanted to create was about a young boy dealing with the divorce of his parents, but he didn’t have the story yet. It was when reading the latest draft of Night Skies that he finally discovered his inspiration where one of the aliens turned out to be kind and befriended an autistic boy. The script was reworked to take out all the massacred cows and horror, and cut the number of aliens down to just the kind alien while changing the autistic boy into one dealing with divorce, and Spielberg finally had the story he was a bursting to tell. As for the rest of Night Skies, many of the elements were used in later Spielberg produced pictures Poltergeist and Gremlins. (CS: Except for the autistic kid part, Night Skies does sound like Gremlins)

Gremlins (1984): Speaking of those nasty critters, the original screenplay by Chris Columbus was a much darker and violent story. Several film critics and writers have observed that Gremlins feels like a Frank Capra picture being invaded by monsters from a 1950s creature feature. (CS: Thus, the genius of this movie) The initial script took that concept even farther by being an R-rated monster horror version of It’s a Wonderful Life. Billy originally was supposed to be a down-on-his-luck twenty something depressed with his life that consists of a horrible job at the bank, a bad relationship with his parents, and his only friend being a neighbourhood boy, so he spends his time drinking away sorrows and wondering if his life really matters. (CS: The bank and neighbourhood boy remained) Rather than an angel coming to show him what life would be like without him, a gang of carnivorous monsters destroy his town, behead his mother, and eat his dog, which causes him to realize he should have appreciated everything before he lost it. It is kind of a similar message to the Christmas classic, but just far more cynical and bloody. (CS: I'm kind of surprised we never got a movie like this version. Closest thing I can think of is Krampus)

Spielberg loved elements of the original script, but realized it needed some tweaking, such as his marketing sense kicking in and realizing they could sell a tons of cute furry dolls if they kept Gizmo from turning into a monster and let him remain a good guy (he was supposed to be the leader of the evil crew in the initial script). They also toned down the violence and upped some of the comedy elements, in order to make it a picture accessible to older children and teenagers. (CS: Yet, the good dad I am showed this to Everett when he was 7. To be fair, I saw it in theatres during its initial run in 1984, so I was just following tradition) One interesting thing to note, because this is extremely rare in Hollywood, the script was actually rewritten by Columbus rather than getting a fresh screenwriter to revise things, which shows how much faith the producers must have had in the young writer. (CS: He would go on to bless the world with Pixels and I Love You, Beth Cooper)

Beverly Hills Cop (1984): This is another picture that wasn’t initially intended to be a comedy, but rather this time designed to be the typical renegade cop action picture that was popular during that era. Sylvester Stallone was attached to star, and actually was the lead right up until 2 weeks before they were set to start shooting. Stallone, as a pretty successful screenwriter himself, had numerous ideas to make the picture grittier and more intense. His darker vision didn’t match the filmmakers and so they parted ways, which left a mad scramble to find a replacement lead. They went the rather surprising route of hiring the hottest superstar comedian of the time, Eddie Murphy. Since he was known as one of the funniest men on the planet back in the 1980s, the audience would have been expecting a certain type of picture and so they had to do massive rewrites to accommodate the addition of their new star. Beverly Hills Cop turned into one of the most successful action comedies of all time, and Stallone apparently used his “edgy” ideas in the less-than-classic action film, Cobra. (CS: I've since read that the movie was always supposed to be an action-comedy and that is the reason that Stallone balked on it, but Murphy coming in would have drastically changed the style of action-comedy they were making) 

Pretty Woman (1990): It appears many of the beloved comedies weren’t originally intended to be all that funny, as this romantic comedy’s initial screenplay wasn’t a comedy or all that romantic either. Instead it was written as a dark drama looking at the dangerous life of prostitution and was building to tragedy rather than an uplifting happy ending. The Vivian Ward character (who was played by Julia Roberts in the actual movie) in the original screenplay was hooked on crack and lacking the cliché heart of gold (but rather digging for it to get more drugs). The final major argument in the movie doesn’t end up with the prostitute and the businessman reconciling and revealing their true love for each other, but rather Vivian being dropped off at the corner and left to decay in her rotten life.

