The 1985 comedy Clue had an innovative idea for its endings that might just have cost it big screen success – yet ensures it’s endured.
It’s Boxing Day. You’ve just had turkey leftovers for lunch, and you followed it up with a large helping of Christmas pudding. The heating is on, you’ve opened a box of Celebrations and you’re all gathered round the dining room table to play a game. What are you playing?
For many, it’s Cluedo. The board game is one of the all-time classics after all: a mixture of eclectic characters, secret tunnels, candlesticks and lead piping, billiard rooms, and a dead body at the centre of it all. Such was the success of it that it was little surprise when in the mid-80s Hollywood came calling, with a plan to turn the popular family game into a movie which would capture the same delight as its boarded predecessor.
But as we all know, just because it’s Hollywood doesn’t mean that it will have a happy ending…maybe it will have more?
It’s worth noting before we get too deeply into this the name differential by the way. Depending on where you’re from, the board game itself resides under different monikers. In the UK, it’s called Cluedo. In the US and Canada, it’s called Clue, and in other countries, it’s called different names entirely (Detetive is its title in Brazil).
Of course, the American market tends to win out where Hollywood is concerned, so we’re stuck with the name Clue. The film uses that market’s version of the characters as well, which means that rather than Dr Black being the murder victim, we’re talking about Mr Boddy instead. Still, those differences aside, the heart of the film broadly follows the game’s set-up.
Unfortunately, Hollywood has something of a reputation for box-office failures when adapting board games (which continues to this day) and Clue was no exception.
The film – directed by Brit Jonathan Lynn – struggled on its release, grossing less in North America than its overall production budget, on the back of poor to middling reviews from the critics. This was despite a screenplay by John Landis, the star power of Tim Curry and Christopher Lloyd, and a release over the Christmas season that would seem to be the perfect timing for this type of film.
Despite the initial disappointment though, the film has since garnered a cult following in the intervening years, and this is for a few reasons. But I’d suggest it’s sizeably – outside of the fact it’s a fun movie – down to the concept of the multiple endings for the movie that John Landis came up with, harking back to the concept of the board game which has a different outcome every time you play it.
The outline of the film is relatively faithful to the original. Six strangers arrive at a mansion and are welcomed by Wadsworth, the butler, who prescribes them a pseudonym matching the game’s characters: Colonel Mustard, Mrs Peacock, Miss Scarlet, Mrs White, Mr Green and Professor Plum.
Each has a secret, and this is exposed by the arrival of a seventh guest, a Mr Boddy. Wadsworth tells the guests that My Boddy has been blackmailing them all. Mr Boddy gives them all a weapon, turns the light out and a shot is fired. When the lights come back on, Mr Boddy is very much deceased, but there is no obvious cause of death.
The cook is next (who is not Mrs White), and Mr Boddy’s body disappears. Whilst searching the house and all the rooms, further murders take place before both Wadsworth finally turns the light back on and reveals that he has an explanation for who the murderer is.
This is where the film plays its trump card. It’s rare to find a film – especially a cinematically released one – that would offer up a choice of endings. Narrative structures and plot devices are carefully planned in advance, often across multiple films, and alternative outcomes are generally not entertained.
This though is the sheer delight of Clue, and what sets it apart from other board game adaptations. Split into versions A, B, and C, each provides a (mostly) rational solution for the events of the film, growing in complexity and looniness as they are relayed, from a relatively simple explanation to an unlikely set of circumstances and reasoning.
The idea that there even could be multiple resolutions is a touch of genius, designed to keep the audience guessing, and it was used as a key marketing gimmick.
For the initial theatrical release, prints were sent out to cinemas with one of three different denouements in place (there was a fourth filmed, but it never made the final cut). It was meant to surprise, and to encourage audience-goers to return and watch the film again, as each time they would see a new murderer and explanation for what they saw.
The problem was that they didn’t.
Who wants to see a movie three times on the basis that the last ten minutes will be new material? Do I really want to sit through it all again? The film critic Roger Ebert put his finger on the problem perfectly: “why doesn’t the studio abandon the ridiculous multiple-ending scheme and show all three endings at every theater? It would be more fun that way.”
Ironically, this is why the film is so beloved nowadays. If you rent or watch the film now, you’ll get the version with all the multiple endings one after the other at the end of the film. It’s up to you which one you believe.
Watching all the endings one after the other also makes it clearer how good the writing is. To be able to end any movie in three distinctly contrasting ways from one coherent narrative is a challenge. To do so whilst fitting in the litany of rooms, murder weapons and characters is even more so.
There’s even talk of a remake, though that has been on the cards for at least a decade, and it seems to be stuck in pre-development purgatory. Numerous directors have been attached and unattached, and at one point it was even suggested that it could go global.
I’m not sure how that fits in with the original country mansion theme of the game, but maybe I’m just being old-fashioned. It would be a shame if a piece of lead piping wasn’t a murder weapon though. Perhaps Rian Johnson could give it a go when he’s done with the Knives Out films?
In hindsight though, maybe Ebert had it: it’s a pity that the three endings weren’t in the film from the start. I think it would have helped the film at the box office, and the marketing gimmick could still have worked. As it is, it’s taken far longer for it to have sunk deep enough into the cinematic consciousness to be regarded as a classic.
But a classic it is, and it’s also a great family film to watch over the Christmas season. Surprisingly for a Hollywood movie full of murder, there’s no swearing and no nudity. It’s therefore as perfect a complement to turkey sandwiches on Boxing Day afternoon as playing the game itself.
That’s my Christmas sorted. Three times over….
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