Godzilla, or Gojira, burst onto movie screens in 1954. Originally released in Japan, its appeal spread throughout the world shortly after its initial run. Set in Tokyo after the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Godzilla was portrayed as being woken up by radiation from hydrogen bomb testing. He stood as a metaphor for the horror Japan witnessed after the two A-bombs dropped at the end of World War II. The actions of human beings had brought about a monster that could no longer be contained. Though Godzilla as a character would change dramatically through its lifespan, people have regarded the first movie as a landmark in the film industry, as it ignited the “Kaiju” movie genre.
The first American adaptation of Godzilla was released in 1956, two years after the Japanese counterpart. Godzilla, King of the Monsters! features an adapted screenplay and additional scenes developed to entice American audiences. Edmund Goldman, the man who purchased the rights from Toho, the company that produced the Godzilla film, knew that any film that wanted to be profitable at the time inside the States must have an American lead, and this led to additional scenes being filmed with body doubles and Raymond Burr being cast as Steve Martin, an American journalist who documents the attack on Tokyo. This attitude toward adapting Japanese media for American audiences persisted until recently, when companies finally realized that most American audiences who consume films, TV, and animation from Japan prefer it to be as close to the source material as possible. But Godzilla set a precedent. It was the first Japanese-produced film to be a commercial success in the States. It created a roadmap for others to follow suit, and they did. Through the following decades, cartoons like Astro Boy and Speed Racer would cross the Pacific and follow the exact blueprint; change the story enough to cover the Japanese elements and make it appealing to a Western audience.
Godzilla would go a long time before having another American version made. By 1983, the franchise had been dormant in Japan for almost a decade. It was at this time that Steve Miner, a famous Hollywood director, approached Toho and expressed interest in bringing the film over for an American, big-budget adaptation. In Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 3D, a meteorite colliding with an American defense satellite would cause a nuclear bomb to be deployed into the South Pacific, thus awakening Godzilla from his slumber. A screenplay was written, and scenes were storyboarded, but after generating some interest with no actual backing coming forth, Miner eventually abandoned the project to pursue other films.
Eventually, Toho would decide to reboot the franchise with The Return of Godzilla in 1984. It was a direct sequel to the 1954 film, retconning the campy sequels of the 60s and 70s and approaching Godzilla from a serious tone once more. By 1985, Toho was shopping around the North American distribution rights. They came to the table expecting a hefty payout for the film. It had created enough buzz in their home country that they assumed Americans would jump at the chance of banking on the success they had with the previous iteration of Godzilla. But, they did not receive the bids they hoped for. New World Pictures, owned by Roger Croman, were the ones who secured the rights, and the version they produced was a disaster theatrically. The studio did make a hefty profit when it came to the home video market, but the headache that came about with adapting Toho’s landmark work was too much for any for the sequels that would come out through the late 80s and into the 90s.
By the time the early 90s came around, the rights of Godzilla had been purchased by Sony. There was so much excitement for an American Godzilla series that Toho sought to abandon making their own franchise films so they wouldn’t compete with TriStar’s version. The “Heisei” era would come to a close so that a Western adaptation could flourish. Toho thought a Hollywood version of their monster was the ideal next step, one they had been attempting to bank on for almost ten years when 1993 came about.
This is when Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot enter the story. If you look at their individual resumes, you can see multiple successful films spanning decades. The two worked on Aladdin, one of the most successful animated films of all time. They were tasked with taking the story of Godzilla and rebooting it.
There was one huge problem: Rossio and Elliot didn’t want to adapt it. The reasoning behind their reluctance was they didn’t know what they wanted to do with it. Sony/TriStar tasked them with writing a script because they had success developing franchises. The company saw the potential of a Godzilla series of movies right off the bat. They wanted two successful screenwriters to help form the foundation to build on.
This was the first problem and, in my opinion, the main reason why developing Godzilla for American audiences failed. By this time, Godzilla had already had a forty-year history to look to, as well as a huge international fanbase inside Japan and abroad. Toho had been dubbing their titles in Hong Kong, and they would make their way over to the states either on VHS or on television. Handing the reins to two guys who, albeit successful, didn’t want to work on the film in the first place was not a good start. You had two men who would want to make it interesting for themselves rather than the core audience who would want to watch the movie.
The thing to note here is that it was a different landscape. While adapting a film like Godzilla was a success, foreign films in general in the States weren’t seen as appealing other than small pockets of cult followings. College campuses and late-night screenings at art houses were how anime films like Akira were able to gain footholds on American soil, but Sony had spent big bucks on obtaining the rights to Godzilla, and they wanted to cash in on that. They needed an audience outside of that core demographic.
