Endings are hard. Coming to a satisfying finish after two hours is a bit of a tightrope walk. In any storytelling medium, the climax and denouement must first allow characters to fully reach their respective arcs, close any narratives and preferably bring about a sense of closure. However, in film it gets further complicated by studio and test audience pressure.
Perhaps one of the most famous scrapped endings is Frank Oz‘s wonderful adaptation of the musical Little Shop of Horrors (itself based on a Roger Corman film). Originally, Seymour (Rick Moranis) and Audrey (Ellen Greene) were both to be eaten by the giant killer plant, which then grows to gigantic proportions, sprouting other plants and destroying the entire city, likely headed toward world domination. It was an expensive sequence to shoot, but test audiences hated it. Oz settled for the compromised happy ending, where killer plant Audrey II is electrocuted and the lovestruck couple happily walk away.
The original ending has since been restored on the blu-ray release, exactly as it should have been. It’s common for endings to be changed after disastrous test screenings. For a filmmaker, it’s frustrating to have your vision focus-grouped out of existence, but studios insist. Some filmmakers have been so ashamed at the outcome of their product that they’ll disown it, instead using the pseudonym “Alan Smithee” as a credit in place of their name. Since that alias has since become known to the general public, it is no longer used.
Other times, the original endings don’t even get past the first draft of a script, nixed by Hollywood for being too dark or bizarre. What follows are endings we’d all like to have seen – either because they’re so bonkers the curiosity factor is through the roof or because they’re genuinely better than what was ultimately chosen. Some of these endings were shot and are available as special features on DVD or Blu-ray, others were never even filmed. Either way, let’s take a look at how some of our favourites could have turned out. Naturally, there are spoilers ahead.
18. I Am Legend
In this adaptation of writer/notorious drunkard Richard Matheson’s classic sci-fi novel, Will Smith plays Robert Neville – the lone human wanderer of New York City after a virus wiped out society. What’s left are vicious sub-human creatures that stalk the night. Matheson was one of the chief writers on The Twilight Zone TV series, often employing a twist ending. His novel is no different. The “legend” of the title is, in fact, Neville himself, who has become a sort of boogeyman to the new society of beings he viewed as monsters and regularly murdered. Accepting himself as the monster, and the beings as the next step in evolution, he walks out of his cell to be willingly executed.
The original ending to the film – the third adaptation of the novel (less faithfully adapted with Vincent Price as The Last Man On Earth and Charlton Heston as The Omega Man) – stays more or less true to the spirit of the novel. Neville, having captured a female creature to experiment upon, realizes the Alpha Male just wants his love back. Neville apologizes to the creature, who considers killing him, but instead takes back his female and walks away.
Hollywood didn’t see the value in such an ending, and instead had Neville sacrifice himself to save the other two human survivors from the horrible monsters. This causes major plot issues, as throughout the film it’s hinted the creatures seem to retain some kind of humanity. Nope, Hollywood just wanted monsters.
17. Lethal Weapon 2
Shane Black’s script for the sequel to his blockbuster hit was originally a great deal darker than what was filmed. Mel Gibson‘s Riggs, a fractured, near suicidal figure, finally gets to confront the man who was responsible for the death of his wife – a South African hit man who was trying to kill Riggs for getting too close during an investigation. During the course of the film, Riggs slowly falls for a corrupt South African Diplomat’s assistant, Rika (Patsy Kensit).
After Rika is also taken from him, drowned in the ocean, he launches a full-on suicide mission to take out every last henchman. In a telling moment, he recites the names of everyone he’s lost to the villain, each name matching a bullet entering a henchman. In both the script and film, Riggs is repeatedly shot in the back by the lead villain, collapsing on the deck of a large freighter.
In the Black’s script, Riggs never gets up. Having avenged all he’s lost, he’s come full circle, reached the end of his journey. It made thematic sense for him to be killed off. Studios balked at killing off their runaway hit, rewriting it with Jeffrey Boam. It ends with a badly – but not fatally – wounded Riggs laughing with his partner as an uplifting George Harrison song plays over the credits.
16. Return of the Jedi
Harrison Ford really wanted Han Solo dead. He claims it’s not because he hated the character, just that it made narrative sense. And by the end of Jedi, it does. The rapscallion smuggler with not a care for anyone but himself had since become a leader in the rebellion. He found both a cause and woman for whom he cared. There wasn’t much more to do with the character.
Despite pleading with George Lucas on multiple occasions to off Solo, Lucas refused, too heavily invested in the merchandise end of the franchise to let any of its lead characters die, even at what was supposed to be the very end. Instead, we’re stuck with the Teddy Ruxpin luau ending, rather than anything meaningful.
