Lois Duncan really didn’t like the 1997 film adaptation of her book, I Know What You Did Last Summer. In fact, according to the Q&A section at the back of the revised edition of her book, she said the movie was a “shock” to her:
“…I had expected it to be my story, and it wasn’t. It was my characters and my plot gimmick, but then it went in all directions.”
She went on to say that she had nothing to do with the film: “They kept me as far away as possible. I think they were afraid of how I might react if I realized what my little masterpiece was going to turn into.”
I’ve seen I Know What You Did Last Summer many times. I was a teenager when it was released, and slasher films were having a bit of a moment thanks to the success of Scream. According to IMDb, Kevin Williamson wrote the script for I Know What You Did Last Summer before Scream but had trouble selling it. It was only after Scream starting making money that he was able to get it made.
At the time I Know What You Did Last Summer came out and for years after, I had no clue that it was based on a book. So when I saw Lois Duncan’s novel at the library, I couldn’t resist reading it. Now that I have, I’m not at all surprised to hear of Duncan’s disappointment in the film. When she first heard that they were going to make a movie of her book, she was thrilled. It would likely renew some interest in her backlist (she’s written over 50 books), plus I’m sure the paycheque wasn’t too bad either. But I’ve looked at many book-to-film adaptations over the years and I have to say that this movie version is so radically different from the book that it almost seems strange to call it an adaptation. So I can understand the shock Duncan must have felt when she saw what they did to her book.
We might as well start with the most obvious difference. If you’ve seen the movie you’ll remember the crazy fisherman with the ice hook, since he plays a pretty major part in the story. But guess what? That hook guy doesn’t even exist in the book. So while the movie is creepy right from the beginning, the book is actually kind of sad because Barry, Helen, Julie and Ray hit and kill a kid on his bike instead of an adult (who then later turns out to be a psychopathic killer). And unlike in the film where the guy they hit comes back to seek revenge, the kid they hit is very much dead. So, as you can imagine, the tone of the book is pretty somber at the beginning.
It starts to resemble the plot of the movie after Barry gets shot (he survives), because that’s when they start to piece together that maybe the attack on Barry was somehow connected to what they refer to as “the accident”. There is a note in the mail, a newspaper clipping, a magazine picture taped to a door. Although in the book they think that the family of the boy they killed might have something to do with it.
There are some character differences that I noticed as well. Barry is kind of an asshole in both versions, but I found him to be even worse in the book. He doesn’t seem to have any affection for Helen at all, and he says stuff like “Girls like her are a dime a dozen, and I happen to have a pocket full of dimes.” Also, Helen’s sister Elsa plays a bigger part in the book. She is described as not nearly as pretty as Helen, a “heavily built girl” who seems bitter about that fact. In the movie, Elsa is played by Bridgette Wilson who doesn’t exactly fit that description. The book also puts more of a focus on the parents. There was one nice moment in the book where Julie is in the kitchen with her mom and all of a sudden notices that her mom is getting older. Now she has grey hair and the veins are standing out on her hands more than they did before. This seemed like such an interesting detail to include, and I can remember when I first noticed this on my mother as well.
The dialogue felt a bit stiff throughout the book. At one point Helen is talking about Barry and she says: “He’s just so marvelous!” Does anyone talk like that? Then I realized that the book was written in 1973 and it all made sense. Lois Duncan updated the version I read in the 90s to include mentions of Starbucks, cell phones, and the Iraq War. Even wardrobe choices were updated. In the original, Helen wears a blue pantsuit. In the updated version her outfit becomes blue pants and a blouse with a chunky necklace. Despite the updates, the book still reads quite “old”, complete with slightly sexist undertones throughout (references women having jobs as though it’s a big deal). I think it would have been better to leave it as it was written in the 70s.
Another key difference between the book and the movie is the character of Collingsworth Wilson. He doesn’t exist in the movie but is a pretty major character in the book. After Collingsworth “cracked up over in Iraq” he comes home to find out that his kid brother is dead and his mother is in an institution. His kid brother is, of course, the same boy our four leads have killed, but the reader doesn’t find this out until close to the end of the book when Collie decides to get rid of the spoiled kids who ruined his whole life. But unlike in the movie, all four characters survive in the book.
About three quarters of the way through the book I got the sneaking suspicion that this was a morality tale about telling the truth. Like if these kids had just been honest from the very beginning and gone to the police, they could have avoided the whole mess. And instead of ending with a jump scare like the film (I STILL KNOW), in the book all four characters confess what they did and the book ends before we find out what happens to them. I have to admit that by the time I got to the end of the book, I didn’t really care what had happened to them. They had all proven themselves to be pretty awful people so I was just glad that I didn’t have to spend any more time with them. And things got pretty corny in those last few pages. When I read the final lines of the book I actually said “Oh yuck” out loud.
Lois Duncan’s I Know What You Did Last Summer gets better reviews than its adaptation, but I’ll admit that the slasher movie holds a special place in my heart. I would never call it a good movie, but I had more fun watching (and rewatching) it than I did reading the book, so it wins this particular book vs movie faux contest. Even though I like the movie, I also like making fun of it. If you know what I mean, watch this hilarious roundup of Everything Wrong with I Know What You Did Last Summer.