The history of Hollywood is filled with what-ifs. What if James Dean hadn’t died in a car crash? What if Orson Welles had made Heart of Darkness instead of Citizen Kane?
Perhaps none can compare, though, to picturing the alternate versions we almost had of famous movies. Somewhere in the multiverse, there’s a parallel world where Heathers was directed by Stanley Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange starred Mick Jagger, and Alien was a Roger Corman production. And those aren’t even the weirdest on our list.
Directed By Stanley Kubrick
Heathers is like Mean Girls crossed with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s a brutal, black, high school comedy about Winona Ryder and Christian Slater accidentally (and not so accidentally) killing their classmates and making it look like suicide. It’s the sort of cult classic that gets quote-along screenings. It was also meant to be directed by Stanley Kubrick.
In the DVD commentary, writer Daniel Waters claims that the story was originally envisaged as a three-hour Kubrick epic “encompassing the entirety of teenage experience.” The opening cafeteria sequence was inspired by a similar one in Full Metal Jacket. Even in the finished film, there are visual nods to cinema’s greatest, craziest director.
While Kubrick repeatedly and predictably turned the film down, it’s interesting to imagine what his version would have been like. The quotable dialogue would probably be gone, and the whole thing would be roughly 1,000 times bleaker. We can also easily imagine him keeping the original ending where the entire school gets blown up.
9A Clockwork Orange
Starring The Rolling Stones
Starring Malcolm McDowell as violent teenage gang leader Alex DeLarge, A Clockwork Orange is one of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpieces. The visuals are surreally beautiful, and McDowell’s performance is mesmerizing. But the film was nearly famous for a different reason. At one point, it was intended to be a starring vehicle for the Rolling Stones.
Mick Jagger originally bought the rights to Anthony Burgess’s novel for $500 with the plan that he would play Alex and the rest of the Stones would play Alex’s gang of “Droogs.” The sound track would be provided by The Beatles, who reportedly loved Jagger’s vision for the film.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, the plan went out the window when Jagger sold the rights to producer Si Litvinoff for a massive profit. The job of adapting the book for cinema went to Easy Rider and Doctor Strangelove scribe Terry Southern, who cast David Hemmings as Alex.
Jagger and The Beatles then started a celebrity petition to return Jagger to the role, culminating in a signature-heavy letter being sent to Southern’s office. They needn’t have bothered. The British Board of Film Censorship banned Southern’s script, and the job eventually went to Stanley Kubrick.
Starring Mick Jagger
In the early 1980s, Mick Jagger lobbied hard to get a role in Werner Herzog’s hallucinatory epic Fitzcarraldo. The story of a mad colonialist who literally drags a riverboat over a mountain, the film is notorious today for starring Klaus Kinski at the height of his madness and for Herzog insisting that the whole boat/mountain sequence be filmed in real life.
Unlike Jagger’s efforts to get cast as Alex DeLarge, his campaign to star in Fitzcarraldo succeeded. Herzog gave him a costarring role along Jason Robards, and the trio spent four months filming in South America. You can see some of the surviving footage in the video above. All we can politely say is that Robards is no Klaus Kinski and Jagger is no Robards.
This version of the film was cursed from the start. After first getting caught up in a war between Peru and Ecuador, the production was delayed again when Robards came down with amebic dysentery. By the time he was cured, Jagger had become bored and dropped out. Robards opted to stay in the US, and the role was handed to Kinski.
Directed By David Cronenberg
In the 21st century, David Cronenberg is a fairly mainstream director whom the critics generally love. But the 1980s David Cronenberg was a Canadian weirdo who delighted in freaking out his audiences. Videodrome featured James Woods making love to a fleshy TV set while The Fly is just flat-out disgusting (warning: NSFW!). It was this Cronenberg who nearly directed 1991’s Total Recall.
Adapted from a Philip K. Dick novel, the released version of the film takes Arnold Schwarzenegger to Mars where he drops one-liners and shoots people. Cronenberg’s version was going to keep the Mars element but otherwise make the whole thing so dark and disturbing that it would have probably been unwatchable. Cronenberg worked on the film for one year, wrote up to 12 drafts, and has called his scripted version “heavy-duty.” There was even concept art that looks wonderfully freakish.
According to Cronenberg, the producers eventually dropped him for writing a “Philip K. Dick” script. When he protested that he was supposed to do that, they told him they wanted “Raiders of the Lost Ark goes to Mars.” Cronenberg dropped out.
Produced By Roger Corman
Alien is a slow, creepy, sci-fi horror flick that helped make both genres respectable. Roger Corman is a B-movie producer famous for films like Sharktopus and Death Race 2000. In the 1970s, these two seemingly opposite elements nearly combined to ruin one of the greatest franchises in history.
Early drafts of Alien had an all-male cast and more humor. Described as “Lovecraftian,” it was closer to a standard creature feature than the finished film, and Corman fell in love with the script. Still considered “Jaws in space,” it seemed like a perfect fit for his stable of tacky B-list horror movies.
To be fair, Corman had given directors like Coppola and Scorsese their big breaks, so his Alien might not have been the awful flop you’d expect. We’ll never know for certain thanks to Star Wars. A New Hope’s box office success meant studios started taking sci-fi seriously, and Twentieth Century Fox decided to do Alien with a proper budget. The rest is history.
