20 Classic Movies That Could Have Turned Out Very Different
A lot happens between the moment a writer comes up with an idea and the day that the film finally makes it to the big screen.
Take the following movies that we all love today, but which would have been radically different if the filmmakers had just stuck to the original plan.
20. Star Wars originally had humans as the villains and aliens as the heroes
Before it became the Death Star of the modern movie landscape, blowing up the competition at a CGI Peter Cushing’s request, Star Wars was a wonky weirdo sci-fi from a darling indie director called George Lucas.
The travails of making the original Star Wars are well-known, from Alec Guinness’s description of the film as “fairy tale rubbish” to the distinctly low-rent special effects that are part and parcel of a corset-like $11 million budget. Still, early on, even Lucas struggled to make sense of his sci-fi epic.
Speaking to Chaplin film magazine in 1973, Lucas then claimed the film was “a mixture of Lawrence of Arabia, the James Bond films and 2001. The space aliens are the heroes, and the Homo Sapiens naturally the villains.”
As per his original ideas, Lucas envisaged Luke defeating a Wookiee chieftain in unarmed combat, earning his respect and convincing the Wookiee people to fight back against the Empire. Which all sounds very impressive until you realise that Wookiees were going to be about three-feet tall and comparable to Ewoks, so Luke would have just been kicking seven bells out of miniature Cousin Its. Who’s the REAL evil Empire, Luke?
A progressive take on colonialism? Yes. Utter nonsense? Also yes. Admittedly, A New Hope – as it would be later be titled – wouldn’t hit cinemas until 1977, meaning it had a long time to gestate.
19. Ghostbusters was originally set in the future, and involved travelling through time and space
Dan Aykroyd’s original script for Ghostbusters was meant to star John Belushi, Eddie Murphy and himself. It was set in a distant future where ghosts were commonplace and ghostbusters were as familiar as exterminators are today, and saw the protagonists travelling through time, space and alternate dimensions.
Aykroyd had of course worked closely with Belushi already on Saturday Night Live, which led to the modestly successful spin-off film The Blues Brothers (1980). But when Belushi died unexpectedly from combined drug intoxication in 1982, the original plans for Ghostbusters were scrapped.
At this point, the script was known as Ghost Smashers, and would have seen Belushi play Venkman, the role later filled by Bill Murray.
Little of the original draft made it into the completed film, but there are a handful of consistencies: the main antagonist is still Gozer, who ends up manifesting as the Stay Puft marshmallow man.
While Ghost Smashers saw the team hunt the paranormal through several dimensions, it was director Ivan Reitman who instead suggested setting Ghostbusters in the present. Aykroyd then teamed up with Harold Ramis to rework the screenplay into the story we know today.
18. The Mask was originally a gory Freddy Krueger-style horror
1994’s The Mask started life as a graphically violent comic book about an enchanted mask which grants wearer Stanley supernatural powers, but also drives him insane, sending him on a vengeful killing spree.
Spying the potential for a successor to their Nightmare On Elm Street series, New Line Cinema hired Elm Street 3 director Chuck Russell to make a gory Mask film come to life.
In fact, Dark Horse Comics executive Mike Richardson revealed in 2013 that one of the original ideas for the screenplay was even darker than you might first imagine.
According to Richardson, the film would have seen a mad mask-maker remove the faces from corpses, applying them to teenagers and turning them into zombies.
However, Russell felt it would work better as a broader, more family-friendly comedy with a cartoonish spirit, and adapted the project accordingly for eventual star Jim Carrey.
17. Pretty Woman was originally a dark, realistic drama about prostitution
The film that became Pretty Woman began life with the title 3,000, and was a gritty drama about a cocaine-addicted LA prostitute who takes on a business transaction – worth $3,000 – with a wealthy big shot.
Grounded and downbeat, and with nothing resembling a happy ending, 3,000 was intended as a cautionary tale about sex work and class divisions.
In fact, part of the ‘deal’ struck between Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) and Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) was that the latter would have to stay off drugs for a week.
With the money she earns through accompanying Lewis, Ward goes on a trip to Disneyland with a friend. The original screenplay ends with Ward staring emptily into space as she prepares to consume the happiness prescribed by a faceless capitalist mega-lord.