The major changes came along when for some reason Disney bought the script and there was no way they could have such a downer movie even if it was under their more adult distribution label, Touchstone Pictures, and it was drastically rewritten to become the immensely popular romantic comedy that has been copied countless times since. (CS: There is no way Julia Roberts in 1990 would have worked with the initial script and it likely would have steered her on a different career path or you know, she wouldn't have been cast at all)

Robin Hood (2010): This entry is a cautionary tale for all aspiring screenwriters who have spent countless hours sweating and bleeding to give birth to their “baby” that they hope will grow up to become the movie they’ve envisioned, because once it falls in the hands of a famous star or director it will likely mutant into an unrecognizable beastie. (CS: Also a reminder that just because a screenwriter gets credited doesn't really mean most of their words made it to the big screen) Back in 2007, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris wrote a spec script called Nottingham that was so fresh and original that it started a bidding war between the major studios and resulted in Universal buying it for 1.5 million dollars. It was a very unique take on the Robin Hood story where Sheriff of Nottingham was the protagonist and was trying to solve a case of serial murders amidst a siege for the city between Prince John and King Richard. In this version, Robin Hood actually would have been one of the antagonists who plays a part in a love triangle between the sheriff and Maid Marian, but also was framed for the murders leading to the sheriff needing to clear the name of his enemy.

This was a very unique and original twist on the classic tale that also seemed to pack a lot of depth and action. It all changed when Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe were hired on to the project, and immediately decided that audiences were demanding yet another version of the old Robin Hood story, because 100 films of the same tale just wasn’t enough. (CS: Then Lionsgate thought the same thing again in 2018) The sad ending is not only was Robin Hood a pretty dull and disappointing movie, but it actually replaced something that had the chance to be memorable and exciting. It at least can act as a perfect example of what young screenwriters have to deal with in the industry. (CS: I could write a whole book on that)

Star Wars (1977): It is hard to believe a world where the Star Wars franchise doesn’t exist, but if it wasn’t for a minor thing like George Lucas unable to obtain the rights to a series then it could have happened. Back in 1971, Lucas had aspirations of creating a remake of one his favourite serials back as a child, Flash Gordon. This was before he needed an entire city to hold all his money and was outbid on purchasing the rights to sci-fi, fantasy and horror producer Dino De Laurentis (Barbarella, Conan the Barbarian, Evil Dead 2). Once Lucas failed to obtain his dream project, he sought out to create his own version of Flash Gordon.

Over the next several years he went through a horde of different drafts that included things like it once being called Journal of the Whills, a green skinned gill monster named Han Solo, and sci-fi space version of Akira Kurosawa’s classic The Hidden Fortress. (CS: Much of the Kurosawa inspiration remained)  It is possible Star Wars could have ended up being any of those possible versions, but at least this process can be directly linked to the film many love today. Sci-fi movies and even pop culture would have been drastically different if George Lucas rebooted Flash Gordon instead and never had the desire to make his own space opera. Imagine being in a world where no one whines over and over how George Lucas killed their childhood by making Han shoot first. (CS: People whining about something murdering their childhood has now become a full-time job for some on the internet)

Colombiana (2011): Colombiana is a largely forgotten action picture starring Zoe Saladana that wasn’t well-received by critics and didn’t really stand-out in the box office at the time. The film would have likely grabbed way more attention from action film fans if it ended up following the original screenplay called Mathilda. No, this wasn’t supposed to be a violent action picture adaption of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel. Instead, the title was referring to the young girl from the Luc Besson directed cult hit Leon: The Professional. It is the sequel fans had been begging for and according to director Olivier Megaton, the script is one that they had been tossing around for a long time. (CS: Because if there is any director that knows how to deliver sequels, it is the guy who gave us Taken 3

