The beloved 1993 movie “Groundhog Day”, starring Bill Murray, frequently appears on critics’ lists as one of the greatest film comedies of all time.
It tells the tale of an egotistical TV weatherman who journeys to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Day ceremony – an assignment he approaches with smug superiority – only to get stuck in a time warp, waking up every morning to find himself experiencing Groundhog Day over and over again.
Almost as soon as it was first released, the movie became so popular and influential that the phrase “Groundhog Day” entered popular consciousness as shorthand for a disagreeable experience that one seems to live through repeatedly.
It’s not very well known, but the original screenplay for “Groundhog Day” had a Canadian theme and a notably different plot than that of the eventual film classic.
The first draft of the movie – tentatively titled “Election Year” – had Bill Murray playing an Ottawa MP, rather than a Pittsburgh meteorologist. The opening scene takes place immediately after the votes have been all counted at the end of an autumn federal election.
The incumbent government of the day has just won a narrow minority mandate, and the film opens with the Prime Minister giving a rousing speech to supporters at his party’s election night headquarters. He declares that the Canadian people have spoken, and that although his party did not win a majority, it will govern for all citizens by working co-operatively with all the opposition parties to provide effective leadership through difficult times.
Unlike the eventual film, this early draft had a time frame of an entire year, rather than a single day. Through the deft use of cinematic montage, we see the year unfold briskly through the eyes of Bill Murray’s egotistical main character.
Shortly after the election, Parliament resumes and the government and opposition parties pay lip service to – and make dramatic shows of – trying to work together for the good of the nation. But almost as soon as they make their pledges, we see them beginning to engage in petty battles in the House of Commons, in name-calling through the media, and in secret plotting in caucus rooms.
Over the winter and into the spring, the government releases negative ads attacking the opposition. The other parties reply in turn. Opposition leaders begin playing games of brinkmanship, threatening to bring down the government over every piece of legislation it introduces, then pulling back when the government makes some sort of cosmetic change to its plans.
As the year unfolds, politicians of all stripes seem less and less focused on the challenges of steering the ship of state and increasingly distracted by the possibilities, pitfalls and opportunities of the government falling. The polls, meanwhile, barely move at all.
Summer brings no respite from politics, as election rhetoric continues to boil, back room organizers continue to scheme, and media continue to ponder how much longer this minority Parliament can last.
At the first turning point of the original screenplay, the Bill Murray character wakes up to find himself in the middle of the same fall election as in the beginning of the film, with the same result – another narrow minority government. The Prime Minister gives the same victory speech and the cycle continues anew, with the year again unfolding exactly as it had the first time around.
No matter what Bill Murray the MP does, he can’t stop reliving the same year repeatedly. It always begins and ends with an election that brings a minority government to power.
After the screenwriters completed this first draft of the film, movie producers said the script needed much work. They liked the whole time-warp idea, and the cynical main character who can’t escape his circumstances.
But a Canadian government that keeps getting elected as a minority, lasting a little while, collapsing, then getting elected again as a minority, with the same inconclusive election happening repeatedly at regular intervals?
“Come on,” one of the producers said. “Sure this film is a comic fantasy, but the premise has to be more believable than that! I know! Make the Bill Murray character a meteorologist who relives Groundhog Day over and over again…”
And so a classic film comedy was born. And the whole endless-minority-government-cycle idea was dumped where it belonged: Onto the scrap heap of improbably bad fictional ideas.
Years later, the whole idea was revived. This time in real life.
Where’s Bill Murray when you need him?