Back to the Future: Comparing the 1981 Script to the 1985 Movie
Let me start by saying that, like any other typical 80s kid, I have always loved this movie. I was 10 when it came out in theatres and I remember thinking it was awesome (or maybe I thought it was “rad” back then with my crimped hair and legwarmers). It was so much fun to watch back then and again now at 37 with my daughter. That said; I’d never read the screenplay—any version of it—until now. So this time, as my 4-year-old watched on and fell in love with the movie, too, I sat beside her with the 1981 version of the script and a red pen so I could catch the “important differences.” This was no easy task either because there were a lot of differences!
There were a ton of little differences and seemingly minor inconsistencies like character names (in particular these: Doc Brown/Professor Brown, Lorraine/Eileen, Jennifer/Susie), setting descriptions (like the town and even the high school) and details like the years of departure/arrival but there were also some pretty major differences, too, like the time machine itself which in 1981’s script wasn’t even a car. It was a refrigerator. That would have been far less exciting and much harder to work with than the movie version’s DeLorean!
Another major difference between the two versions is how the protagonist was painted. In both versions, Marty McFly was a teen and aspiring musician but in the 1981 version he also illegally pirated movies and liked to gamble. While Michael J Fox’s character of Marty came across at times as cocky, bold and even smart-allicky, he was always likable and he had a strong character arc (so did his dad) while the 1981 script version of Marty was written as far more of a self-involved jerk. The 1985 movie painted Marty as a smart, sometimes sarcastic but still likeable honest teen with good intentions while 1981’s version painted him as greedy, sly and with negative intentions. In the 1981 version, Marty was not a very likable character but in the 1985 movie, Marty was a believable hero, a teen heartthrob worthy of the cover of any teen magazine.
Marty was also an only child in the 1981 script while he had a brother and sister in the 1985 version. Without them, Marty would have been left, as originally written, as an egocentric teen who only cared about himself and therefore who would have even cared what became of him? By adding the siblings, there was an instant increased motivation for Marty who didn’t want to lose his brother and sister who he clearly cared about very much. The fact that he cared about his family added a new layer to his character and made him instantly more endearing to the viewers, too, because we see him as someone who cares. Also, as the photo with Marty and his siblings began to fade in the movie, it added an element of fighting against the clock that wasn’t previously there. It also gave Marty more to lose and that naturally increased the drama.
Regarding Marty’s parents, one of the biggest differences between the two versions is how they fall in love. In the 1981 version Marty’s mom fell in love with George after he spilled his corn while trying to ask her out in the school cafeteria. Really? How boring! And not a bit believable. We’re supposed to believe that moment made her fall so hard for him that she married him? I don’t buy it. Who would? But in the movie version, they fell in love after Lorraine’s dad hit George with his car, causing Eileen to instantly fall in love with him (this was even explained later by Doc as an actual medical syndrome making it even more believable). This is also a huge part of the plot because when Michael J Fox’s Marty goes back in time his arrival stops that from happening and he essentially takes his father’s place as the person his mom falls for. This is a big deal for poor Marty because his mom is falling in love with him (how awful!) and in doing so he’s unintentionally pushing his own father further and further out of the picture, which in turn is totally changing his situation, his life and his family. What a great conflict!
Aside from the fact that both finales took place after the big dance scene and with the hopes of saving Marty’s mentor Doc/Professor Brown, otherwise the finales in the two versions are totally different. Of course, the 1985 version wins again with its exciting race against time as Doc and Marty need to set up the clock/lightning scene in the town square, while in the 1981 version Marty raced against time too but on a multi-state cross country trip. In the future, the final image in the 1985 version is far more satisfying and less confusing than the 1981 version. I still don’t get why or how George ended up a professional boxer in the 1981 version. How odd.
In terms of structure, the 1985 movie version flowed better than the 1981 script. The 1981 script, at times, seemed to drag on and on and there were many elements stuffed into it that didn’t seem to serve any purpose, either to the characters or to push the story forward. There was a lot about it that felt stale to me, especially in comparison to the fresh, fun and funny 1985 movie version. Many of these changes made between 1981 and 1985 were strategically made for the benefit of the film, its characters and its viewers. What often felt convenient or forced in the 1981 version came together better in the 1985 version and led to a smoother, more believable experience.
Hip-hip-hooray for the revision process because all of these subtle and not-so-subtle changes made Back to the Future a far better script and a pretty awesome (sorry, I mean rad) movie.