I think a lot of people have heard of “I Know What You Did Last Summer”. Maybe some people have seen the popular film (1997) or read the book the film was loosely based on (1973). The premise is chilling: four friends do something very bad, by accident, and make a pact never to speak of it again, but then a year later they receive threatening messages and it is clear someone knows what they did, and wants them to pay the ultimate price for it. The idea makes me quiver in the ‘oh so good’ kind of way. It allows the ‘heroes’ to be deeply flawed from the very beginning and is the ultimate game of cat and mouse. That being said, the movie was very different from the book. It has the same characters, same idea and even some of the same suspenseful moments, but everything else is a new and original interpretation or take on the book. I have to warn anyone reading this: this post includes spoilers for the book and the movie. You have been warned! 😉
Being the book nerd that I am, I tend to prefer books over the movies they inspire, almost always… almost. “I Know What You Did Last Summer” is one of the exceptions, but not for the reasons most people would probably think. First, let me say I loved both the book and the movie. I saw the movie when it was first released on DVD, and I just read the book a few weeks ago. (I know, usually I am also a stickler for reading the book first, but the movie is what made me aware of the book’s existence in the first place. It was published more than a decade before I was born. I also should state that I unknowingly read the updated version, which featured email and text messages, etc. but the book was updated by Lois Duncan herself and in an interview she states that only fashions and the use of modern technology were changed. The plot, characters and actual story all stayed the same, with the exception of these small details.) I love YA thrillers, I have an entire blog segment devoted to them (half of my guilty pleasure posts are on the Fear Street series, the ultimate YA thriller series), but this book’s chills just seemed a bit tame for my tastes. It was creepy, more than it was suspenseful. I didn’t feel fear for any of the characters and I figured out who the killer was just a few chapters into the book (the movie and the book have different killers with different motives so if you have seen or read one but not experienced the other, you can still be surprised).
The book and the movie begin in a very similar fashion. Four friends: Julie James (Jennifer Love Hewitt), Helen Shivers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Barry Cox (Ryan Phillippe) and Ray Bronson (Freddie Prinze Jr.) are celebrating (in the book it is graduation, in the movie, Helen’s beauty contest win) and on the way home when they hit someone – Barry is driving in both the book and the movie. Then things get different. In the movie the four dump the body in the ocean, worried someone will track it to them, and in the movie there is a moment when you don’t believe the person they are dumping is dead. But in the book the person they hit is definitely dead and they simply drive away, so it is a hit and run, not a conspiracy to get rid of a body. In both the book and the movie, they figure out who they hit after the fact because of local papers (they live in a small town). In the book it was a young child, in the movie a boy a few years older than themselves.
There are many things in the beginning that the book and the movie have in common (or where the movie was true to the book). Julie is the only one who does not want to form a pact and wants to go to the police right away. In the book she wants to stop and help whoever they hit, rather than drive away. Ray also wants to do the right thing, but caves under pressure from Barry and Helen. Barry is (language alert!) an asshole in both the book and the movie. Both the movie and the book offer a case of mistaken identity (in the book it is the killer, the movie it is the original victim). Finally, in both it all begins with a letter sent to Julie, written in black marker with no return address. Inside is a note that says, “I know what you did last summer.” From this point on though, there are little (if any) similarities between the book and the movie.
I found the movie to be much more ‘thrilling’ and suspenseful. I was freaked out – pure and simple. It wasn’t the blood factor, because to be honest I am not a person who appreciates gore. In fact, I have a love/hate relationship with horror films or thrillers because while l enjoy a good mystery and suspense, I am a total wuss. I have to have a pillow or something to cover my face and only peek out every now and then when watching such a film. I will only watch them in my own house, with my husband, while the sun is still up. So, I am definitely not a horror film buff or someone who loves to see people butchered for entertainment purposes, but the truth is more happened in the film than in the book.
The book is praised by readers, writers and critics alike, even to this day, and while it is fantastic, I guess I was expecting phenomenal. In the book, the four friends receive threatening (taunting is more like it) notes and newspaper clippings, which lets them know that someone knows what they did last summer. One of them is shot, but not permanently injured or killed (it just takes this character out of the picture for the rest of the book), but besides that, until the very end, the killer just watches and observes. No threatening phone calls, no other creepy calling cards, and no way to raise the stakes. The idea is creepy and as far as I know, back in 1973, Lois Duncan was the first person to play with this idea. That is incredible, and perhaps for the seventies, a few notes and newspaper clippings meant serious thrills, but it left me without the sense of urgency that is one of the main points of a thriller. I was not scared, but I was not even nervous. The big twist comes at the end, in terms of who the killer is and his/her motivations, but I had already figured that out, so while I appreciated what Duncan did, it did not have the pay off that I would have liked.
The movie took Duncan’s characters and idea and merged it with the urban legend of a fishermen hook killer. I think everyone has heard some kind of version of a killer with a hook for a hand or who simply kills with a hook, who hunts down local teenagers and… well you get the drift. The movie packs several suspenseful punches throughout the film. First of all, the killer didn’t just sit and wait for his big finish. The four friends (except for Ray, because the killer wanted his friends to suspect him) were constantly put in danger and stalked. The killer left behind frightening messages so they knew he was after them. Barry is almost run over by his own car, after he goes to look for his jacket, which was stolen out of his locker while he was in the showers. Then Julie opens her trunk to find one of her friends murdered and stuffed in her trunk, wearing Barry’s stolen jacket. Perhaps my favorite scene or example of ‘oh shit’ is when Helen wakes up to find the crown she won in a local beauty pageant, on the night the accidently killed someone, on her head. As she takes it off in confusion, a lot of her hair comes off with it. She realizes in horror that her waist-length hair has been chopped off (in a very uneven, messy way might I add, say maybe with a hook) and she looks in the mirror to see the word, “SOON” written on it, in red lipstick. Now that is suspense.
I won’t lie and say some sort of body count didn’t help the film, but I didn’t need blood, gore, or a lot of bodies to get scared. To be honest, I think if the killer did the same things, but didn’t kill anyone I would still have been freaked out. I mean waking up to your hair being hacked off, being run down by a car – those are the scary parts. And there was a buildup, in the movie these stunts weren’t saved for the very end, like they were in the book, and even the final showdown in the book seems somewhat subdued. I have no doubt that forty years ago, this seemed more chilling than it does today. Perhaps my generation is desensitized to such things. Maybe, the movie ruined me; because it did set an expectation the book didn’t quite reach. If the characters had been placed in imminent danger from the start, if the killer in the book played with the kids, taunted them and made them feel real fear more, like he did in the movie, then no one would have to die, no blood would need to be spilt for the book to measure up to the movie. It wasn’t the violence that made me love the movie, it was the danger, the genuine threat of who, what, when, where, why, how and who will survive in the end?