Several rewrites later, Pretty Woman became a light-hearted Cinderella story which would become a huge hit, make Julia Roberts a superstar and revitalise the romantic comedy genre. And it was produced by Disney.
16. Big Trouble in Little China was originally a Western
A flop on release but a beloved cult classic today, Big Trouble in Little China memorably cast Kurt Russell as Jack Burton, a tough-talking but dimwitted trucker, who inadvertently stumbles into an ancient mystical battle between the forces of good and evil in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
It’s unmistakably a product of the 1980s, so it may come as a surprise that the original Big Trouble in Little China screenplay, by Gary Goldman and David Z Weinstein, was actually set in the 1880s, with Burton as a cowboy who rides into a town where Chinese wizards and kung fu masters are at war.
Martial arts movies had really taken off in the West in the 80s, as if suspended on mostly invisible wires, but Goldman and Weinstein were keen to pen a film that stood out in a rapidly saturating genre. Their kung fu cowboy script was purchased, but the writers were discarded when the studio opted instead for a contemporary setting.
The studio brought in renowned script doctor WD Richter, who ended up using Rosemary’s Baby (1968) as a template: taking a contemporary setting but moving the action into a darker, less explored realm – in this case, Chinatown.
Goldman and Weinstein were originally to be denied a writing credit for the film, so complete was the overhaul. In the end, they received credit and Richter was listed as having adapted the film.
15. Con Air was originally a small-scale indie thriller
Con Air screenwriter Scott Rosenberg’s body of work pre-Con Air included the post-Tarantino indie dramas Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995) and Beautiful Girls (1996). Perhaps it shouldn’t be too unexpected, then, that Con Air was originally “a small character piece,” according to eventual director Simon West.
West says he and producer Jerry Bruckheimer “set about blowing [the film] up out of all proportion,” resulting in one of the most over-the-top action movies of the 1990s, with Nicolas Cage at his most Cagey.
Bruckheimer, of course, is practically synonymous with no-holds-barred action spectacle, from Top Gun (1986) to Armagedon (1997). So when it came to “blowing up” the film, Bruckheimer was keen to be as literal as possible.
“The thing about Jerry is that he’ll get you anything you want,” West continues, “he’ll sign a cheque for anything… we got [cool indie actors], just by paying them four times as much as they’d been paid before on any other movie.
Ultimately, Con Air did become the summer blockbuster West and Bruckheimer envisioned, grossing a sensational $224 million.
14. Superman was originally a spoof
1978’s Superman was in development for years, with countless big-name stars considered for the title role, and numerous drafts of the script proposing multiple versions of the story. When Richard Donner was hired to direct, the script he was handed was a camp and silly lampoon of the Superman character filled with farcical, fourth-wall breaking humour.
Donner insisted they go back to square one and instead treat the character with reverence, resulting in a landmark blockbuster which proved comic book movies could work.
When we say the original Superman-to-be was silly, we mean it. The original script included, to name but one ridiculous example, a cameo from Telly Savalas as Kojak, and contained a lot more flying.
You probably won’t believe us on this one, but it’s true: Marlon Brando wanted his character – Jor-El, father of Superman – to appear in the film as a bagel. (This was mostly because he didn’t want to learn the lines, however.)
Both Superman and its sequel were written in tandem, and originally they clocked in at nearly nine hours of flying underpants glory, which featured everything from a sequence with an erupting volcano and Lex Luthor stalling Superman with the promise of a cup of tea.
13. The Lost Boys was originally for kids and in the spirit of The Goonies
Seven years after Superman, director Richard Donner scored another hit with treasure hunt adventure movie The Goonies (1985). Soon thereafter, screenwriters Janice Fischer and James Jeremias penned The Lost Boys (1987) as a companion piece of sorts to The Goonies, centred on a group of 13-year old vampires.
When Donner chose to make Lethal Weapon (1987) instead, director Joel Schumacher was hired to realise The Lost Boys, and chose to quite literally revamp the project, gearing it towards more mature audiences by ageing up the vampires, and making the project darker and sexier.
As yet more evidence of the film’s change of direction, Schumacher originally wanted a waifish blonde – in the image of Meg Ryan – for the central role of Star, the half-vampire girlfriend. Instead, the more enigmatic Jami Gertz was chosen.
