Paramount Pictures was originally set to adapt Twilight with Bella Swan as a vampire-hunting, jet-skiing star athlete – here’s what went wrong.

Whether you like or lump Twilight, the 2008 film adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s young-adult vampire romance was a landmark for modern Hollywood. As well as making stars of Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Anna Kendrick and others, the modestly budgeted teen film put indie studio Summit Entertainment on the map and spawned a multi-billion-dollar franchise too.

So, it’s understandable that the film and its subsequent success is reportedly a sore point for those who were in executive positions at Paramount Pictures at the point where they put Twilight into turnaround and let the option lapse. For a studio that’s still relatively short on tentpole franchises compared to the rest of the Big Five majors, the project was one of those movies that got away.

Producer Greg Mooradian first brought Meyer’s manuscript to MTV Films in 2004, seeing the crossover potential in the small-town supernatural romance between 17-year-old wallflower Bella Swan and vampiric centenarian Edward Cullen. Paramount’s co-president of production Karen Rosenfelt duly optioned the rights for MTV, and screenwriter Mark Lord was set to adapt the novel.

Had the film made it to our screens back then, it would have been a very different story. Here’s how the first Twilight movie almost ended with the FBI chasing evil vampires on jet skis…

Twilight on jet skis

At the peak of the Hollywood scramble for literary fantasy properties to capitalise on the success of the Harry Potter movies, the early interest in acquiring Twilight makes a lot of sense. With the Blade and Underworld movies emerging too, we can understand the impulse to adapt it along similar lines to those films instead, but the script MTV and Paramount had didn’t necessarily go the right way about it.

From what is known about Lord’s draft, the action-packed take that was in development differed drastically from both the source material and the film we eventually got. Apparently, the script’s heroine was more Buffy than Bella, wielding guns and night-vision goggles and casually hanging out with the villainous vampires. The script also would have ended with her being turned into a vampire, a transformation that doesn’t take place until much later in Meyer’s books.

According to Catherine Hardwicke, who helmed the 2008 film, the draft “kind of turned into Charlie’s Angels.

Hardwicke told The Los Angeles Times “the very first thing in the script said that Bella was a track star. She’s obviously not a track star so the first moment you’re like whoa. And then she’s sitting in a diner with James and the bad vampires in the first couple pages.

“And there’s this whole FBI organization that’s tracking these bad vampires, the nomadic vampires, as they go down from Canada to Mexico. I mean, it’s pretty way out. And by the end, the FBI is chasing them around on jet skis out in the ocean.”

In another interview with Media Blvd Magazine in 2008, Meyer chipped in that “they could have put that movie out, called it something else, and no one would have known it was Twilight!”

While Rosenfelt championed the project and attempted to secure co-production deals at 20th Century Fox’s divisions Fox 2000 and Fox Atomic, the approach to adapting the story speaks to other executives’ lack of faith in the film. MTV Films president Brad Weston had come off overseeing the teen werewolf flop Cursed at Dimension Films and was doubtful of Twilight’s commercial prospects.

The other problem was that MTV Films didn’t have the budget to greenlight the project and had to run the film up the mountain to the Paramount executives who had the final say. Rosenfelt left the studio when Brad Grey took over from studio chairman and CEO Sherry Lansing in 2005. By January 2006, the studio put the film in turnaround, and in April 2007, they let the rights lapse altogether.

Reaching Summit

Within months, Paramount execs must have been kicking themselves. Meyer’s novel was published in 2005 to lukewarm reviews and steadily increasing sales, and was followed by a sequel, New Moon, in 2006. When the third instalment, Eclipse, hit bookshelves in August 2007, it toppled the newly released Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows from the peak of the bestsellers charts. The Twilight fanbase had landed.

Since Paramount had released its option on the series, Summit Entertainment had snapped the rights up. The small distribution outfit had been slowly gearing up to mini-studio status since 2001, with production chief Erik Feig overseeing an array of mainstream films for wide release. Now free, Rosenfelt met Feig for lunch in 2006 and told him that of all the projects she wished she could have made, she thought Twilight had the biggest potential.

Summit hired Hardwicke, then best known for Thirteen and The Lords Of Dogtown, to direct and tasked Melissa Rosenberg with writing the script. Seeing Warner Bros’ success in working with JK Rowling on the Potter films, the studio welcomed Meyer’s input in development.

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In the six weeks before the Writers’ Guild Of America strike kicked in, Rosenberg and Hardwicke came up with a more faithful adaptation, with no guns, jet-skis, or FBI agents in sight. Filming took place in April 2008 for a November release date, when the tentpole schedule was relatively fallow as a result of the previous year’s scripting shutdown.

That’s one of the reasons the film paid off massively for Summit, earning more than $400 million worldwide on a $38m budget. The studio’s 2008 slate had included smaller films like Never Back Down and Sex Drive, but mostly off Twilight’s performance, Summit ranked eighth among the highest-grossing Hollywood studios for the year.

If Cursed was the model for Paramount’s Twilight before the novel was published, that’s likely how it would have wound up. Instead, the more reverent adaptations (all scripted by Rosenberg) wound up making more than $3 billion altogether. For better or worse, the franchise also became the post-Potter lodestone for a whole sub-genre of supernatural romance films geared towards a hitherto underserved female audience.

Yes, in the immediate aftermath, that included 2011’s Beastly, a Paramount-backed project based on a superficial millennial update of La Belle Et La Bête, but the Twilight effect also arguably extends to 2018’s Every Day, an underrated teen sci-fi romance starring Angourie Rice and an assortment of Quantum Leap-ing love interests.

Producers saw potential in Meyer’s tale, but didn’t want to make it that way, and it’s funny to think, had that film been made, it would look like such an anomaly in the wake of the books’ anticipated success and popularity with their target audience.

As we say, you can like or lump the movies, but for all their flaws, they broadened the scope of tentpole cinema far more than a Charlie’s Angels meets Underworld knock-off would have…

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