Firsts: The very different first drafts of 13 classic sci-fi movies

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Jan 18, 2018

Great ideas don't often spring fully formed out of the air, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the business of making movies. Films often go through a long, sometimes torturous process that Hollywood studios call "development," and along the way, an original concept or story can be radically changed — sometimes for the worse, but sometimes for the better.

In the case of the 13 sci-fi classics below, most of the original ideas seemed sound to begin with, but went through a period of refinement and rethinking, resulting in changes both large and small that made them the movies they are today. With a few of them, the initial concept or storyline proved so unworkable in some fundamental way that more extensive surgery was required. In one example, the slicing of a budget by 50 percent forced one filmmaker to change the movie completely — but he still managed to come up with a gem.

With almost all of them, however (there are always a couple of exceptions), the films we ended up with became landmarks because the filmmakers eventually found the right combination of elements that made each story sing in its own way. How they got there from their starting points, however, is a fascinating and surprising tale on its own ...

Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Director Stanley Kubrick originally set out to make a serious film about the possibility of an accidental nuclear war when he purchased the rights to the 1958 novel Red Alert by Peter George. As he and George began to work on the screenplay, however, Kubrick started to realize that the somber story could work better as a pitch-black comedy. Bringing in co-writer Terry Southern, Kubrick changed the entire tone of the screenplay and film, resulting in the brilliant "nightmare comedy" that has remained a film classic to this day.

By the way, a second, dead serious movie dealing with very similar material, Fail-Safe, came out eight months after Dr. Strangelove — with Kubrick getting its release delayed by filing a copyright infringement suit.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Another Kubrick film, with the seed of the movie based this time on a short story by Arthur C. Clarke called "The Sentinel." But only the concept of an ancient alien object found on the moon was used for the movie that Kubrick eventually made, with him and Clarke (who co-wrote the screenplay) using both original material and elements of other Clarke stories to expand it. The biggest changes from the early drafts of the script to the finished film involved Kubrick removing a lot of explanations for things that happen in the story, preferring to leave them more ambiguous

Among the changes were the removal altogether of the actual aliens (who remain unseen), the excision of a prologue in which scientists are interviewed about extra-terrestrial life, the switching from Saturn to Jupiter for the finale, and the number of astronauts who survive (it was initially all of them, but only Dave Bowman lives in the movie). There was also a more detailed explanation for supercomputer HAL 9000's breakdown, which Kubrick also omitted. The ending of the movie was changed as well: originally, Bowman, now evolved into the Starchild, destroys a string of nuclear missiles orbiting the Earth on satellites. Some of the abandoned scenes or plot points made it into the novel that Clarke wrote, while Kubrick preferred his film to be a more enigmatic, visual experience.

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)

It all started with The Journal of the Whills, George Lucas' 40-page outline for what eventually became the script first known as The Star Wars. He finished the first draft of that screenplay roughly in the spring of 1974, with the subtitle The Adventures of Luke Starkiller also part of the overall concept.

Names like Mace Windu, Bail Antilles, See-Threepio, Artoo Detoo and Han Solo were part of Lucas' early scripts (he wrote around four drafts in total), although some were obviously changed or dropped along the way. Han Solo, for example, was originally supposed to be a large, green alien — which would have probably denied us Harrison Ford's involvement. The Rebels were also training the Wookiees at one point in preparation for a massive battle... an idea used in Return of the Jedi (only with Ewoks).

Other things changed along the way: Luke's father — "Annikin Starkiller" — was still alive in earlier versions of the script, and was not Darth Vader. It wasn't until during the actual production of the movie that Lucas decided to change the name Starkiller to Skywalker and also kill off Ben Kenobi (Ben himself didn't show up until around the third draft of the script) to make the Death Star and Vader more of a threat. The idea of a Jedi turning to the dark side and the concept of the Force itself were introduced in the second draft. But the central idea — a fun, exciting space opera in the style of Flash Gordon and other old-time serials — always remained the same.

Alien (1979)

The idea for Alien first came up while writer Dan O'Bannon and director John Carpenter were making their film Dark Star as students at the University of Southern California. After using a painted beach ball as an alien creature for that low-budget comedy, O'Bannon decided he wanted to make a real monster movie set in space. Inspired by the work of artist H.R. Giger, O'Bannon began working with writing partner Ronald Shusett on a script originally titled Starbeast that drew from movies like Forbidden Planet, The Thing from Another World and Planet of the Vampires, as well as various sci-fi stories the two had read.
 