With Pamela Anderson As Dana Scully
The X-Files was the Game of Thrones of the 1990s, a complex, continually evolving series that everyone on Earth was required to watch to fit into popular culture. Central to its success was the chemistry between Gillian Anderson as skeptical FBI agent Dana Scully and David Duchovny as her open-minded partner, Fox Mulder. In 2008, Gillian Anderson revealed that the producers nearly threw this gold-plated pairing away. Originally, they were hoping to cast Pamela Anderson as Scully.
Aside from the chemistry among its cast, one of the keys to The X-Files’ success was how much it felt grounded in real life. Sure, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were good-looking, but they weren’t so improbably attractive that you couldn’t picture them working for the FBI.
Having long-legged Pamela Anderson running in slow motion from one case to another would have destroyed that completely. Yet Fox was adamant that someone as normal looking as Gillian Anderson wouldn’t work as Scully and that the role needed to be “sexy.”
On the other hand, Den of Geek came up with a way this casting choice could have worked. They suggested also replacing David Duchovny with David Hasselhoff. Now that we’d pay to see.
4The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn
Directed By Gus Van Sant
The director of Milk and Good Will Hunting, Gus Van Sant has made a career out of tackling art house subjects in a vaguely mainstream way. Apparently, he sometimes wishes he could go even more mainstream. Back in 2010, the award-winning director was a serious contender to helm The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn.
Stop and think about that for a second. Gus Van Sant is legendary for rewriting Shakespeare as a gay road movie. He once made a nearly two-hour film that involved nothing but Matt Damon and Casey Affleck wandering around a desert in almost complete silence.
The Twilight Saga, on the other hand, is legendary for featuring sparkly vampires and giving hormonal teenagers their first shameful crush. Yet Gus Van Sant was not only considered for the final two installments, he actively wanted to do them.
The only reason he didn’t get the gig is because the producers wanted a safer pair of hands. Gus Van Sant is famous for his idiosyncratic style on set. Combined with his lack of prework, this made the producers opt for Bill Condon.
Starring Michael Jackson
Doctor Who is just about the biggest sci-fi show in the world today, but that wasn’t always the case. In the late 1980s, the 26-year-old program was so unpopular that the BBC canceled it. Barring one American-financed TV movie in 1996, it stayed canceled for 16 years.
Starring Paul McGann as the eighth version of the Doctor, that TV movie is now considered part of the show’s canon. Had coproducer Paramount gotten its way, the strangest piece of stunt casting in history could have become an official part of the Whoniverse. The American producers originally wanted Michael Jackson to play the part.
When the idea of a Doctor Who movie was first floated in the late 1980s, the King of Pop was supposedly “quite keen” on playing the role. It’s unknown how far the talks got, but Paramount pushed hard for Jackson, eager to cash in on the success of 1988’s Moonwalker. Incredible as it may seem, this isn’t the worst casting decision the company had for the Doctor. When Jackson ultimately declined their offer, Paramount immediately moved to their number two choice: Bill Cosby.
2Raiders Of The Lost Ark
Starring Steve Martin
If we had to produce a list of the 10 worst actors to cast as Indiana Jones, you can bet Steve Martin would be somewhere near the number one spot. Not because Martin is a bad actor—his best films are utterly hilarious—but because his nerdy, repressed white guy shtick is the complete opposite of everything Indiana Jones is meant to be. Nonetheless, at one point, Spielberg and Lucas seriously considered casting him in the role.
Martin wasn’t the closest near miss in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Tom Selleck was actually cast in the lead role, only to be pushed out by the unenthusiastic production company. But Selleck could have easily worked as the grizzled adventurer, even if not as well as Harrison Ford.
Steve Martin would have flipped the entire film on its head. Instead of a loving homage to old Saturday morning serials, Raiders would have become a parody of them. Just imagine Martin’s expression in the above scene where Indy shoots the sword fighter and try telling us it wouldn’t have been a disaster. Thankfully, Spielberg and Lucas seemed to realize this was a seriously bad idea and quickly dropped it.
1Return Of The Jedi
Directed By David Lynch
Return of the Jedi capped the original Star Wars trilogy with an epic space battle and a cool scene in an intergalactic gangster’s palace with some dancing teddy bears. Although generally considered the worst of the three movies, it’s still a decent film and is undeniably a George Lucas production. So just imagine what it might have been like if David Lynch had directed it. Believe it or not, that’s the version we almost got.
By 1983, Lynch had made exactly two feature-length films: slow-moving art house masterpiece Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. Neither one was close to the Star Wars universe in style or scope. Nevertheless, George Lucas personally tried to get Lynch on board, going so far as to fly him to a special compound where they could discuss Wookiees.
From interviews Lynch has since given on the subject, it seems unlikely that he would have ever taken the role. Lucas’s presentation left him feeling deeply unenthusiastic, and he seems to have hated all the creatures planned for the film. Still, if his 1984 sci-fi film Dune is anything to go by, a Lynch version of Star Wars would have been even stranger and crazier than the one we saw in the prequels. Whether it would have been better is another matter.