The major issues were that they’d been waiting for Natalie Portman to grow up to play the character out for the revenge of her mentor’s death. There were several issues that constantly came up by the time Portman would have been ready that stalled the project, and in the end, it was decided to use the screenplay for an original picture. The biggest issue that both filmmakers and fans seemed to forget to bring up is the original film had a pretty clear ending that had Leon’s killer very much dead and had Mathilda choose to not live her life as a professional hit woman. (CS: Because retconning things in the original movie to justify a sequel never ever happens)

Die Hard Franchise: It is one of the most popular action series ever, and the success of the original made it clear sequels would be on the way. The surprising thing is that the most recent picture, A Good Day to Die Hard, was the first film in the franchise where the initial screenplay was written with the intention of it being a Die Hard sequel. (CS: And oddly enough, turned out to be the worst) The original film was adapted from the novel Nothing Lasts Forever, but the adaption was initially written to be a sequel to Commando until Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped out for another project. (CS: Screenwriter Steven de Souza has since gone on record that this was a myth) The picture was then rewritten to incorporate an everyman type cop rather than a former Delta Force operative.

The second film was originally a script for a movie called 58 Minutes about an off-duty cop who has to thwart terrorists at an airport. Someone probably realized it sounded a lot like a Die Hard movie and revised the script to make it into the hotly anticipated sequel. Die Hard with a Vengeance was the first of the series where McClane had a partner for a reason, because at one point it was being rewritten to be a sequel for the Lethal Weapon franchise after the studio bought the screenplay initially called Simon Says. (CS: There is now some dispute over if it was ever planned for a Lethal Weapon sequel) The Live Free or Die Hard screenplay at one point was being revised to be a sequel to Enemy of the State, until an executive saw more dollar signs for it being yet another film about the ongoing bad days of John McClane.

Annie Hall (1977): One of Woody Allen’s greatest pictures is not only one of the most influential romantic comedies ever but also an inspiration for pictures from various other genres. The success of Annie Hall with its atypical ending for a romance and very non-linear storytelling inspired films like When Harry Met Sally, (500) Days of Summer, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Memento, The Usual Suspects and Pulp Fiction (among many others). Even after the film was shot, it actually wasn’t supposed to be a romantic comedy and the storytelling also wasn’t intended to be non-linear. Much like Allen’s films previous to this one, it was initially filmed to be genre spoof, with this one specifically supposed to be a murder mystery. When Allen turned in his finished film, the editor thought the movie was horrible and the decision was made to make drastic changes to the picture. 

Allen and the editor cut out the entire murder mystery plot (the main story of the film), and instead made Diane Keaton’s supporting character into the lead of a now non-traditional and disjointed romance. This was the picture that really established Woody Allen as a major filmmaker and got him out of the genre spoof game, which makes it all the more amusing that he was just trying to salvage his initial attempt at this picture.

Twilight (2008): Paramount Pictures bought the rights to the original novel with the intention to scrap the vampire romance storyline and instead turn it into a vampire action picture that would appeal to male teenagers. The plan was for Bella to turn into a vampire in the very first film and fight evil alongside her partner Edward, and it also added such crucial elements like a vampire hunting FBI agent and a SWAT team battling the bloodsuckers in the woods.

Stephanie Meyer was understandably a little less than impressed that they were discarding her entire novel, and eventually Summit Entertainment picked up the rights to the film. I can understand that many may think this version sounds much better than the cliché love triangle we ended up with, but you still had to question why Paramount went to so much trouble to buy the rights iƒf they weren’t going to follow anything besides having vampires. (CS: The longer I've written about movies, the more that I've learned this isn't actually a rare occurrence) The film was bound to infuriate and alienate the loyal readers of the series, and the male audience already had Blade. (CS: But only male teens go to movie theatres cries a misguided executive) This version likely would have fell into the category of a titanic sized flop, and considering what the actual series made, it seems like Summit Entertainment went in the right direction. The world may always wonder about Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart as the next big pair of action heroes. (CS: And now Pattinson is Batman)

What pictures do you remember reading about that turned into very different finished products?