While the story — an alien infests a spaceship and mows down the members of its crew — stayed essentially the same all the way through, certain important aspects came later. For one, producers Walter Hill and David Giler did extensive rewrites, changing a lot of the crew names and dialogue and adding one key element: the introduction of the android Ash (Ian Holm) who betrays the crew on behalf of their employers. And at some point, the original all-male crew was altered, so a character named Martin Roby became a take-charge, no-nonsense woman named Ellen Ripley... and we can probably all agree that science fiction and action films, if not cinema in general, would not be the same without her.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

When Paramount Pictures first started mulling the idea of a Star Trek movie in the mid-1970s, creator Gene Roddenberry got to work on a script that ended up being called The God Thing. In the story, an alien entity that declares itself to be God is headed for Earth, destroying all spacecraft that get in its way. James Kirk — now an admiral — must reassemble the crew of the Enterprise and confront the being, which turns out to be from an alternate dimension. After deducing that the entity, which has apparently founded the basis of religion and law on numerous planets, is somehow malfunctioning, Kirk and the Enterprise crew send it back to its own dimension.

The studio was not exactly happy with Roddenberry's screenplay and began entertaining ideas from other writers before deciding to reboot the franchise as a new TV show, Star Trek: Phase II. But when the TV show was scrapped in favor of going back to a big screen revival, one of the scripts for the series, titled "In Thy Image," was expanded to feature film length. The story? A mysterious entity hurtles toward Earth, destroying everything in its way. Sound familiar? Only this time, it was just a plain old Voyager craft that got lost while flying through the galaxy.

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The evolution of The Empire Strikes Back is almost as knotty as that of A New Hope. George Lucas had already commissioned a "low budget" sequel that was adapted instead into the novel Splinter of the Mind's Eye after the first movie became a colossal smash hit. With a bigger sequel needed for the screen, he hired famed sci-fi writer Leigh Brackett to come up with a script based on his notes. What Brackett came up with — she handed in her first draft and then sadly died weeks later — was pretty darn close to the finished film, with a few crucial differences.

The script still opens on the ice planet, except it's not called Hoth and the Rebels are menaced at first not by the Empire but by a horde of ice creatures who drive them from their hidden base. The romance between Han and Leia is there, but Luke is much more involved — as is Chewbacca, who is apparently jealous of the budding attraction between his smuggler pal and the princess. There's a Lando as well, but he's very different: he's actually a clone. The biggest change, however, was that Darth Vader in Brackett's draft is not Luke's father — and in fact Luke's dad briefly appears as a Force ghost during Luke's training with Yoda. Lucas later revised Brackett's screenplay (further work was done, of course, by Lawrence Kasdan) and made Vader into Luke's father, turning his fun space opera into a galactic family saga.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Steven Spielberg's alien fairy tale started off as, of all things, a horror movie. Pestered by Columbia Pictures for a sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg came up with the idea of going to the other extreme, replacing his mischievous but ultimately friendly visitors from that early film with a horde of nasty, mean-spirited invaders. The director hired John Sayles, who had written Piranha for producer Roger Corman and director Joe Dante, to pen the script (he also recruited makeup effects legend Rick Baker to create prototypes of the aliens at a cost of $700,000).

The plot followed the group of malevolent alien explorers as they first try to communicate with, then dissect, Earth farm animals before turning their evil attention to the family who live on the farm. One of the aliens, however, is kind and befriends the family's son...an image that stuck with screenwriter Melissa Mathison when Spielberg later read her Sayles' script. That seized Spielberg's imagination too, and Mathison began to write the movie that eventually became E.T. But the idea of a family beset by vicious otherworldly forces never quite left Spielberg's mind: it found its way into Poltergeist (1982) and Gremlins (1984), both of which he produced.

Ghostbusters (1984)

The boys weren't even called ghostbusters in Dan Aykroyd's original draft of the script, which referred to them as "ghostsmashers." His initial concept was much more elaborate as well — the "ghostsmashers" were more like a combination of soldiers and wizards, who used wands, wore military-style outfits and helmets, and traversed time, space and even other dimensions battling massive entities wherever they found them (only the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man remained from this idea).

When Aykroyd pitched his story to director Ivan Reitman, the story goes that Reitman liked it but also saw that it would be too expensive to shoot as written. Thus began a massive three-week rewriting process by Aykroyd and Harold Ramis in which the team turned from cosmos-traveling warriors into the bumbling, hapless yet ultimately heroic ecto-exterminators we have known and loved for 30-plus years.

Day of the Dead (1985)

George A. Romero's 1978 horror classic Dawn of the Dead was an independent hit, earning some $55 million while costing only $1.5 million to make and going out unrated to boot. So when Romero envisioned a sequel — a finale to what he now saw as a trilogy — he wanted to create something on an even more epic scale and conceived of a story set on an island, where the military controls the populace and is training a literal army of zombies to fight against other re-animated corpses.

