In honor of the 20th anniversary of the Super Mario Bros. movie (released on May 28, 1993), we wanted to share with you this piece from October 10, 2011 about the troubles plaguing the film.

For all their absurdity, the Super Mario Bros. games follow a straightforward template. An Italian plumber adventures in a magical land, fights evil monsters and rescues a princess. It’s simple, but Nintendo’s vibrant fairy tale could have been fertile ground for a Hollywood fantasy epic. Instead, when Super Mario Bros. released in 1993, it portrayed a version of Mario that was worlds away from Nintendo’s vision. The Mushroom Kingdom had been turned into a neon-lit cyberpunk city where dinosaurs had evolved into humans. Bowser was a leather-suited politician fascinated by mud baths. The iconic goombas had become eight-foot tall lizard warriors with shrunken heads. Super Mario Bros. stands as one of Hollywood’s worst adaptations, but the story behind the film is infinitely more bizarre than the one the movie tells.

Fire Flower Sale
By 1990, Super Mario Bros. was one of the biggest intellectual properties on the planet. Super Mario World had just released in Japan, and the face of Nintendo’s chubby plumber had been slapped on everything from T-shirts and comic books to cereal boxes. Mario’s name alone was worth millions. It didn’t take long for the motion picture industry to come knocking on Nintendo’s door.

As always, Nintendo was cautious with its property. The publisher knew Super Mario Bros. didn’t have a deep narrative. How would a movie studio translate the simple formula into a 90-minute film? Producer Roland Joffé thought he could figure it out. Joffé’s Lightmotive production company was inexperienced, but Joffé had directed the Oscar-nominated films The Killing Fields and The Mission, which gave the studio some clout. Nintendo was intrigued by Joffé’s ideas, but it was more interested in the fact that Joffé had agreed to let Nintendo retain merchandising rights from the film. Joffé walked away with a $2 million contract. In a rare moment for the character, Mario’s future was now partially out of Nintendo’s control.

After securing the rights to the film, Lightmotive immediately set to work trying to sign high-level talent. The studio approached Danny DeVito to both direct the film and play Mario. Both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Keaton were approached for the role of King Koopa. All three passed on the project.

According to Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan, Tom Hanks briefly signed on to play Mario, but some executives thought that Hanks was asking for too much money, so they fired Hanks in favor of English thespian Bob Hoskins. Hoskins was hot off the success of films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Hook, and the producers felt that he would be a more bankable star. Within a matter of years, Tom Hanks would win Oscars for both Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, becoming one of Hollywood’s most respected actors. Hoskins is now best known for his television work.

While Lightmotive continued its search for actors and directors, it commissioned the first of many scripts. Barry Morrow, one of the Academy Award-winning writers of Rain Man, took first crack at the plot, but his treatment was deemed too dramatic and the project was passed over to the writing team that had worked on The Flintstones and Richie Rich.

This version of the script was more in line with Mario’s roots. Mario and Luigi traveled to a magical land reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland. In this world, the evil King Koopa – an actual green lizard king – had kidnapped a Princess named Hildy and made her his bride, so that he could access the magical Crown of Invincibility. The Mario brothers and their sidekick Toad set off on a quest to rescue the princess and prevent Koopa from getting his hands on the artifact.

This script was likely the closest the film would ever get to emulating the playful world imagined in Nintendo’s games. However, Lightmotive had already signed a directorial team to the project, and these visionaries would take the film down some wild rabbit holes.