1988’s Beetlejuice turned out to be a cult classic that supercharged Tim Burton’s career – but it was nearly an entirely different film.
When you think of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, I’m sure there are a lot of memorable elements that spring to mind. From Michael Keaton’s unforgettably creepy performance as Bio-Exorcist Betelgeuse, to the scene where the Deetz family are made to dance around the dinner table to Harry Belafonte. The concept of a fantasy-comedy certainly wasn’t a new thing for blockbuster cinema, with Ghostbusters having been released four years previous, but Beetlejuice wasn’t expected to be a success. In fact, it went through so many changes during development that the finished film barely resembles what the writers and producers had originally planned.
In Burton’s movie, Barbara and Adam Maitland are an ordinary couple living in a lovely home in Connecticut. Played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin, the two decide to spend their vacation time decorating, but everything goes pear shaped when their car crashes into the river. When they return home, a strange book – The Handbook For The Recently Deceased – awaits them, and they realise they didn’t survive the crash. As soon as a strange new family, the Deetzes, move into their home with their daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder), who can unexpectedly see and hear them, the Maitlands enlist the help of Bio-Exorcist Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) for aid in getting rid of them, with disastrous results.
You might think that a film all about a ghostly couple who have to suffer through the afterlife (which turns out to be a hellish bureaucracy) makes for fairly dark subject matter. Believe it or not, though, it was originally meant to be more so. Screenwriter Michael McDowell had a penchant for horror-esque writing, with his other credits including episodes of Tales From The Darkside, as well as briefly working on Tales From The Crypt. His original script for Beetlejuice, co-written for Universal alongside producer Larry Wilson, was serious, dark, and not very well received.
First off, the Maitland’s deaths were meant to be much more graphic. Instead of the car simply sinking into the river, the duo would have been screaming for help as they slowly drowned, and Barbara was also supposed to have crushed her arm in the crash. Interestingly, an allusion to this remains in the final film, with the character saying that her arm “feels frozen” when they first arrive back at the house. The couple’s ghostly hijinks were also originally written to be much more malicious. In the place of the famous dance scene was a moment where the Maitlands make a vine-patterned carpet come to life, using the plants to tie the Deetzes to their chairs.
Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is in the title character himself. McDowell envisioned Betelgeuse as a demonic figure with wings who took the form of a short Middle-Eastern man (yes, really). He was also decidedly more homicidal than in the released film, in which the character is rewritten as a troublesome pervert. Part of that personality remains, though, as the Betelgeuse of McDowell and Wilson’s script initially wanted sex from the teenage Lydia instead of marriage.
In short, Michael McDowell and Larry Wilson had written something closer to a bonafide horror film, and Universal reportedly wasn’t happy. Wilson, who has producer and story credits for the final movie, spoke in an interview about the negative reaction the script got from an executive at the studio. After giving them the screenplay on a Friday, Wilson was called into the office on Monday morning, only to be told “what are you doing with your life?” As bad reactions go, it sounds like it was pretty bad.
Shortly after that, Beetlejuice was sold to the company of producer David Geffen. After that, it was given to Tim Burton (now seen as a promising young director after Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) and things started to progress. McDowell and Wilson began rewrites, but Burton ultimately handed the rest of the job to Warren Skaaren after some creative differences popped up. Funnily enough, Skaaren would also contribute to the script of Burton’s Batman. The writer is responsible for the tonal shift Beetlejuice underwent before filming, to become the fantasy-comedy we all know and love. One notable difference, though, was the fact that Skaaren planned for the soundtrack to be R&B, not Harry Belafonte. A bit of a drastic change, but one that obviously worked out for the best.
The script may have been polished, but there were still plenty of stumbling blocks during development.
First of all was the casting. Sammy Davis Jr. was Burton’s first choice for the role, and the producers were considering comedic actor Dudley Moore as well as stand-up comedian Samuel Kinison. It was David Geffen who suggested Michael Keaton for the role, and luckily enough Burton agreed.
Keaton is one of many long-term collaborators that the director would pick up while making Beetlejuice. Others include Catherine O’Hara (who would go on to voice Sally in the Burton-produced The Nightmare Before Christmas), Winona Ryder (who he cast as Kim Boggs in Edward Scissorhands) and production designer Bo Welch, who worked on Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns. Glenn Shadix, who plays Otho, would also lend his voice to The Nightmare Before Christmas. You almost get the impression that if Beetlejuice didn’t turn out the way it did, Burton’s body of work would also be very different.
The last hurdle Burton faced was Warner Bros., who disliked the film’s name. They famously wanted to called the comedy the much more bland House Ghosts, to which Burton responded with a joke about calling it Scared Sheetless instead. He was reportedly horrified when they actually considered it, but evidently Beetlejuice came out on top in the end.
There you have it – a film that went from horror to comedy, turned a murderous antagonist into a sex pest, and replaced an R&B soundtrack with Harry Belafonte. It introduced Burton, quite by chance, to multiple collaborators who appear in his films throughout his career. Winona Ryder is even attached to reprise her role as Lydia in the long-awaited sequel to Beetlejuice, that was announced (again) in February this year.
The film’s troubled development certainly benefited Burton, helping to shape his career for years to come. It also worked out for the best for Beetlejuice itself. Without those changes to the script and casting decisions, it may well not have been the enduring success it is today.
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