There are so many decisions involved in the making of a movie that it's not hard to imagine a million different scenarios, in which a single person changing their mind could have had a memorable impact on pop culture classics as we know them today. Could you imagine anyone else than Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man? What if Mufasa hadn't died in The Lion King because someone on the team refused to let the scene break everyone's hearts? What if The Lord of the Rings had taken place in space because Peter Jackson just felt like it would be a refreshingly modern way to interpret the books? Alright, this one might be a bit too far-fetched, but you get the idea.
The story of the following six movies is extremely well-known, but you'll find that they came this close to turning out completely differently — for better or for worse.
1. Return of the Jedi, 1983
Recently, Craig Miller, LucasFilm's first official fan relations officer, revealed that the last opus of the original Star Wars trilogy had not always been intended to turn out as it did.
"Originally Boba Fett was set up in Empire as a character, and the third movie's plot was going to be more about Boba Fett rescuing Han Solo and all of that. Boba was gonna be the main villain… That was set up, why he was taking Han Solo away, why there was a thing with him in the Christmas special."
That finally explains the frustrating way Boba Fett's time in the galaxy came to an end. What if we'd had a whole movie about him? But most importantly, what if George Lucas had made a third Star Wars trilogy? Miller explained why Fett's storyline got scratched:
"When George decided not to make a third trilogy, he completely jettisoned that story line, which is why in the first ten minutes, Boba Fett gets bumped into and falls into the mouth of a giant monster. So he took what was planned for the third trilogy, which was the confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader, and the battle with the Emperor, and that got squished down from three movies to one movie. And that became the plot of 'Jedi.'"
Granted, Disney is now fulfilling our desires for more fresh Star Wars content, but it's quite the shocker to think that Lucas could have directed three more movies.
2. Pretty Woman, 1990
It's safe to say the Cinderella story of Pretty Woman is one of the ultimate rom-coms in Hollywood history. But the original version of the script wasn't intending to make our hearts melt at all — it was a dark drama on the grim life of a sex worker.
Julia Roberts herself described the initial story in a way that makes it sound like a completely different movie:
"A really dark and depressing, horrible, terrible story about two horrible people and my character was this drug addict, a bad-tempered, foulmouthed, ill-humored, poorly educated hooker who had this weeklong experience with a foulmouthed, ill-tempered, bad-humored, very wealthy, handsome but horrible man and it was just a grisly, ugly story about these two people."
The author of the script, J. F. Lawton, explained that she'd named the movie 3,000, based on the price it cost to hire a sex worker for a week, and that there was no love story to make up for the harshness of the tale:
"The original story of '3,000' was basically like the movie 'Pretty Woman' except for the ending — he didn't fall in love with her in the original script, and she does end up back on the street."
So why the change of heart? Touchstone Films, who belong to Disney, bought the rights for $17 million, and screen tests showed that audiences strongly disapproved of the original ending. And the change was made, certainly for the best, as Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert pointed out when the movie was released.
"There could indeed be, I suppose, an entirely different movie made from the same material — a more realistic film, in which the cold economic realities of the lives of both characters would make it unlikely they could stay together. And, for that matter, a final scene involving a limousine, a fire escape and some flowers is awkward and feels tacked on. But by the end of the movie I was happy to have it close as it does."
Given the movie's stars sex appeal and romantic aura that derived from the movie, it's fascinating to think about Richard Gere's and Julia Robert's careers if Pretty Woman had stayed the small cynical production it was first created as.
3. Zootopia, 2016
The recent Disney hit Zootopia stars Judy Hopps, an optimistic bunny who leaves her natal countryside to chase her dream of becoming a big city cop — despite being told by everyone around her that her place in society is to be a farmer, like her parents. She eventually meets Nick, a cynical fox who's relying on small fraud to make ends meet. While they end up learning from each other, the story actually started out the other way around.