What’s more, the earliest draft of the Lost Boys script had Star as a boy, and the Frog brothers were “chubby 8-year old Cub Scouts”, far removed from the dedicated vampire hunters they eventually became in the final film.
Much of The Lost Boys’ eventual mature tone should be credited to screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, who would, ironically, go on to write Lethal Weapon 2 (1989) and 3 (1992) following Lost Boys.
12. Scooby-Doo was originally a raunchy, R-rated teen comedy
When the first live-action Scooby-Doo movie began production in 2001, screenwriter James Gunn and director Raja Gosnell envisioned it as a teen-oriented comedy that spoofed the original cartoon series and directly suggested a sexual attraction between Velma and Daphne.
There were significant rethinks once things were underway, however, and the less family-friendly elements of the film were significantly pared back to make the film a PG.
It was after rumours began to spread about the film’s mocking tone that changes were made. It was also leaked that Shaggy was going to be portrayed as a literal stoner, which means someone was a grass about the grass.
However, a few adult jokes survived – Gunn says the first cut of the film, before it was edited for general audiences, still got an R-rating, but there’s still evidence of the original plan for live-action Scoob in the film.
At the beginning of the film, as Mystery Inc travel to the island, Shaggy meets a girl whose name is Mary Jane; “Like, that is my favourite name,” drools Shaggy, his eyes dilating at the thought of his precious Kush.
11. Beverly Hills Cop was almost an ultra-violent action thriller starring Sylvester Stallone
While conceived as an action-comedy, 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop almost became a hard-edged, joke-free shoot-’em-up.
When Sylvester Stallone was offered the lead, he insisted on rewriting the script, darkening the tone and adding large-scale action sequences, which producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer neither wanted nor had the budget for.
Ultimately Stallone departed Beverly Hills Cop only two weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin, and the comparatively lesser-known Eddie Murphy replaced him.
Beverly Hills Cop was then completed on a slimmed-down budget of just over $13 million, with last-minute rewrites and plentiful ad-libbing bringing the comedy back to the film.
Stallone’s ideas for Beverly Hills Cop didn’t go unused: he eventually used them for 1986’s Cobra, which would go on to be a critical and commercial flop.
10. The Truman Show was originally a dark science fiction thriller set in New York City
You might argue that Jim Carrey was typecast in the 90s, as many of his films see him playing a selfish jerk who ultimately makes good with the world. The fact of the matter is, Carrey was a huge star who seemed to become the centre of gravity on almost all of his productions – and that’s what happened with The Truman Show (1997).
Sure, The Truman Show isn’t an out-and-out comedy like other Carrey films, but before the star of The Mask (1994) and Liar Liar (1997) signed up, it was going to be a much more serious film.
Not only were surveillance and the utter feeling of isolation originally going to feature more prominently, but The Truman Show itself – the show within the film – was going to focus far more on the morality of its subject.
For example, in Andrew Niccol’s original script, which was set in New York City, there are several instances in which Truman is ‘tested’ by the production company, including a moment in which a woman is being assaulted and cries out to Truman for help.
Truman declines to intervene and keeps walking, leaving the actors playing the criminal and the victim looking at each other and shrugging, bemused by Truman’s lack of empathy.
9. Back to the Future was originally going to focus more on Marty’s Oedipal relationship with his mother
Never mind the fact that the DeLorean was going to be a refrigerator: what we now see as an intensely awkward kiss between Marty McFly and his mother was originally going to be a huge part of Back to the Future.
Screenwriter Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis were intrigued by the idea of a mother claiming she’d never kissed anyone at school, and her son travelling through time to meet when they’re both 17.
Naturally, Gale and Zemeckis were concerned by this mother-son relationship, and added Marty’s disclaimer that kissing his mother is just like “kissing [his] brother,” but executives had other ideas. Columbia thought the film wasn’t sexual enough, and would flop against more risqué teen flicks of the era, like Porky’s (1981).
Pitching the film to Disney, Gale and Zemeckis were rejected after the studio deemed the mother-son relationship unsuitable for a family audience. Like an old man trying to get into a DeLorean, the pair were caught in an embarrassing and excruciating limbo.
Ultimately, it was only after Zemeckis directed Romancing the Stone (1984) that studios became interested in his time-travel caper. But that didn’t stop the original trailers putting the mom relationship front and centre.