Ford finally got his wish in The Force Awakens, but only after an entirely new mythology had to be created without Lucas on board creatively. Lucas later said of the film that it wasn’t the direction he would have taken. That direction most likely involved endless galactic senate meetings and irritating moppet-kids.
The ending of Sylvester Stallone‘s excellent first screenplay is triumphant. Though Rocky loses to Apollo Creed in a split decision after his endurance lasts all 15 rounds, he wins the love of Adrian, which matters far more than some silly sporting event.
It wasn’t always that way. Director John G. Avildsen and Stallone nearly came to blows over the ending that was actually used. Imagine the fight the two would have had over the script’s original call to have Rocky accept a payoff to throw the fight in favour of Creed. He would then use the payoff to help Adrian open a pet store. The point of the actual ending was that there were other, bigger victories for Rocky. Opening a pet store was thankfully not one of them.
14. Pretty Woman
Garry Marshall‘s Pretty Woman is so full of whimsy and charm it’s easy to forget that Julia Roberts‘ character is totally a prostitute. The script sure didn’t forget that fact. This was the late 80s, and Richard Gere‘s charming character is in the same business as Michael Douglas‘ villainous Gordon Gekko. Both are slimy corporate raiders.
So it would have been quite the reality check if, after spending the entire weekend with Gere, Roberts’ character is tossed back on the street, Gere throwing the money at her and driving off. The script also called for Roberts’ Vivian to be a serious drug addict.
The script, entitled $3,000, was a gritty morality tale of addiction and prostitution. After being acquired by Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg saw the heartfelt rom com it was really trying to be.
Even if you remove the addiction angle and everything sublimely bleak about $3,000, ending it with Gere walking out of her life forever after paying for services rendered is pretty harsh and, quite frankly, a much better movie.
13. Pretty In Pink
There’s no denying that John Hughes owned a good portion of the 1980s, right beside Jason Voorhees and cocaine. His muse, Molly Ringwald, appeared in three of his releases, and in Pink plays a girl from the wrong side of the tracks (in upper middle class, white Illinois). This is displayed in every possible stereotype of such a character (oh my God, is that a leather jacket?), as Hughes was big on stereotypes (particularly broad, racist ones).
Her friend Duckie (Jon Cryer) is secretly in love with her, but is incapable of expressing his feelings. In the end, it’s Blaine (Andrew McCarthy), the jerky preppy kid who only wants her to dress pretty, who wins Ringwald’s love.
Hughes hated that ending. He was tired of his own crap, it seems, and wanted just once for the geek to win. Duckie was supposed to win in the end, however the 80s were a very shallow time, where Andrew McCarthy was considered a reasonable leading man.
Alfred Hitchcock had a macabre sense of humour, fully on display in any of the trailers for his films – themselves short films in which the master narrates and essentially pitches the film to the audience. His unfinished projects suggested, free from a Hays code or censorship beyond the MPAA, had he lived longer his work only would have become more violent and sexual.
Early in his career in Hollywood, he made Suspicion which follows a newlywed (Joan Fontaine) who slowly begins to believe her new husband (Cary Grant) is plotting to murder her. The film ends on a minor question mark, but heavily in favour of Grant being an innocent though flawed husband. Originally, Hitchcock wanted the ending to be more faithful to the Frances Iles’ novel on which it was based. In it, Fontaine’s bride gulps down a glass of milk, knowing it is poisoned. In a letter to her mother, prior to drinking the milk, the wife would write that she knows her husband is trying to kill her, but loves him too much to care. Damn the Hays code for not allowing such a bleak, interesting twist on the familiar.
Hancock had a strange journey from script to screen. The Will Smith-starring action/comedy about an alcoholic superhero was entitled Tonight, He Comes on paper. After Jason Bateman‘s PR man helps tidy up Hancock’s image, he learns that Bateman’s wife, Charlize Theron, is also a superhero and, in a way, Hancock’s kryptonite. The hero agrees to live on the other side of the country and commemorates his friendship with Bateman with a message in the sky.
The script never turned Theron into a superhero, just an ordinary housewife with whom Hancock becomes obsessed. He kidnaps her for super-sexual assault and comes close to creating the weirdest Special Victims Unit crossover ever. He manages to control himself, but only by murdering a precinct-and-a-half’s worth of cops coming to her rescue.
Full of self-loathing, Hancock then tries to shoot himself in the head which, if you know how superheroes work, doesn’t really have much of an effect.
