5 Movies That Changed from Script to Screen

Would you recognize them in their original form?
November 07, 2017
It's a well known fact that movies go through a lot of alterations and changes from the time they are written, to the time they go before the cameras. Even after they've been filmed, they can still sometimes go through some extreme changes in the editing room, due to a poor response from studio brass, to test screenings. By the time the movie finally is unleashed to the public, it sometimes may barely resemble what it originally was intended to be.

I'm going to look at five nostalgic movies that went through extreme changes from the original script, to the movie that ended up on the big screen. There are a lot of examples of this, and I have covered a couple of them in my past articles looking at early drafts of Gremlins and Poltergeist. Here, I thought I would look at five famous instances. I tried to cover a variety of genres, including action, horror, comedy and animation.

So, let's take a look, and see what these well known movies almost were...


Elliott (Henry Thomas) is a lonely little boy living in the suburbs who makes an unusual friend when a bizarre alien stranded on Earth after he is accidentally left behind by his kind while they were visiting our planet makes contact with the boy. The two form a friendship, and eventually even a deep psychic bond. As scientists begin to close in on the little abandoned creature, Elliott becomes determined to protect his friend, and help him find a way home.

THE MOVIE WE ALMOST GOT: The idea for E.T. sprung from an abandoned horror film that Spielberg was working on during the late 70s and early 80s called Night Skies. The idea for the film came from a famous reported alien encounter that Spielberg learned about while doing research for his Close Encounters of the Third Kind script. The incident in question was the famous "Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter", where on August 21st, 1955, a family in Kentucky claimed that their farmhouse was under siege by tiny alien creatures, and that they had been holding off the creatures with gunfire for almost four hours. Spielberg envisioned the movie as a thriller about a family trapped in their own home by aliens who are trying to get inside, and threaten the inhabitants. In the the only draft of the script that exists, you can already see some elements in Night Skies that would eventually lead to E.T. The film opens with one of the aliens (dubbed "Scar" in the script) killing farm animals by touching them with his long, bony finger that would glow with an eerie light. Not only that, but one of the aliens (dubbed "Buddy") would actually be kind, and he would befriend the human family's autistic son during the course of the film.

Work on Night Skies was actually started. Not only had the script been written, but special effects master Rick Baker (who was famous at the time for doing the werewolf transformation effects for An American Werewolf in London) had actually started designing the aliens, and making working prototypes. Shooting on the film was scheduled to start after Spielberg returned from making Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, while working on Raiders, Spielberg started to have second thoughts about Night Skies. He wanted to do something more tranquil, and do a quiet children's film about a lonely boy's friendship with an alien, rather than an intense thriller. He started collaborating with screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who was dating Harrison Ford at the time, and was visiting the Raiders set) on his ideas, and together they fleshed out the idea for E.T. on the set of the film.

When Spielberg came back from shooting Raiders, he announced he was no longer doing Night Skies, and wanted to make E.T. instead. Baker, who was long into his work with his alien designs, was obviously not happy about Spielberg going in a completely different direction, and a huge argument ensued, as he was not interested in working on a "children's movie". The two did eventually work things out and parted ways. E.T. was put into production almost immediately, and Night Skies was completely scrapped. However, you can see elements of the film that almost was elsewhere. Apparently, Spielberg used a lot of ideas from the abandoned project for his script for Poltergeist, a movie also about a family trapped in a home by a paranormal encounter. There's a lot of talk about whether Spielberg was right to kill the project when it was already underway, but when you consider the success that E.T. eventually became, he at least came out looking right in the end.


Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is a streetwise and smart-mouthed Detroit cop who comes to Beverly Hills in order to investigate the murder of an old friend. His reckless and sarcastic manner and ways makes him stick out within the Beverly Hills community, as well as numerous confrontations with local police detectives Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) and Taggart (John Ashton). Eventually, Axel will uncover the truth behind the murder, leading him to prolific art dealer Victor Maitland (Steven Berkoff), who secretly runs a drug empire.

THE MOVIE WE ALMOST GOT: The script for the film was originally written in 1977, and went through a wide variety of alterations over the years, going from straight action, to the more comedic style that the film finally became. However, up until almost 2 weeks before the movie was to start shooting, it was going to be a heavily violent action thriller starring Sylvester Stallone in the lead, whose character name was going to be Axel Cobretti. Not only was he going to star, but he wrote this version of the script as well. It featured a lot more big action set pieces, and the character of Rosewood was killed off in an action sequence halfway through. However, Paramount Pictures eventually got nervous about the increasing costs concerning the project. There were reports as well that Stallone was difficult to work with. With only two weeks before the movie was going to start filming, Stallone pulled out of the project.