8. ET was originally a horror movie called Night Skies
In the late 70s, Steven Spielberg conceived a sci-fi horror movie called Night Skies, which would see a family home come under attack from a group of vicious alien creatures. However, the alien crew also included a younger, gentler member who became friends with the family’s young son.
This kind little alien might have already jumped out at you as the basis for the charming ET, but original plans for a fully-fledged horror film starring ET would have had many more jumps and scares.
Spielberg was convinced that Night Skies would be a hit, so it fell to another member of the crew to put the film on the right track: the screenwriter.
Melissa Mathison, otherwise known for penning The Black Stallion (1979) and The BFG (2016), ultimately recognised the potential for a touching story about an alien and a boy; she excised the horror entirely and reworked the idea into what became the much more family-friendly ET: The Extra-Terrestrial.
Meanwhile, Spielberg moved some of the scarier elements into another script: Poltergeist. The film that came out of that script was also a huge success, but paled in comparison to the cultural juggernaut that was ET.
In fact, ET was such a big hit that its shoddily-assembled video game spin-off nearly ended the nascent home console industry forever – children were furious that the game didn’t match up to the breathtaking movie. That’s some serious cultural firepower!
7. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was originally about debunking UFOs
If you thought that ET’s complete turnaround was Spielberg’s only difficulty with an alien movie, you’ve got another thing coming. If anything, production on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) was the much stormier version of what would come to pass five years later.
Paul Schrader, the screenwriter behind Taxi Driver (1976), presented Spielberg with a script in 1973, but the director thought this Close Encounters was “embarrassing,” and took a dislike to the focus on an Air Force officer debunking UFO claims.
The script would then morph into a Bond-like caper under the pen of Quantum Leap writer John Hill, and is even rumoured to have had a rewrite by David Giler, a major contributor to the Alien franchise.
Ultimately, it fell to Spielberg himself to write the script to his liking, drawing on the Pinocchio song When You Wish Upon A Star as inspiration for the film’s mood.
Despite the work of all those writers and more, only Spielberg would receive a writing credit for the film.
6. The first X-Men movie originally saw Magneto conquer Manhattan and made him responsible for Chernobyl
It seems like virtually any superhero movie will fly nowadays, pun intended, but even those with a vague knowledge of studio in-fighting will know that the fate of the X-Men in Hollywood has been full of twists, turns, and complicated legal licensing agreements.
In the same year that Tim Burton would revitalise the superhero movie scene with Batman (1989), Caralco Pictures – later of Terminator 2: Judgment Day fame – discussed adapting X-Men for the silver screen with Stan Lee. James Cameron was in talks to produce, and Katheryn Bigelow to direct.
Little is known of this version, but Bigelow’s treatment apparently could have seen Bob Hoskins – truly the Hugh Jackman of the 80s – star as Wolverine.
It would be five years later that Fox would acquire the right to an X-Men film, with Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven) writing an initial draft that saw Magneto establish a ‘mutant homeland’ on the island of Manhattan.
This draft also suggested that Magneto was the cause of the Chernobyl disaster. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) would later, unsuccessfully, take up this nuclear reactor idea.
5. Beetlejuice was horrifically gruesome
It’s a classic comedy, and the other great collaboration between director Tim Burton and star Michael Keaton. Beetlejuice (1988) expertly blends horror themes with the kind of madcap B-movie antics that make the film a fabulous homage to films that came before, a classic of its day, and still somehow timeless.
Alright, you get the picture – we like Beetlejuice. But it turns out that the film’s careful balance between horror and comedy originally tipped in favour of a more gruesome film. The original screenplay, by novelist Michael McDowell, certainly wouldn’t have pulled any punches.
First of all, the undead Betelgeuse was written as a winged demon who takes the form of a short, Middle Eastern man, and who intends to kill the Deetzes rather than mildly pranking them. He also wants to have sex with Lydia rather than simply wishing to marry her.
Most disturbingly of all, this version featured another child, Cathy, whom Betelgeuse – in the form of a rabid squirrel – murders and tears apart. Yep, ‘spooky’ doesn’t cut it.
Ultimately, however, screenwriting duties were then handed over to Warren Skaaren, at the time best known for writing Beverly Hills Cop II, and all instances of mutilation by squirrel were removed.