Rossio and Elliot made a choice to alter some aspects of Godzilla that would later become a contentious point, and rightfully so. Instead of Godzilla being a product of radiation, he was instead a genetic monster created by an ancient civilization in order to fight off an alien threat. The reasoning behind this change was due to the difference in what we perceived as dangerous at the time the scripts were produced. In 1954 Japan, the two atomic bombs being dropped were still at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Dolly the Sheep would be cloned in 1996, and her developmental research was being conducted at the time of Rossio and Elliot’s draft being written. Some looked at cloning as a way of playing God, and the writing duo conveyed these anxieties in their script rather than fear of nuclear annihilation.
The other substantial change was that Godzilla would be fighting a mythical creature, a Gryphon, rather than an established Kaiju. Reportedly, King Ghidora was originally intended to be used to battle Godzilla, but when the duo of screenwriters learned that this would include a separate licensing fee, they decided that the Gryphon would be the way to go.
I think one huge problem studios back then had was the precedent of Godzilla. Adapting and changing work from its source had worked well, but that didn’t leave a blueprint for what to do when you wanted to remake that target for North American audiences. Rossio and Elliot were told to build things from the ground up, and they didn’t have the time to invest countless hours in educating themselves on Kaiju movie lore. They were hired to write a script that Jan De Bont could then shoot. They were busy men, working in Hollywood, and this was one script out of many they would end up writing and developing themselves. They figured they could take what they wanted and leave what they didn’t by the wayside. It was TriStar who came to them, not the other way around. In a weird way, the original movie shot this one in the foot right out of the gate.
The rest of the movie isn’t bad. In summary, Godzilla is being drawn to a cave in Utah where a meteorite has hit and deployed an alien monster who sends out Probe Bats in order to assimilate a monster to wipe out the earth. Hence why it forms a Gryphon. It collects a smattering of earth DNA and forms it into one monster. Godzilla is made up of Dinosaur DNA, which is why he has his appearance. Once the Gryphon is ready, it flies off to NYC, which is the setting for the final battle against the titular monster. Really, on the surface level, it’s pretty genius, as it explains away a lot of shit as to why a dinosaur would be awakened by a nuclear bomb in the first place, but that’s another analysis entirely. But, when you look deeper into the story, is that really a retelling of Godzilla?
Those elements come from a few things. They come from Godzilla attacking a Japanese fishing vessel, the man who witnesses it refers to the monster as Gojira, and from Godzilla fighting off the military before having to go toe to toe with the Gryphon at the end. Other than that, if you were to hold it up against Godzilla or other Kaiju movies of the past, it would look fairly different.
It makes for a frustrating read. While the monsters look amazing and the story is tightly constructed, it does come across as a Godzilla-inspired story rather than a Godzilla movie. This only became more frustrating by the fact that by the time we got to the final product that hit theaters, TriStar’s Godzilla which was released in 1998 to panning reviews and poor box office numbers.
Funding was the main sticking point when it came to stopping the development of Rossio and Elliot’s vision. That was something that impacted the entire developmental phase of the movie. Sony had purchased the rights thinking that they could make a cheap monster movie, and turn it into a trilogy. Then when they read the script, they realized that they would have to spend money on it. A lot of money. They would have to pay to make the movie look decent.
Truth be told, the movie was doomed from the start. American movie studios wanted the profits of Godzilla but they didn’t want to make a Godzilla movie. This happened quite a bit back then. There were too many “cultural” differences between Japanese and American audiences. The entire process sounded like the producers and the writers running around in circles to make a movie that no one wanted. American audiences hated the final product because, while it retained the serious tone that Rossie and Elliot were striving for, it was changed so much that it became boring, which was the furthest thing from what people wanted from a Kaiju movie. The script, while exciting, didn’t match up with the original vision of the Japanese films. The two canceled each other out.
Don Macpherson was brought in to rewrite the Rossio and Elliot story. Being a lifelong fan of the monster, Macpherson decided to remove the elements that Rossio and Elliot included. He took issue with the pacing and the changes made to the story. He recognized that Godzilla needed to be born of human folly. He also noted that the script needed to be more impactful. The first part of the movie would have been monsters destroying everything with the second half of the movie being the setup for the monster battle. The issue with this script was that he had to keep budgetary concerns in mind while developing this version of Godzilla.
With the back and forth and the wayward visions, it is no wonder that the final product suffered. The Mattew Broderick-led Godzilla was terrible. The script had finally landed in the hands of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. They also didn’t have any interest in using the Rossio and Elliot script. Devlin saw their vision as a fast-moving animal instead of a giant monster. Gone was the massive body of Toho’s monster, replaced with a sleeker and Iguana-like creature that would scale buildings.
These changes had to be approved by Toho before the new film was even written. Devlin and Emmerich had to make sure their monster would become green-lit even before they started on the story. What was the strangest fact about this Godzilla was the new duo insisted on Godzilla being created from radiation once again. They felt that characteristic was too important to abandon, even though Godzilla’s look and abilities were fair game. It was another group of people who didn’t understand what people enjoyed, and they simply wanted to do things the way they thought would be profitable because the Hollywood system had a precedent that needed to be followed.
