The Surprising Origins of Iconic Film Characters

Some of the most iconic characters in movies have been embedded in our minds ever since we first saw them. But it may come as a surprise that they weren’t always destined to turn out how they did.

Below are five classic characters who were absolutely unrecognisable before they were properly polished up for the big screen.

Wicket the Ewok in ‘Return of the Jedi’


Who he is: A cute furry alien who helps the Rebels
Who he WAS: A Wookiee, like Chewbacca

The Ewoks are two-foot-tall furry dwarf-like creatures, who turn out to be unexpectedly resourceful allies for the Rebels in ‘Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi’.

But they were originally intended to be taller: much taller.

George Lucas had planned for the battle to take place on Chewbacca’s home planet, but as the film series went on, Wookiees became more hi-tech. The 200-year-old Chewbacca was revealed to be a great shot with the Wookiee ‘bowcaster’, a crossbow-shaped energy weapon. Lucas specifically wanted primitive creatures with wooden weapons to fell the Stormtroopers of the Empire in the last film of his first trilogy.

He called in make-up artist Stuart Freeborn to create the smaller Ewoks, whose leader Wicket W Warrick (played by Warwick Davis) is contacted by Princess Leia and recruited to battle the Empire’s Stormtroopers. Freeborn used an image of a Shih Tzu dog to inspire his initial designs of the two-foot-tall hairy bipeds.

Mr Spock in ‘Star Trek’


Who he is: The ‘logical’ half-Vulcan first officer of the Enterprise
Who he WAS: A red-faced Martian who sucked in energy via a plate in his stomach.

Ever the optimist, ‘Star Trek’ creator Gene Roddenberry changed the home planet of Spock from Mars to the fictional Vulcan because he was worried that if the series were a success, humans might actually walk on Mars while the series ran.

This was during the creation of Roddenberry’s 1964 pitch for ‘Star Trek’ (the series first aired in 1966). It happened against the background of the early years of America’s Apollo program, which put men on the moon for the first time in 1969, so perhaps Roddenberry’s optimism about man’s progress is understandable.


In ‘The Making of Star Trek’ Roddenberry recalled that the earliest version of Spock was rather different, too: specifically, he was half-Martian with a reddish complexion. Roddenberry’s co-writers told him that the metal plate in his stomach through which the Martian Spock absorbed energy made the character too alien, and that Spock needed more humanity to comment effectively on the human condition. Thankfully, Roddenberry agreed, and the logical half-Vulcan Spock was born.

Roddenberry said that Spock’s alien nature was central to the theme of the show: tolerance. “’Star Trek’ was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms,” he said.

Elsa in ‘Frozen’


Who she is: The troubled, icy princess
Who she WAS: The evil Snow Queen

‘Frozen’ is an iconic animated hit, but its inspiration is an altogether darker tale. ‘The Snow Queen’ in the story that inspired ‘Frozen’ is not a troubled, angsty youngster. She is an out-and-out embodiment of evil - so much so that three of her kisses would be fatal.

She uses two on a young child, making him forget all about his family. She then takes him with her to be her slave, where he eternally tries to form words on an icy lake the Snow Queen calls the “Mirror of Reason”.


He also had an evil mirror lodged in his eyes, which only allow him to see ugliness in the world. Not exactly the sort of character you want to have belting out hits such as the now-iconic ’Let It Go’.

Hence, Disney, who had wrestled with the idea of adapting Hans Christian Andersen’s dark fairy tale ‘The Snow Queen’ since 1937, instead settled for a story “inspired” by it, and replaced the evil Snow Queen with Elsa, the troubled young princess with mysterious icy powers. Elsa has become a screen icon, and the centrepiece of the best-selling animated film of all time.

The Tin Man in ‘The Wizard of Oz’


Who he is: A metal man in need of a heart
Who he WAS: A woodsman who cut off all his limbs with a magic axe

When Metro Goldwyn-Mayer bought the rights to L Frank Baum’s successful ‘Oz’ novels, the script went through a number of revisions before finally making it to the screen.

According to ‘The Making of the Wizard of Oz’, the first of these revisions took out some of the more overtly magical parts of Frank Baum’s novels, as fantasy films had fared badly at the box office in preceding years.


One of the characters who was changed most profoundly was the Tin Man, who Baum had written an entire novel about called ‘The Tin Woodman of Oz’.

In that, the Tin Woodman is a normal woodman, who chops himself to pieces with an axe after it’s enchanted by the Wicked Witch of the East, for being in love with the witch’s ‘ward’, or adopted daughter, Nimmie Annee.

In the novel, Annee ends up married to a creature, Chopfyt, made up of the still-living arms and legs of the Tin Man. MGM probably made the right decision when they abandoned this grisly origin story.

Woody in Toy Story


Who he is: The charming pull-string cowboy leader of the toys
Who he WAS: A tyrannical dog-abuser who nearly murders Buzz Lightyear

When John Lasseter, co-founder of Pixar, began work on 'Toy Story’, he was envisaging a sequel to a Christmas short Pixar had made called 'Tin Toy’. Lasseter realized that he needed a more rounded central character. Hence, Lunar Larry, who would go on to become Buzz Lightyear, was born.

To begin with, Larry was completely aware of the fact he was a toy, and was the leader of the toys (Woody’s position in the final version). Lasseter was keen for the film to be a ‘buddy’ movie, hence the addition of Woody, the pull-string cowboy eventually voiced by Tom Hanks.

Pixar was in deep financial trouble at the time, and needed its deal with Disney. Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg basically took control of the film, saying, “Everybody thinks I’m a tyrant. I am a tyrant. But I’m usually right.”


Katzenberg’s new hires, including a new scriptwriter, made the film much more adult, and played on the idea of the Western much more heavily. In the process, they turned Woody into an almost unrecognisable character.

Rather than the gentle, if jealous, cowboy found in the final cut, Woody became cynical, bullying and mean to his dog. He ruled the toys through tyranny, pure and simple. At one point he attempts to murder new arrival Buzz by throwing him out a window. The film was only saved when early reels proved to be a disaster.

Lasseter says, "It was a story filled with the most unhappy, mean characters that I’ve ever seen.” Once his team regained control of the film they quickly turned Woody into the friendly character who became a cult hit in the film and its sequels.

The final film was a huge global hit, and ends on a shot of Buzz and Woody, together, welcoming a puppy to the home.

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