4. Elsa was originally going to be evil in Frozen
Disney has been making films about princesses for literally nearly a century, and most have been rampantly successful. Yet it still took the world by snowstorm when Frozen proved such a hit in 2013.
Everyone has heard Let It Go, and for a time you couldn’t leave the house without being mowed down by a horde of little girls in pale blue dresses. Its story of a princess learning to accept herself and her powers truly resonated with audiences. Originally, however, the film was set to be markedly different.
Hewing more closely to the Hans Christian Andersen story The Snow Queen (which also would have been the film’s title), Frozen as originally conceived would have seen Elsa villainously take over Arundel.
It was Let It Go that changed everything. According to screenwriter Jennifer Lee, “Bobby and Kristen [Lopez, the songwriters] said they were walking in Prospect Park and they just started talking about what would it feel like [to be Elsa]. Forget villain. Just what it would feel like.”
“And this concept of letting out who she is that she’s kept to herself for so long and she’s alone and free,” Lee continues, “but then the sadness … is she’s alone. It’s not a perfect thing, but it’s powerful.” With this character foundation laid, the entire film started to come together.
3. Groundhog Day was originally going to end with Rita stuck in her own time loop
The first and future king of time loop films, inspiring the likes of Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and Russian Doll (2019), Groundhog Day has always danced a difficult dance between nihilism and romantic comedy. Plus, nowadays, the idea of a man temporally stalking his co-worker can feel a little uncomfortable.
In the first draft of the film, Phil and Rita’s relationship would have felt even more awkward, even criminal, had screenwriter Danny Rubin had his way.
Originally, the film focussed far more on Phil’s loneliness and alienation from society, much of which was conveyed through voiceover. We join him as he’s already stuck in the loop, and it’s quite early in the film that he kidnaps Punxsutawney Phil in an attempt to free himself from the nightmare.
Ultimately, in this version of the film, Phil falls in love with Rita – though not without first having had his way with most of the town’s women – and breaks his loop, as we see in the original film.
But there’s a key twist present in this original version: we learn through Rita’s voiceover that she doesn’t really love Phil, and she becomes stuck in her own time loop. Maybe those pesky loops were just going around that winter. Get vaccinated!
2. Monsters Inc. was almost about a mid-life crisis
You’ll have guessed by now that the path from script to screen is rarely straight. Most of the time it winds, doubles back, and occasionally transforms into something that doesn’t even seem like a path, like a pretzel. But few films stray so far from their original pitch as Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. (2001).
Speaking on Jeff Goldsmith’s Creative Screenwriting podcast, director Pete Docter said that the original pitch was “about a 30 year old man who is like an accountant or something, he hates his job, and one day he gets a book with some drawings in it that he did when he was a kid from his mom, and he doesn’t think anything of it and he puts it on the shelf and that night, monsters show up.”
“Nobody else can see them,” Docter continues. “He thinks he’s starting to go crazy, they follow him to his job, and on his dates, and all this – and it turns out these monsters are fears that he never dealt with as a kid.”
A generous eye might see the seeds of the eventual film: notably, monsters, fear and children. Nonetheless, the entire monster world is absent.
In a later draft, the action focussed on George Sanderson, a monster who struggles to be scary. This character is still present in the eventual film as the orange and yellow monster who becomes ‘contaminated’ and is shaved for his sins.
1. Good Will Hunting was originally more like a Bourne thriller
Good Will Hunting (1997) was the film that proved Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to be more than just pretty faces – not only could they act, but they could write screenplays too. Except their original effort was hugely different from the end product.
Originally conceived as a script for a playwriting class – for which, being a film and all, it probably should have failed – early drafts still focussed on Will Hunting and his genius, and how this imperils him both socially and legally.
However, Hunting would then be sought by government agents for his unique abilities, and the film would evolve into a thriller about evading the long arm of the law in a similar vein to The Fugitive (1993).
Interestingly, the plot was somewhat similar to The Bourne Identity (2002), the film that would eventually make Damon’s name as an action star.
In the end, it was Rob Reiner who encouraged Damon and Affleck to junk the thriller idea and focus more on the relationship between Hunting and his therapist, and good thing too: Good Will Hunting would win Damon and Affleck an Academy Award for their efforts.