Let me tell you about the ending of Being John Malkovich.
For a long time prior to 1999, the spec script by Charlie Kaufman bounced around Hollywood without causing much hubbub. Kaufman’s 1994 draft made no mention of John Malkovich whatsoever, and only after two years and dozens of refusals did eventual director Spike Jonze get ahold of the screenplay. Jonze was primarily a music video director at the time and had never directed a feature film before, but clearly something about Being John Malkovich piqued his interest. He brought it to Propaganda Films and a year later casting was underway.
At this point, though, Being John Malkovich had a final act that was so bonkers and off-the-wall wild that, frankly, it put the rest of the bonkers and off-the-wall wild film to shame. The Being John Malkovich that we know ends on a subdued, somber note, uncomfortably tragic, undoubtedly affecting. Craig, the puppeteer played by John Cusack, abuses the magic portal to John Malkovich’s brain and becomes trapped in the next “vessel”, the brain of a prepubescent girl, from where he presumably is forced to watch her life unfold as a caged and powerless homunculus. The original draft of Malkovich didn’t have this muted, chilling conclusion – instead, it had chainsaw juggling, human-chimp intimacy, a reincarnated Harry Truman battling a firebreathing Malkovich, Kevin Bacon, and the Devil himself.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the final film is the extended time during which Craig lives inside Malkovich’s body, retiring him from acting and turning him into a famous puppeteer instead. The fascinating part, of course, is that Craig’s parasitic assumption of Malkovich’s body is essentially tantamount to using the actor as a life-sized puppet – and in the original script, Craig actually reveals this to the world. Rather than use Malkovich as a puppeteer, he uses him as a puppet. There’s a one-man show in Vegas Craig does where he has Malkovich juggle chainsaws, billed as “the world’s most complicated puppet”.
In this original draft Craig has a pupeteering rival in the form of The Great Mantini, famous for his puppet biography of President Truman. Mantini, jealous of Craig’s recent success with his Malkovich puppet, challenges him to a duel. They’re to perform Equus onstage together – Craig vs. Mantini, Malkovich vs. Truman – and the best performer will retain the crown of the puppeteering community. Prestigious stuff.
But wait! Merton Flemmer, keeper of the vessel that is the brain of John Malkovich, is slightly different in this version inasmuch as Flemmer is the Devil. The actual Devil. At one point during Equus Flemmer/Satan assumes the Truman puppet because – as is the case in the final version of BJM – Craig is hogging the real vessel. His actions in the Truman puppet – which include turning into a swan, bursting into flames, bringing the actual Harry Truman back to life, etc. – win the competition for The Great Mantini. Craig leaves Malkovich at long last, and Devil and Co. move right in like a pack of squatters. Super Devil John Malkovich is now unstoppable, and he essentially heralds the end of the world.
Oh, and Lotte (played by Cameron Diaz in the movie) falls in love with Elijah the chimpanzee. There is a passionate make-out session.
So the ending of the original draft of Being John Malkovich didn’t really resemble the final cut ending at all. Sure, you could chalk this up to financial issues – one can imagine the budget required to realize Reincarnated Truman, Super World-Ending Flemmer Devil, and the colossal amount of money it would’ve taken to convince John Malkovich to be a part of the thing at all. But it’s probably a more accurate assumption to ascribe the massive changes to Kaufman’s writing process. His original draft for the 2002 film Adaptation. featured some similarly weird stuff as the original BJM draft, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was originally meant to conclude with a flash-forward to when Joel and Clementine, now elderly, are nevertheless still wiping their memories of each other and getting back together. All of Kaufman’s scripts go through this gauntlet and usually tend to be different beasts upon completion of the actual film.
And the changes were Kaufman’s, rather than the director’s or someone else’s. Kaufman has stated his desire to be “involved from beginning to end”, and directors like Spike Jonze – with whom Kaufman remind close friends after BJM – understand this desire. Both the fact that Kaufman is willing to hammer his own works until they are right and the fact that he remains involved during shooting speak to his process on the whole, and that level of care is very nearly as unconventional as Kaufman’s style.
Would Being John Malkovich have been better with the original ending? Probably not. Either way you cut it, it’s a heck of a debut feature script by Kaufman and a heck of a directorial debut for Jonze. For both of them, Being John Malkovich was only a taste of what would come next.