‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ – The Original Novel Was a Very Different Horror Story
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‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ – The Original Novel Was a Very Different Horror Story

Many of us remember Director Jim Gillespie and Writer Kevin Williamson’s I Know What You Did Last Summer as a teen slasher with a great soundtrack. A movie that injected something that felt a little like Scream back into our veins for a moment after the cultural phenomenon had taken horror by storm a year before. It may feel like I Know What You Did Last Summer exists solely to capitalize on this moment, but that’s not necessarily the case. The film was rushed into production after the success of Scream, sure. But the story’s origins actually go way back to 1973 when writer Lois Duncan penned the page-turning novel.

The book, to say the least, was extremely different from our final product. To the point where Lois Duncan, who sold the rights for $150,000, refused to visit the set after reading the script and was mortified seeing what came to fruition on the screen.

On the matter, the late author commented, “There is no way I want to be part of desensitizing kids to violence and turning murder into a game to see who can scream the loudest.”

It’s very easy to become sympathetic to her thoughts and feelings on the subject when you learn her own daughter had been senselessly murdered by serial killer Paul Apodaca in July of 1989. The studio claimed they were unaware of this history when they made the film. In the end, both the original novel and film adaptations had their bright spots in their respective ways.

Here’s where the two paths split (and sometimes remain the same)…

For starters, this is no slasher novel. There’s no hook-wielding murderer. Hell, there’s not even a fisherman! That element of the story was conjured up by Kevin Williamson. As was the entire aspect of the story taking place in a small fishing town, inspired by his father, who was a fisherman. It is funny though, how reading the book with the movie in the back of your head alters your perceptions of everything. It still feels like the events are taking place in the movie’s locations. The feeling of Summer is still ever prevalent reading the book, making it a great read for this time of year.

Instead of a mysterious fisherman getting Goldberg-speared by Barry’s BMW, the partying teens hit a young boy on his bicycle in the middle of the night. The boy was riding the bike home after deciding mid-sleepover at a friend’s house that he wanted to go home. The teens didn’t dump his body into the ocean, as they did the fisherman, either. They never even stopped the car. It all happened quite quickly and tragically as Barry, ever the asshole in the book, just as well as the film, refused to stop the car or go back. After some conversation in the car that overall resembles the same type of moral debate in the film, the group decided what was done was done and they didn’t want to send Barry to jail for a crime he couldn’t fix.

Far worse, Barry convinces the group not to call for help until they are minutes down the road and free of the scene. Which, as it turns out, played a significant role in the boy not surviving.

“When you leave a man for dead, make sure that he’s REALLY dead!”

As we know, in the film, Ben Willis wasn’t dead when the crew dumped his body into the ocean. He even had the awareness to snatch Helen’s tiara under the water and scare the shit out of Barry when he came to retrieve it. But if you’re thinking the boy survived and exacted his revenge on our teens, you’d be mistaken. No Pet Sematary hijinks are going on in Lois Duncan’s novel, either. This kid died. And he’s the only death in the entire story… a body count of one. As previously stated, this is no slasher. But that doesn’t mean it’s not suspenseful.

Moving forward, the film very much colors my imagination of our main characters. I might be reading Barry, Helen, Julie, and Ray but I’m seeing Ryan Phillipe, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Freddie Prinze Jr. For a movie that couldn’t be more different than its source material, it shockingly manages to resemble the characters from the book’s auras with impressive accuracy. Again, Barry is very much the rich, snobby little jerk that Ryan Phillipe portrayed on the screen. Julie, in either rendition, doesn’t have a ton of personality beyond being possibly the most moral of the group and carrying the most guilt. Albeit it useless moral guilt that accomplishes nothing other than to make her feel above the other teens in the group; like sending anonymous flowers to the kid’s funeral. “Oh gee…thanks! This solves everything. You’re a great person after all.”

Ray is still a bit of a mystery, abandoning Julie shortly after the incident to work odd jobs in California as he worked through his own guilt. When he returns, all that matters to him is winning her back. Only when he returns, he finds a version of Julie completely wrecked by guilt (much as she was in the film at this point) and dating a war veteran named “Bud.”

The real heavy lifting Duncan does in the novel that the film couldn’t match character-wise is within Helen’s character. She’s largely the same person we saw on screen only much more sympathetic. We spend a lot of time with her inner thoughts as a picture is painted of a girl who is embarrassed by her family’s financial situation and deeply driven to succeed so that she doesn’t end up like her sister. This is somewhat portrayed in the film but alongside her inner monologue, it feels much more personal and relatable here. Suffice it to say, she became the most interesting character of them all. Much of her plight is driven by her hateful sister, Elsa. Who they hilariously miscast with the gorgeous Bridgette Wilson-Sampras in the film. Here, Helen is driven to succeed come hell or high water and is an up-and-coming future star as an on-air reporter at the local television station. She stays at a posh apartment complex with a popular pool area, where she meets a character not seen in the film, named Collie. Collie is new to the area and immediately takes a liking to her. Helen, however, is madly in love and loyal to Barry.