Eddie Murphy was hired as the new lead of the film by the producers just two days later. Again, a hasty rewrite was underway in order to suit Murphy's comedic style. They were actually working on the script while they were filming it. In one of the scenes at the Beverly Hills Police Department, you can see the Police Chief holding rolled up pieces of paper. Those are actually pages of the new script that the actor was memorizing right before he went on camera. Murphy, Reinhold and Ashton wound up improvising most of their dialogue on the set, and fortunately showed great chemistry together, which wound up saving the film in the end.

As for Stallone, a lot of the ideas he wanted in his version of the film ended up in his 1986 action film, Cobra. So, if you want an idea of what Beverly Hills Cop could have been, you may want to check that movie out. Should you watch it, you'll probably agree with me that the switch over to Murphy (who was a rising star at the time, thanks to his stint on Saturday Night Live, as well as the films 48 Hours and Trading Places) was the best thing that could have happened to the movie.

THE MOVIE WE GOT: 6-year-old Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) has his birthday wish granted when his mom (Catherine Hicks) brings home a talking Good Guy Doll, the hottest toy craze in the nation. His wish quickly turns into a nightmare when it is revealed the doll has possessed by the spirit of the notorious "Lake Shore Strangler", Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), who transferred his soul into the toy after a fatal shootout in a toy store with a Chicago police detective (Chris Sarandon). With Andy being the only one who knows his doll "Chucky" is alive, and no one believing him, the killer is free to create a reign of terror from his new unassuming body.

THE MOVIE WE ALMOST GOT: Writer Don Mancini originally envisioned the film (which was titled "Blood Buddy" at the time) as a mix of dark satire about the consumerism market for kids in the 80s (how every cartoon was essentially a half hour toy commercial) and a psychological thriller. In his script, the Good Guy Doll (which was named Buddy) had a feature where if you played with it too rough, its skin would break, and you would need to buy special "Good Guy Band Aids" in order to heal it. Somehow, while the doll had a broken wound, Andy's blood would get mixed in with the doll. From that moment on, a number of deaths would occur, all of them surrounding people who were mean to Andy, such as his teacher or a dentist. It would leave audiences guessing whether it was Andy who was somehow doing these murders, or if the doll had somehow come to life. In the third act, it was revealed that the doll was indeed alive, and would go out while Andy was sleeping, extracting revenge upon the kid's "enemies".

When the film's director Tom Holland (best known for the 1985 horror-comedy, Fright Night) came on board, he heavily changed the script, removing the tone of making the audience wonder if perhaps the child was the killer, and making it completely more straight forward. He came up with the idea of the doll being possessed by a serial killer, rather than the doll acting on its own to inflict revenge for the kid. In his rewrite, we know that there is something wrong with the doll from Scene 1, and there's no doubt whatsoever that Chucky is alive and killing the people. Mancini was apparently completely shut out by Holland while these changes were being made. It was not until the film was in post-production that lead producer David Kirschner (an animator who was famous for his work with Hannah-Barbera and Steven Spielberg's An American Tail franchise) brought Mancini back on board, and made sure that he would be directly involved with the sequels, which still continue to this day.

Despite Mancini's original vision being almost completely changed, he has written all the future films in the Chucky franchise, as well as directed the last few. To my knowledge, he is the only filmmaker who has stayed with a horror franchise from the very beginning to the recent sequels. Considering that the series will be celebrating its 30th anniversary next year, that's quite an accomplishment. There was talk at one point of a remake of the original that Mancini was going to make closer to his original script and have a more psychological horror bent that would make things not so black and white. However, he decided to just continue with the sequels instead. I do kind of hope we do get to see something resembling his initial vision, as I think it would be an interesting take.


Successful businessman Edward (Richard Gere) meets a prostitute named Vivian (Julia Roberts) while driving about lost on Hollywood Boulevard. She helps him find his way, and winds up spending the night, even though he does not ask for sex. The next day, he offers her $3,000 if she will pose as his girlfriend for the next six days. As the two spend time together, a bond builds that eventually grows to a romantic interest, with the two wondering if they really can co-exist with one another, since they come from different worlds.

THE MOVIE WE ALMOST GOT: The romantic comedy that kick-started Julia Roberts' career and became one of the more successful films of the 90s started out as something very different from the romantic modern day fairy tale that the film eventually became. When it was written, the film was a very dark drama that explored the themes of prostitution much more closely and harshly. In the original script, Vivian was highly strung out, and addicted to drugs. One of the conditions Edward had was that she would have to stay away from cocaine for the six days that they were to be together. The script also did not have a happy ending, with Edward throwing Vivian out of his car and leaving her near the end of the film.