It’s odd looking at the differences in how we can look at products and movies. We aren’t the only ones who do these adaptations as well. If you ever look into the Japanese Spider-Man, you can see there are changes made to that character as well. But the main problem US companies had up until the Legendary series of Godzilla films was people buying the rights to the product with the intention of making money without delivering on what established Godzilla fans were expecting. What ended up happening was making a movie that no audience wanted. Godzilla fans didn’t want an altered Godzilla, and people who had never seen a Godzilla film before had no interest in seeing one in 1998. The marketing behind the film was massive, with a song from Puff Daddy to bolster the soundtrack and an intense campaign that featured one of the best trailers of all time, with the titular character crushing a T-Rex skeleton inside of a museum. The trailer was so well received that theaters began to advertise that they would feature the trailer before Men and Black screenings.
Then the opening weekend came, and after a strong start at the box office, word of mouth and horrible reviews kept anyone else from wanting to see the world-famous Godzilla tearing through New York City. In what is still considered today one of the biggest box office blunders in history, the American version of Godzilla was considered an epic failure. Though it was financially successful, all the energy that was captured in the lead-up to the film was gone. Toho has since done its best to distance itself from it. Even when presented to current fans of the series, its monster has since been renamed Zilla, in order to remove its God-like status. Zilla was an animal thrown into a Godzilla movie, not an American version of Godzilla like they were sold when they sold the rights.
The Japanese saw the same issues. Americans just didn’t understand Godzilla. It didn’t have the same spirit as the Japanese films. The entire movie consists of Zilla running from missiles and acting like a lizard. Godzilla is iconic for its ability to withstand normal human weapons and has a massive size advantage over anything we throw at it. What we got instead was an iguana that lays her eggs in New York City.
Looking back now, we probably would have had a better movie by going forward with producing the 1994 script. But, we also would not have gotten the movie we really wanted. We as fans pine for this one to be produced because the 98 one was so bad. But, regardless of what we wanted, we would never get the Godzilla movie we deserved. The reason behind that is that the system in place at the time would have prevented anything close to what we hungered for.
That’s why the new Legendary series is so beloved by domestic Godzilla fans. It tried hard to make sure to capture the “spirit” of Godzilla while also making a modern American film that anyone could get into, not just Kaiju movie fanatics. It’s a great movie, and one of my favorite Godzilla films, though it still is hard to stack up against some of the Japanese films. Fukushima reignited fear of nuclear radiation in the 2010s, and it created a climate that was ripe for a return for Godzilla. Shin Godzilla was released in 2016 and with the help of the legendary Hideaki Anno, it became a strong contender for the greatest Godzilla film of all time. It just goes to show that no one understands the character like the Japanese, due to their unique circumstances regarding nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
We pine for a version of Godzilla ’94 because the film we got in the 90s was so bad. The truth is, this is wishful thinking. The problem we had back then was that no one would accept that international tropes could work domestically. You can also look at the failed experiment that was Dragonball Evolution to back up this claim. It was a mixture of demand from consumers and the expanding import market from Japan that finally made companies realize that what all fans wanted was something that seemed authentic to the characters from the source material rather than something repackaged for our own “tastes’”. Luckily, moviegoers don’t have to put up with these idiosyncrasies that studios insisted upon back then.
Luckily, adaptation no longer means stripping out the foundation and beams that have helped support the structure this entire time. Nowadays we can get reboots that respect the material it’s based on while also forging ahead on a new path.
Younger fans really don’t know how good they have things now. It takes an incredible amount of effort to change systems, and now that the Hollywood one has altered its approach to Japanese media, we actually get good movies being made about absurd, giant monsters who terrorize entire cities. We get to ingest the ideas and views that can come with these movies as well. One would question what could be gained from watching a movie about a giant dinosaur attacking a shoreline, but Godzilla isn’t just about that. Godzilla is about what lies beneath the water. It’s about the folly of man and the monsters we can unknowingly create. It’s about man having little control when it comes to natural elements. It’s also about good versus evil. Like with many books and films I have written about previously, Godzilla is more about what isn’t said rather than what is. That was the key ingredient that was missing from those 1990s American attempts. They had no soul, and as silly as it sounds, you can’t really make a Kaiju movie without a soul.
If you are interested, you can read the entire script here. Another essay you can take a gander at for more insight from Rossio is his own essay on the changes that Emmerich and Devine made titled The 100 Million Dollar Mistake. In it, he expresses his own opinions on what went wrong with the production. He insists that his vision would have been the way to go, and while I agree with him, I also recognize that he is more caught up in the structure of the script rather than the issues that he presented with his version. But, Rossio would not be done with Godzilla. He was actually one of the writers to develop Godzilla vs. Kong, which was far better received than the 1998 movie. Just like that, Rossio made good on helping write an exceptional Godzilla film, one which stayed true to the original vision while also allowing him to fight another giant monster for American audiences to marvel at. Everyone was able to finally go home happy, it just took a while to get there.