Barry, however, does not feel the same about her. This is another aspect of the book that didn’t translate to the film. There’s a lot of background information on Barry’s motivations and future plans which we come to find out don’t include Helen. As she dotes over him and plans their future together, he’s often with other women, wishing he’d broken it off with her sooner. He feels suffocated by the slightest idea of commitment in part because of an overbearing mother he wants desperately to emancipate himself from… if only he weren’t tethered to her bank account.

The book opens itself with Julie finding a note in her mail with the dreaded message “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and subsequently reaching out to her old friends. Each of them is then contacted by this mystery party in a much more subdued manner than in the film; there are no dead bodies stuffed in trunks full of crabs that miraculously disappear in mere minutes in broad daylight without so much as a seafood smell being left behind. No characters are spinning dramatically in the street screaming “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?!?!??” No, this stalker is more of an “I left you an old newspaper clipping taped to your front door” kind of psychopath.

But they are not without violence.

“Oh, you got a letter? I GOT RUN OVER! Helen gets her hair chopped off. Julie gets a body in her trunk, and you got a letter? That’s balanced!”

Barry is hanging out in his frat house when he gets a call from the ever-needy Helen. Or so he thinks. The voice on the other end of the line tells him that they have proof of what happened that fateful night. But are willing to sell it to him for a price. What a relief. Whoever has been stalking them and leaving notes only wants money? Money, he can do. He agrees to meet him outside and as fireworks fill up the night sky, he is shot in the stomach; the bullet hitting his spine.

The trickle-down effects of this moment paint the rest of our story as Barry’s overprotective mother then takes control of his life. As Barry fights for his life in the hospital she blames Helen, whom she never wanted Barry to date anyway. Eventually, Helen relies on her new, doting friend Ollie for emotional support.

Meanwhile, Ray is still trying to win Julie back, despite her continuing to date Bud. With the attack on Barry frightening all of them, they start to desperately investigate who is behind it. Julie and Ray visit the boys’ parents (the Anne Heche scene in the film) to see if they are possibly behind this but are instead greeted with more guilt and misery. They learn the mother is in a mental hospital after blaming herself for her boy dying that night (she refused to pick him up from his friend’s home the night of the accident). The dad is there taking care of her, and the sister is left to deal with taking care of the home and bills all alone.

Maybe the biggest change of all is the upcoming twist. As Helen returns from a swim she finds her new friend Collie waiting for her in her apartment. He’s acting very suspicious and we quickly learn… it’s killer reveal time! Collie explains that he is the older brother of the little boy the group had accidentally killed. He had returned home from the war and wanted revenge on the teens who killed his brother and ruined his family. He tracked each of them down after realizing that one set of flowers sent to his brother’s funeral didn’t have a name on it. He found that odd and incriminating, so he simply asked the local florist who had sent them: Julie James. Collie then slipped the “I know what you did last summer” note into her mailbox and followed her next movements to discover the entire group was culpable.

But wait a second….

Didn’t I say Bud was the war veteran? Get ready for this….BUD IS COLLIE! Finkel is Einhorn! His little brother was unable to pronounce his full name, Collingsworth, as a kid, so he just called him Bud. And Bud was about to kill everyone. While the book doesn’t treat us to the great chase scene we get with the fisherman and Sarah Michelle Gellar in the film, the dialogue in this reveal scene is fascinating and we do get a bit of a slasher movie moment here. Helen escapes to the bathroom and locks the door. Everything goes silent before she starts hearing a strange noise and realizes that he is calmly taking the door off of its hinges. She’s able to escape by breaking a small window semi-high up in her apartment complex and climbing out of it. Meanwhile, Julie (who nobody can reach on the phone) prepares for her date that night with Bud.

Bud then shows up at Julie’s house and gives her the motive reveal speech as well before beginning to strangle her in her driveway. Just as she starts to go unconscious, Ray (who has cracked the case on his own) comes out of nowhere and beats the guy in the head with a flashlight. The cops show up and everyone lives. The group (including Barry, who has regained the use of his legs) agrees to break the pact and come clean to the police about everything and the book comes to a rather abrupt end.

I Know What You Did Last Summer is a very enjoyable, quick, and suspenseful read. Just don’t go into it expecting the ’90s teen slasher movie you’ve already got inside your head.

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