Romero wanted this film, like its predecessors, to go out unrated with its gore and violence intact. But that led his distributor to cut his budget, from $7 million to $3.5 million, forcing the director to make wholesale changes to his script. The island setting was changed to an underground bunker, and the class divisions among the living (something which he revisited in the later Land of the Dead) were jettisoned in favor of a more basic conflict between a dozen surviving soldiers and scientists. His army of trained zombies became one, nicknamed Bub (Howard Sherman), who begins to display signs of intelligence and memory. Day of the Dead still is a damn fine horror film — Romero himself came to consider it the finest of his zombie movies — but it's an echo of what could have been.

Back to the Future (1985)

Back to the Future is what one might consider a "perfect" film, in which everything works seamlessly, the cast and direction are in sync and the writing is airtight. But it took Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale several drafts of the script to get there, during a four-year process in which they were continually rejected by the studios and one exec wanted to rename the movie Spaceman from Pluto (reportedly because he said that no movie with the word "future" in it ever made money).

Those early drafts featured a much more depressed Marty McFly, who runs a bootleg video operation with "Professor" Brown and is apparently considering suicide (and you thought the suits turned down the movie just because it involved a boy's mom falling in love with her son). Somehow Coca-Cola becomes an energy source that can propel Marty back in time and change the future -- speaking of which, "Professor" Brown deduces that the only way to send Marty back to his own era is by locking him inside a time machine/refrigerator, which is then propelled through time by the energy of a nuclear blast out in the Nevada desert. Yes, that's right: "nuking the fridge" all started with Back to the Future.

Batman (1989)

It was a 10-year journey from producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael Uslan purchasing the film rights to Batman in 1979 to Tim Burton's visionary film arriving in theaters in 1989. Along the way, the idea of how to bring Batman to the big screen went through many changes. After a first attempt at a script — in which James Bond screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz tried to fuse the camp sensibilities of the TV show to the more brooding tone of the comics — went nowhere, numerous rewrites were attempted before Burton came on board to direct and decided he wanted to go in a much darker direction. When Burton approached screenwriter Sam Hamm to tackle the script, the template for the finished film finally began to emerge.

Hamm had the idea to throw out Batman's origin and see it only in flashback (it was included in all the previous screenplays), although he kept Robin/Dick Grayson in the story for a very long time at the studio's insistence until finally jettisoning the character entirely. Also dumped from previous versions were Penguin and Rupert Thorne (who kind of morphed into Carl Grissom), while reporter Alexander Knox (played by Robert Wuhl) did not survive at first. By the way, Hamm also wanted Two-Face to be the lead villain in Batman Returns, which is why we meet him briefly (played by Billy Dee Williams) in this movie while he's still Harvey Dent. The movie we got has its problems, but it still reset Batman for generations to come.

Alien3 (1992)

Okay, so it's not exactly considered a classic, but the initial concepts for Alien3 were just weird enough that we had to include them here. A first draft by legendary cyberpunk author William Gibson involved xenomorph eggs being harvested by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, who plan to use the full-grown creatures as an army against a renegade human colony. When Gibson left the project, screenwriters Eric Red and David Twohy both took swings; Twohy's contribution was the idea of a prison planet setting. The most well-documented draft, however, came courtesy of Vincent Ward, who was hired to direct and also wrote a script in which Ripley finds herself and her unwanted alien passenger stranded on a wooden planet full of religious monks.

Ward himself was fired from the project over creative differences, although a lot of the structure of his script was kept in place through rewrites by producers Walter Hill and David Giler. The wooden planet was changed to an ore refinery, while the monks became prisoners/laborers (who were still religious zealots). Sigourney Weaver's insistence that Ripley sacrifice herself at the end also made it into the finished movie despite the studio's insistence that she survive.

Would a different version of Alien3 — Gibson's, Ward's or some other one — have been better than the film we got? We'll never know.

WALL-E (2008)

Pixar is known for putting its movies through a long and rigorous development process. As director Andrew Stanton developed WALL-E, Pixar's great contribution to science fiction, his initial idea was that the lovable trash-collecting robot would find himself on the Axiom leading an all-out rebellion against a seemingly alien race known as the Gels, who were formless, shapeless blobs of green jelly. In the end, in a major twist, it would be revealed that the Gels were actually what was left of the human race — this was what they had devolved into during all their years of gravity-free life on board the ship.

While that certainly sounds like it could have made for a fascinating and thoroughly creepy premise, Stanton wisely remembered that he was, after all, still making a kids' film. So the Gels were dialed back to look more recognizably human, while still being overweight and atrophied by the effects of weightlessness. By making his Gels look more like us, Stanton brought a human element into the film -- making its themes of environmental impact, consumerism, personal responsibility and waste management that much more powerful.