Let me begin by saying that this whole article is nothing but spoilers for 10 Cloverfield Lane and the script from which it originated, The Cellar. So, if you have yet to see the movie or if you want to read the original script yourself then this isn’t the space for you. However, if you’ve seen the film and are interested in seeing what had to change in order to make a normal chamber piece thriller into the continuation of the Cloverfield franchise, you are in the right place.
Below we will look at the original idea that got reworked and retrofitted to become 10 Cloverfield Lane, and the changes necessary to make it so. The original script in question comes from Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken back in 2012, before Whiplash‘s Damien Chazelle was hired to develop it further (and potentially direct himself), and Dan Trachtenberg ultimately came on board to make his feature directorial debut. Split into the plot, characters, story, and climax, check out the differences and similarities below, as well as a summary of which aspects we prefer in each.
Both the original script and the move involve the same basic bones of a plot. Michelle wakes up in an underground shelter and it told by her captor/benefactor Howard that there is an attack of some kind going on and the air aboveground has gone bad. A third man lives in the shelter with them and tensions rise as the Michelle struggles to understand the state of her imprisonment and the truth about what is going on above ground.
In the movie, Michelle is presumably in her twenties, an aspiring fashion designer running away from her engagement following a fight with her fiancé Ben (a brief voice cameo by Bradley Cooper). In the original script, however, Michelle is an 18-year-old college student with no defined major who drives drunk after a fight with her boyfriend at a party. Whereas Movie Michelle is immediately inventive and creative with her methods of escape, Original Script Michelle is a bit more wilting and takes a while to work up into the kind of badass that Movie Michelle is right off the bat. As portrayed by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Movie Michelle is a much stronger and more engaging character than Original Script Michelle.
Both Original Script Howard and Movie Howard are complicated characters. Original Script Howard is a bit better at explaining the situation to Michelle up front and in general seems like a much more stable character, but is still not without his darkness. Movie Howard, as ingeniously portrayed by John Goodman, is more volatile, more cagey, and generally much more worthy of mistrust and suspicion. They are similar men in general, but Movie Howard is much more prone to outbursts of violence, much more “protective” of Michelle, and ultimately much more frightening. Original Script Howard is more awkward and impotent than Movie Howard.
The back story for both characters is where they most diverge. In the script for The Cellar, Howard is a recovering alcoholic, which appears to not be the case in the movie, as Movie Howard swills homemade vodka with no ill effects. Movie Howard claims to have had a daughter and indeed cannot stop talking about her, reminiscing over her, and subtly making Michelle into her. Original Script Howard mentions his wife and daughter, but they are more sub-textual than necessary to the plot. In the movie, Howard’s daughter has moved to Chicago (where the original script takes place, instead of New Orleans), while in The Cellar she has moved to DC.
The full story and reality of what happened to Howard’s family is altered even further. In the film, Howard shows a photo that he claims is his daughter, but Michelle learns that this is actually a girl that Howard kidnapped after his real daughter moving away. It is implied the girl was killed by Howard when she tried to escape. In The Cellar, Michelle is told Howard killed his wife and never had a daughter. In time she discovers, however, that Howard actually killed his wife while driving drunk and lost custody of his daughter thereafter. There is no kidnapping or murder of another girl. In both instances, Michelle obtains false information and is corrected, but in the film she is aided in discovering the truth by the third shelter-dweller, while in the The Cellar he is simply another liar. This brings us to…
In both the original script and movie there is a third person in the shelter, and this character is perhaps the largest change between the two.
In the original script the man is called Nate, and he comes with a lot of baggage. He arrives at the shelter in another man’s fire department-issue hazmat suit (suspicious) and is immediately confrontational with Howard (scary). They have a history, and not a friendly one. Nate claims that Howard owes him money, and he immediately begins flirting with Michelle. Unlike in the film, Howard has no outbursts quelling their flirtation, and Nate quickly swings Michelle onto his side in a coup against Howard. Michelle drugs Howard and Nate takes Howard’s gun and the two have a weird, possibly transactional sex scene (just before they kiss, it is said that Michelle “reads between the lines” of Nate saying they will take care of one another). Nate imprisons Howard and he and Michelle become a couple-of-convenience until the climax of the film. Howard, in the climax, confronts Michelle about the truth of his life, and Nate’s lies are laid bare. It turns out that Nate testified against Howard in the custody case for his daughter, lying and saying Howard would beat her, as payback for the money he believed he was owed.
Meanwhile, in the movie the third shelter-dweller was Emmett, portrayed by John Gallagher Jr. as a good ol’ boy with low self-esteem and a fear of overstepping his bounds. He’s a sympathetic, well-meaning character who obviously has a lot of affection for Michelle, even though they never have what could be considered a romance. They are players on an equal footing, and their relationship is deeply affecting. He actually stands up for Howard and is ingratiating and thankful for the shelter. It takes Michelle’s deepening distrust and the discovery of Howard’s lie about the identity of his daughter to swing him away from full supplication.
The whole of the story glides along a similar path in both script and film, but (character changes aside) there are some major differences in terms of structure and incident.
First, in the original script the impressionistic movie opening introducing Michelle’s circumstances is non-existent. The Cellar begins mid-crash and the story of the crash is told in stylized flashbacks (they are described as “grainy and high-contrast”) that take place while Michelle sleeps. Michelle attempts to break out at first in both the film and the original script, but in the movie she is much more of a MacGyver figure than in the script. Notably, in the script Nate doesn’t even enter the shelter until page 30, whereas Emmett begins the film in the shelter. This scene, Nate entering, takes place about where Michelle in the film sees the woman boiling to death outside. In the movie Emmett has a broken arm from fighting his way into the shelter, and in the script he is totally fine and quick to assert his dominance in a fist fight.