10. The Butterfly Effect
It’s pretty much impossible to take Ashton Kutcher seriously as an actor, but he sure tried his damndest in this silly, overwrought time travel thriller. In it, Kutcher plays Evan, who learns he can travel to his past to change the fate of he and his childhood friends by reading pages from a journal because…magic? It’s never fully explained.
As it goes with such films, his time travel only makes the future worse for each of his friends and himself (at one point he’s in prison, nearly performing sexual favours for neo-nazis, another he’s a multiple amputee). In the end, he finally realizes the only way to save childhood sweetheart Amy Smart from a doomed future is to shun her off when they first meet. After fixing her life, he burns the journals and goes on with his life, passing her one day on the street without her even knowing.
That’s all fine and good, but who wants to see some fetus choking? Yes, in the bat-crazy director’s cut, Evan goes to even further extremes, somehow travelling back into his mother’s womb. At which point, his sentient fetus strangles itself with his mother’s umbilical cord. That. Is. Amazing. The level of insanity on display here is near David Lynch-crazy.
9. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Less is definitely more in this case. Surrounded, outnumbered, outgunned, Butch and Sundance know they’re at the end of the line. There’s no getting out, they are going to die. The two then rush outside and the film freeze frames on the two futilely fighting back. But we never see them die, instead, Paul Newman and Robert Redford burst out the door and into cinematic history. It’s an iconic ending. The ambiguity of their blaze of glory is poignant, thrilling.
Originally, however, we were to have seen their bodies riddled with bullets like something out of Peckinpah. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been the best choice, but this gruesome conclusion makes one curious enough to see just how it would have played with an audience.
8. The Birds
By the end of Hitchcock’s natural horror film, our heroine Tippi Hedren has been badly wounded in an attack. Their quaint house by the San Francisco bay is surrounded by hundreds of birds. The survivors slowly make their way in between the flying menace to a car, in which they cautiously make their escape as the birds linger ominously.
It’s a quiet, tense climax, the film’s antagonists seem prepared to strike at any moment. Originally, Hitchcock wanted this tense scene to occur on the Golden Gate Bridge as opposed to a random house. Imagine the intensity of that set piece, a small group of survivors carefully navigating the ground, the quiet of the normally busy landmark making it all the more surreal. Unfortunately, the studio refused to pay for it.
7. True Romance
Quentin Tarantino scripted this bloody, over-the-top Tony Scott film, and it’s obvious from the first scene – in which Christian Slater discusses the importance and sexual appeal (even to men) of Elvis Presley. Scott’s style clashes terribly with Tarantino’s style, creating a jumbled mess of a picture with a few good scenes and some stellar performances.
After what is possibly the largest Mexican standoff in cinema, Slater’s character catches a stray bullet above his eye. His lover, Patricia Arquette, runs to his aid as a coked out movie producer and his bodyguards square off with the DEA and the Italian mafia. After everyone is very dead, Arquette rushes a wounded Slater to safety and the two drive off beyond the border, where they live happily ever after.
Tarantino’s script was far more cynical, with Slater’s character succumbing to his gunshot wound and Arquette driving off alone with a suitcase full of money. In voice-over, we learn that she never much cared for Slater and was merely using him.
Her character, Alabama, is even referenced in Reservoir Dogs by Harvey Keitel‘s Mr. White. Tarantino intended for the two characters to meet up and become partners in crime. When the ending to True Romance was changed, their prospective partnership no longer made narrative sense.
6. First Blood
Rambo is often remember as a violent action film in which Sylvester Stallone wages a one man war and punches enemies’ heads clean off with a bare fist. Those, however, are the sequels. The original First Blood, based on a novel by David Morrell, is a bleak look at the mistreatment of Vietnam veterans and the PTSD they suffered. By the film’s end, Rambo’s former commanding officer Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) arrives to talk the anti-hero down from killing the chief of police. Rambo breaks down, a blubbering mess. I will offer ten dollars to anyone who can translate, word for word, what Stallone says as he talks about his experiences in Vietnam without closed captioning. It’s mostly incomprehensible, however it involves a shoeshine boy (I think).
Oddly, Stallone’s mumbling and incoherence make the scene all the more powerful, as Trautman manages to convince him to turn himself in.
In Morrell’s novel, Trautman blows Rambo’s head off with a shotgun, never giving him a chance to turn himself in. The film’s original ending softens that, with Rambo forcing Trautman to shoot him dead. First Blood could have remained a singular, tragic, poignant story of what war does to man, but then the studio demanded a sequel and spilled their James Cameron into our Stallone.