Midway through development, the team behind Zootopia felt something wasn't quite clicking. As director Bryan Howard put it,
"We're telling a story about bias, and when you have the Nick character starting the movie, through his eyes the city was already broken. He didn't like Zootopia."
So they went back to the roots of the story.
"We asked 'What are we saying with the movie?' If we're telling this movie about bias —something that is everywhere and in all of us, whether we want to admit it or not — the character that's going to help us tell that message is Judy, an innocent, [who comes] from a very supportive environment where she thinks everyone is beautiful, everyone gets along. Then let Nick, this character who knows the truth about the world, bop up against her and they start to educate each other. When we flipped that, it was a major flip, but it worked so much better."
Naturally, it seems obvious now that a positive attitude would be better at carrying the story, which is probably why it felt so wrong to center on Nick all along. The head of editorial, Fabienne Rawley, recalled how Judy was just meant to be the main character:
"Even when Nick was the main character, Hopps kept pushing through. She's the character she is. She just kept being the main character. And we kept saying that we wanted Nick to be the main character. And sort of because of that, forcing a round peg in a square hole sort of thing, she just came through. And finally we're like, 'Fine! Go do it.' So then you start again."
4. Toy Story, 1995
Zootopia wasn't the only animated feature that rose from the ashes of a much bleaker pitch: the family-friendly Toy Story didn't start out as a candid toy movie. The script actually went through several iterations before getting the green light, Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter revealed.
At a panel at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which celebrated 20 years of Toy Story, Lasseter explained how Woody first came to life:
"Woody was a jerk."
But Disney hated that version, and the pressure to honor Pixar's partnership with the studio led the team to pen down the story that we know today in a mere two weeks.
You could wonder why children movie specialists such as Disney and Pixar would even come up with such grim scenarios in the first place, but this adult approach to writing is certainly also the reason why their stories resonate so well with audiences of all ages.
5. Iron Man 2, 2010
Although I mentioned Robert Downey Jr. earlier, this isn't about how he wasn't intended for the movie — director Jon Favreau always wanted him to star, and his conviction led to Downey Jr.'s casting. The reason Iron Man 2, as well of the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, could have been completely different is Black Widow's casting. While Scarlett Johansson is now as indissociable from the role as Downey Jr. is from Tony Stark — where is her solo movie, damnit? — she wasn't Favreau's first choice.
Emily Blunt was initially cast as Natasha Romanoff in Iron Man 2, but her contractual obligations meant that she had to star in Gulliver's Travels the same year the Marvel movie was released. She subtly hinted at her disappointment in an interview with Vulture, as she had been considered both for the parts of Black Widow and Agent Carter.
"Yeah, but it was never the right time, really, and it just didn't work out scheduling-wise with those two. It's always a difficult thing to talk about, because it's not fair to the actresses who ended up playing them, you know? It just wasn’t the right time."
There's no doubt she would have nailed the role, as she's proved her action skills in movies such as the recent Sicario, but it's just impossible to picture the MCU without Johansson's red locks.
6. Fantastic Four, 2015
Ask the comic book fans, and there are a lot of ways that the latest cinematic attempt at the Fantastic Four could have been salvaged from the scathing reception it was met with upon release.
According to screenwriter Jeremy Slater, the reason that the 2015 Fantastic Four feels like it builds up for so long to so little is because only the first act of his screenplay ended up in the final movie, which Simon Kinberg and Josh Trank rewrote.
The original version included Galactus, Mole Man, Herbie the Robot and the FantastiCar, the Fantastic Four equivalent to the Batmobile. The car was even pictured in green screen footage that didn't make the final cut. There's also an intense battle against a Moloid and a final one in Latveria, which provides a stark contrast with the movie as we know it.
BMD read the script, deemed it was much more action- and character-packed than the movie that was ultimately released, and delivered the final blow:
It's the kind of script that you could imagine Marvel Studios making.
It would be too easy to state that Fantastic Four could have done better if it hadn't been for these rewrites, but it's irresistible to imagine a Marvel-style take on the now more or less doomed franchise.