In the movie, Michelle has to crawl through the air ducts to fix the filtering mechanism, while in the original script Nate and Howard take turns fixing both the solar panels and the water pump for the shelter, leaving Michelle as a much more, to be frank, useless character in terms of her place in the mini-society they have created. Much of the time, it seems Original Script Michelle’s whole purpose is to be lusted after and serve as a source of jealous male tension.
To this end, there is no interlude in the original script wherein the three of them form a happy family unit as they do in the film. There are, however, many instances of people getting drunk on wine and getting angry at one another for various reasons. In the film, this peaceful interlude makes the eventual breakdown of the unit tragic and hurtful for an audience who grew to like this makeshift family, what with their puzzles and game nights. (Worth noting: the hilariously tense secret word game of Taboo in the film is not in the script.) It is a welcome reprieve from the bleakness of the story. In the original script, the whole of their existence is nothing but strife and tension, and is thus a little draining.
Throughout both stories, Michelle questions the motives of the men in her life, but in the movie they never waver from their assertion that the world above is terrible. In The Cellar, Howard, having lost his power, tries to get her help by claiming she was right about them kidnapping her for unsavory purposes.
In 10 Cloverfield Lane, Emmett is killed on screen (or, more precisely, two inches to the left) while trying to help Michelle cover up the fact that she has been working on stitching together a hazmat suit. In The Cellar, Nate is killed off screen seemingly out of jealousy and fear. Whereas the film treats this as a noble sacrifice for a friend, the original script treats it like a lion being killed so another might take control of the pride.
And of course we come to the end.
The movie ends with something out of the farmhouse scene in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, with Michelle escaping from Howard and getting outside of the shelter, only to find that aliens have invaded and are hunting people. She must outwit a worm-like attack dog and then do exactly what Tom Cruise did in War of the Worlds, introducing an explosive device into a biological looking orifice on an alien craft to escape from its massive tentacles. Then, after all of this, she embarks to Houston to kick some alien ass, in a “the battle is over, let’s fight the war” kind of ending cribbed from Battle: Los Angeles. In the last shot, flashes of lightning reveal alien ships in the distance, indicating the film-long struggle we just witnessed is comparatively minuscule.
In the original script, Michelle escapes the shelter and is chased through the farmhouse by Howard, who still wants to “protect” her. She blinds him with bathroom cleaner, he tells her about his tragic life (dead wife, missing daughter, treacherous Nate, etc.), and then she shoots him in the kneecap and runs away. He ends the movie alive, entreating Michelle to “be careful.” Later, after traveling down empty roads and finding no one around to help her, she crests a hill and sees the Chicago skyline, smoldering and destroyed. No explanation is given. We don’t even know what she will do next, only that she now knows that Howard, for all his oddity, was correct. The final line in the script is, “She slowly pulls down the mask on the hazmat suit before taking a breath.”
Which is Better?
It’s hard, if not impossible, to argue that the original script does better by the characters or the inherent tension of the story. The way Michelle in The Cellar is treated as a nearly universal object of desire and envy is a bit old-fashioned, and the inclusion of a sex scene described as “the kind of wild, passionate sex that only happens with the world coming to an end” is fairly clichéd and ultimately disappointing, especially considering that it is heavily implied that this is sex in trade for protection. The character of Nate as he exists in the original script is also more unsavory and thus much less interesting than the way Emmett is presented in the film. It’s hard to say how the Howards stack up to one another considering how Goodman’s performance could probably make either one utterly compelling.
Howard’s kidnapping subplot in the movie, though, does feel weirdly unnecessary and a little cruel, though, robbing the character of a lot of the moral ambiguity and sympathy that made him so interesting at first in the movie and ultimately tragic in the original script.
In the The Cellar, Howard is proven wholly good and right and pitifully misunderstood and broken. In the movie, he is a monster who is just crazy enough to have been right about this very crazy scenario, but the ending doesn’t work toward aligning our sympathy with him. He may have been right, and his shelter may have saved them, but he was still a bellowing, homicidal kidnapper. Still, Movie Howard’s overt aggression is a big step up dramatically over Original Script Howard’s passive-aggression.
The weirdest change is the aliens. You could make all the changes the movie made and still have an ending that required no aliens. So why add aliens? This is the big question I am sure people will wrestle with after hearing about how the story was initially drafted. There is not a single iota of science fiction present in the old script, and to see it injected so randomly and earnestly into the end of the film is both shocking and thrilling but, ultimately, baffling. The change of the name to 10 Cloverfield Lane also seems weirdly uncalled for, setting up as it does an expectation for monsters and a connection to the previous film, but that will be another point for fans to debate. Would this film be better without the baggage of expectation? What made this script ripe for this odd treatment? Having read the script, it’s difficult to decipher made this script feel right for this particular move artistically (we all get it from a marketing point of view). I can say, however, that without the baggage of expectation, even with the aliens, odds are this movie would be better off.
So yes, 10 Cloverfield Lane is, as a whole, better than The Cellar would have been. But I think if Howard could have been kept murder-free, if the aliens hadn’t been injected in, and the title weren’t such a baffling attempt to provide unnecessary context and expectation, we might be dealing with something genuinely great, rather than just a strange, effective, yet ultimately frustrating thriller.
Listen to our in-depth discussion of the film below.
What do you think of the differences between the script and film? Which do you prefer?