Speaking of franchises James Cameron ruined: Alien is, arguably, Ridley Scott‘s best film. It’s a haunting, eloquent nightmare, or as Ebert called it, a haunted house movie in space. The film’s monster stays mostly in the shadows until the film’s third act, which finds our heroine Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) squaring off against it in an escape pod. She succeeds in blowing the alien out into the cold vacuum of space, then firing her rocket boosters and incinerating it.
The original script, by Return of the Living Dead writer/director Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Schusett, was a combination of original ideas and inspirations as far and wide as Planet of the Vampires to Jaws. Also, for a film metaphorically about rape, its first draft was surprisingly homoerotic.
Many drafts later, and the addition of a cyborg character by Walter Hill and David Giler, they still didn’t have an ending that satisfied the director.
Scott asked for a little extra money for what he called “a fourth act,” which was conceived and storyboarded in numerous ways. One of Scott’s ideas that came close to being used was to have the alien bite off Ripley’s head, then sit in the pilot chair and begin speaking to the log in her voice.
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street
Freddy Kruger was almost a one shot deal. Wes Craven‘s horrifically scarred, cackling dream killer was supposed to die off, Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy emerging successful at the end. Then, Nancy would awaken to realize the entire film had been a dream. Yes, Elm Street was nearly one of those movies. However, New Line Cinema producer Robert Shaye smelled money.
Shaye told Craven to leave the ending open for sequels. The director began brainstorming different ways to end the film, and went full circle. The actual ending is a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream with Kruger still haunting his characters and pulling Nancy’s mother through a small window.
3. Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)
Stanley Kubrick‘s satirical nuclear war film ends with Slim Pickens riding a giant nuke like a horse as it plummets toward earth. As nuclear blasts occur worldwide, “We’ll Meet Again” plays over the footage. Strangelove was a much needed laugh at the time of its release, just two years after Russia and America stared each other down and came close to nuclear war in October of 1962.
Originally, the film was supposed to end in a pie fight. An actual Three Stooges-style pie fight in the situation room. After Peter Seller’s titular character takes a few steps out of his wheel chair while hailing “mien Fuhrer”, he was to fall flat on his face. Then George C. Scott, The Russian Ambassador and the President were to engage in an elongated pie fight. The ending has since been lost, and Kubrick felt the actors were enjoying themselves too much anyway for it to work.
2. Dawn of the Dead
George A. Romero‘s classic satire on consumer-culture was way ahead of its time. Shopping malls were a relatively new phenomenon, and the idea of a band of survivors holing up in one and having a kind of Eden with everything at their disposal foretold a society much like the one we live in today.
The film ends with Eden gutted by renegade looters and bikers, allowing herds of zombies into paradise. Our last two survivors take refuge in their hidden stock room. Peter (Ken Foree) tells Francine (Gaylen Ross) to get to the roof and escape with their helicopter. Peter settles down and presses a derringer to his temple. Suddenly, he has a change of heart, shooting through a crowded zombie hall and reaching the roof. The two fly off into the early morning sun, uncertain of how long the fuel will last.
Romero’s darker ending is unfortunately forever lost, its only evidence of existing are photos of a dummy stand in for Ross’s character. In the script, Peter follows through with his suicide and Francine, seeing the zombies coming toward her, thrusts her head into the spinning blades of the helicopter (something foreshadowed in an early scene in which a zombie stands too high). The credits would then roll and, as they concluded, the engine to the chopper would sputter and die.
1. Snake Eyes
Sometimes, you just have to tear everything down. As God hit reset on humanity with a giant flood (if you believe in that kind of stuff), Brian De Palma set out to do the same in his underrated thriller Snake Eyes. The film follows corrupt Atlantic City police officer Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) as he attends a boxing match. Also in attendance is the Secretary of Defense who, after a brilliant single 17 minute shot, is assassinated during the fight.
Santoro uncovers a web of corruption, graft, fraud and murder over the course of the night, all the while a hurricane looms over the casino. His investigation eventually leads him to his best friend (Gary Sinise), who believes Santoro will do as he always does, take a payoff and lead him to the one girl who could blow the lid off the conspiracy.
At the end, Sinise is exposed and forced to commit suicide. The scandal explodes, Santoro is deemed a hero. Soon, however, his corrupt past is also exposed and he’ll have to do some prison time. The end finds Santoro staring off the Atlantic City pier, muttering “At least I got to be on TV.” The credits roll as construction on the casino is finally finished, one of the dead conspirator’s rings seen in the cement.
That’s the compromised “happy” ending De Palma was forced to settle for. Originally, the threatening hurricane spilled over, drowning the entire cast. So awash with sin and corruption was the world in which Snake Eyes existed, only an act of God could have possibly cleansed it.