The Reese Witherspoon-headlined romcom Sweet Home Alabama nearly took a bit of a dark turn.

Spoiler warning: the ending of Sweet Home Alabama is directly discussed towards the end of this article.

Reese Witherspoon was at the height of her box office powers when she decided to take the lead in Sweet Home Alabama. By this stage in the early 2000s, she’d built a career quickly and impressively off a mix of very smart choices and very savvy commercial picks. And Sweet Home Alabama, on the surface a pretty frothy romantic comedy, would cement her place as a hugely successful leading actor.

The film was directed by Andy Tennant, from a screenplay by C Jay Cox (with story credit going to Douglas J Epoch), and it tells the story of Melanie Smooter, a woman who left her home in Alabama for New York City. There, she became a socialite, but after nearly a decade away, she needs to come back home to secure a divorce from her husband.

Witherspoon landed the lead role ahead of Charlize Theron, who was also considered, and the movie – which co-stars Josh Lucas and Patrick Dempsey – then plays out as something of a fairy tale. It – going as spoiler light as I can (spoilers start shortly) – follows a fairly predictable three act approach, ending roughly where most of us expected it to end.

And that’s just what the movie-going audience was looking for back in 2002. The film cost some $30m, and would gross $127m in the US alone, off the back of a massive $35m opening in September of that year. These numbers may not look so striking now, but they were, in the context of 17 years ago, really quite something.

But there’s still something of a case of what-if here.

This is the bit where we go spoiler-y.

The film ultimately ends with Witherspoon’s character staying with her ex-husband, and the pair of them get married again. Yet a different denouement was filmed that would have seen the pair embracing – only to be promptly struck by lightning.

The ending was included on the DVD of the film, and it’d be fair to say that at first, it’s something of a shock. About as unconventional as you can get for the end of what’s effectively a fairy tale romantic comedy. What happens next undermines that ending, though, as her husband seemingly carries the corpse of Melanie back into the wedding reception and announces that she’s dead.

Imagine if the credits had rolled at just that point.

Turns out this incredibly dark turn was intended in the original script as a joke, though. For it’s used as a device to announce that Melanie under her old surname is dead, and Melanie under her new surname is alive. That would hardly have played well in 2002, and it’d be a fair bet it’d knock even more progressive audiences today pretty much off their feet.

Director Andy Tennant did test the ending too, ultimately conceding that “no one though it was funny”. Apparently, the clincher was the moment when “the parents were looking at their dead daughter” didn’t get any laughs.

As such, Sweet Home Alabama went out in cinemas with a finale that tied things up in a nice, conventional bow, and much money was made. But in a parallel universe somewhere, the alternative version went out….

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