Last summer, on their way home from partying, Barry, Helen, Julie and Ray hit a stranger with their car and left him for dead. Now it’s summer again, and someone has discovered the truth; someone who will stop at nothing in their quest for revenge.
I Know What You Did Last Summer will always have a special place in my heart. It was the first teenage horror movie I ever saw and was the film that got me hooked (no pun intended) on horror. As an added bonus, it also alerted me to the existence of YA suspense legend Lois Duncan, whose novel upon which the movie was based and got me to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, due to the Sarah Michelle Gellar connection. Not bad for a 100 minute teen film. But does that mean that it’s better than the book upon which it was based?
Author: Lois Duncan
Having read a number of Lois Duncan’s books over the years, I don’t consider I Know What You Did Last Summer to be one of her better efforts. Although it’s an interesting character study, not all that much really happens. The novel begins with Julie receiving a letter with the titular message, so the hit and run accident at the centre of the story is only ever described (briefly) in flash-back. With the exception of the hit and run victim (in this case, a young boy riding his bike home in the dark), no one even dies in the book. And worst of all, the ending is weak and rushed. After waiting for over 200 pages, the “final showdown” with the villain happens while one of the main characters is unconscious and we are merely told about what happened when she wakes up. I’m guessing that Duncan’s intention was to have the book’s focus be on the main characters learning to take responsibility for what they did (which – spoiler - they do), instead of on action and violence, but for readers who have spent years watching teenage horror films, it’s all rather disappointing.
The Movie (1997)
Lois Duncan has made no secret of the fact that she hated this adaptation of her novel. Duncan, whose own daughter was violently murdered, didn’t like her novel being turned into a slasher film that sensationalized violence and murder. She believed that the only similarities between her book and the movie were the names of the main characters and the basic idea of teenagers being stalked as revenge for a hit and run accident. It’s true that major changes were made in bringing her novel to the big screen – most notably, in that the movie is more a hybrid of the source book and the urban legend of the guy with the hook, than a straight adaptation. However, there are actually more similarities between the book and the movie than Duncan seems to realise.
The majority of the key plot points from Duncan’s novel are still present in the movie, but in a more visually entertaining form. For example, the movie opens by showing us the hit and run accident and the main characters making their fateful decision not to call the police, rather than just hiding this away in a flashback. Furthermore, like Duncan’s book, for the most part, the film functions as a suspense thriller, with only one death (other than the initial hit-and-run) prior to the last twenty or so minutes of the film and even then, that one death had to be added in re-shoots to prove to the audience that the killer posed a tangible threat to the main characters. It’s only in the movie’s final act that it really becomes a true horror film, with Duncan’s story giving way to the hook guy on his murderous rampage, and given the lameness of Duncan’s own ending, that’s perfectly justified.
Overall, writer Kevin Williamson took a mediocre teen horror novel and transformed it into something much, much better. Although, it is not as well remembered as Williamson’s other hit, Scream, it was successful enough to spawn two sequels (one OK, the other terrible), and I’m sure it didn’t hurt the sales of Duncan’s books, either.
Who says the book is always better than the movie? I admit that I’m biased when it comes to this one, but even allowing for that, the movie is still way better than the book. If you’re interested in reading a Lois Duncan book, try starting with Down a Dark Hall or Gallows Hill instead.