The film's dark content and unflinching tone made many studio executives at Disney (who purchased the script to be made at their Touchstone Pictures label) nervous, and wonder if the movie could be marketed to a mass audience. It was Jeffrey Katzenberg at the Disney Studio who had the idea to rewrite the film as a much lighter romantic comedy. There has been a lot of debate about the total change in direction the film went under while it was in pre-production. Some people think the darker and grittier portrayal would have been more interesting and honest, while others think switching to a lighter tone was the right move. I particularly remember Siskel and Ebert debating whether the change in tone was the right move on an episode of their show, when they were talking about Hollywood altering scripts to make them happier.

Whatever your stance on the issue is, you can't deny the impact the final film had, not just on the career of Julia Roberts (who was a relative unknown at the time), but on the romantic comedy genre in general. The original darker script probably was more honest about the situation and its depiction of drug addiction, but in the end, it probably wouldn't have been nearly as profitable for the studio in the end. Whether or not that's a good thing is a personal preference, but I can see why it was done at least.


A selfish and vain Emperor of an Inca kingdom named Kuzco (voice by David Spade) is betrayed by his scheming advisor Yzma (Eartha Kitt) and her dim-witted henchman Kronk (Patrick Warburtton), who force him to drink a potion that is supposed to poison him, but instead turns him into a llama. In his new animal form, Kuzco will have to rely on the simple peasant Pacha (John Goodman)if he wants to reclaim his throne. This will mean learning about friendship and humility, as well as putting others' needs above his own.

THE MOVIE WE ALMOST GOT: Of all the films here, this is the one that changed the most drastically before it was released. In fact, there was even a documentary made about the troubled production, but it has never been officially released, and was only seen once at a film festival, and for a brief time when it was uploaded on Youtube. (It's since been taken down.) The original film, titled Kingdom of the Sun, was to be a musical where the Emperor (still voiced by David Spade) would switch places with a peasant (voiced in this version by Owen Wilson) who looked just like him. This way, the Emperor could have fun with no responsibilities. Meanwhile, an evil Witch (Eartha Kitt) was plotting to summon an evil god that could destroy the sun and cast the land into darkness. The witch realizes that the current "Emperor" is actually the peasant in disguise, and threatens to reveal his identity unless he obeys her. As for the real Emperor, he would be transformed into a llama by the witch's magic in order to keep him quiet. In this version, the llama would befriend and eventually fall in love with a female llama herder (voiced by Laura Prepon), and they would have to work together in order to save the kingdom.

As mentioned, the film was originally conceived as a musical, with recording artist Sting writing 8 original songs for the film. However, due to the fact that recent animated musicals like Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Dame had been relative disappointments at the box office, the Disney studio became too nervous about the film's mostly dramatic and somewhat dark tone. They wanted more comedy added to the film, and to have the songs removed. The film was also running far behind, and was unlikely to meet its original Summer 2000 launch, which would be a problem, since Disney had already made marketing deals with companies like Coca Cola to promote it. At some point in the summer of 1998, the original people were kicked off the project, and a new team were brought on to completely rewrite and reboot the film as a much smaller in scale film that was primarily a buddy comedy, and would have all but two of the Sting songs removed.

The film was completely overhauled top to bottom, characters were rewritten, added or removed completely, actors were dropped and added, and by the time it was over, the movie resembled a Chuck Jones-inspired Looney Tune, rather than the lavish and ambitious Disney Musical it was originally conceived as. Perhaps the film was too ambitious, as it was far behind schedule. And since it needed to go under such vast alterations, the movie missed its summer 2000 launch, and was instead released in Christmas of that year. The Emperor's New Groove has developed a loyal cult following over the years, but I've always been curious about the original, and would love to see the documentary (titled Sweatshop) one day, but I doubt Disney will ever release it to the public, since it was filmed by Sting's wife, and I doubt it views the studio in that good of a light. (Sting was apparently very angry about the change of the film, and having most of his work cut after spending years on the project.)

So, do you think altering these films was the right move? Do you think their original takes would be more interesting? Let me know what you think.

Obviously, there are a lot more examples of movies going under severe changes during the production process. In fact, my next article may focus solely entirely on one film, and the major changes and problems it went through toward becoming one of the more infamous box office bombs of the 90s.

Until next time, fellow Retro Junkers, keep the past alive.
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