Film Adaptations of Young Adult Literature: I Know What You Did Last Summer

by Lois Duncan

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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2093

The Book

Author: Lois Duncan (pseudonym of Lois Duncan Steinmetz Arquette; 1934–2016)

First published: 1973

The Film

Director: Jim Gillespie (b. ca. 1961)

Screenplay by: Kevin Williamson

Starring: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze Jr., Ryan Phillippe, and Anne Heche


The novelist Lois Duncan got her start writing lurid “true” confessions for pulp magazines. A single mother of three, Duncan's most successful “confession” was titled “I Wanted to Have an Affair with a Teenage Boy.” She began writing popular suspense novels in the late 1960s and became an early master of the genre for young adults. One of her novels—popular with teenage readers but otherwise unrecognized at the time—was titled I Know What You Did Last Summer, about a group of teenagers, bound for adult success, who hit a little boy on his bicycle with their car. Afraid of punishment, they leave him in the road and he dies. A year later the book's protagonist receives an ominous message that reads, “I know what you did last summer.” The note sparks a terrifying game of cat and mouse in which a mysterious stalker seeks revenge for the boy's death. The novel was published in 1973.

Duncan continued to publish suspense novels by the dozens until the death of her daughter in 1989, and returned to the genre in the late 1990s. The rights for I Know What You Did Last Summer were optioned around the same time. It was the first major motion-picture adaptation of one of Duncan's books, though she was not involved in the making of the film and her name was never used in its marketing.

When Duncan watched the film for the first time upon its premiere in 1997, she was horrified—and not in a good way. Not only was the film's plot markedly different from the plot of her book, it was, unlike the novel, a bloodbath. “It's not just like I'm real picky,” Duncan told Laura Lippman for the Baltimore Sun. “This [film] simply made statements that were upsetting to me, by trivializing violence and making murder seem like a game, which was not true to the spirit of my book.” She acknowledged that the studio had the legal right to tell the story the way it did, but her reaction was unsurprising. Her own daughter, Kaitlyn Arquette, had been brutally murdered in what Duncan still suspects was a contract killing less than ten years before. The studio claimed not to have known about the murder, though Duncan wrote a book about the case titled Who Killed My Daughter? in 1992. Though she did not approve of the film, she used its box-office success to draw public attention to her daughter's case. The murder remains unsolved.

Film Analysis

Though the film version of I Know What You Did Last Summer makes several deviations from the novel, the most crucial difference between the book and the film lies in the fact that Duncan wrote a suspense novel while screenwriter Kevin Williamson wrote a horror film. Both writers employed classic tropes to tell the tale, but those tropes are of two very different genres. For instance, in Duncan's version, there is no serial killer. After the event in question, the book's four teenage characters—Julie, Ray, Helen, and, Barry—report the accident anonymously and make a pact to keep their guilt a secret. They only find out later that the boy died in the road. After a year passes, each character begins receiving strange messages from someone who knows what they have done. Barry is shot but recovers. They struggle under the tremendous pressure of living a lie—though, like the film, the protagonist Julie feels that guilt the most strongly—until it is discovered that Julie's new beau, Bud, is the little boy's half brother. Bud is foiled in his attempt to kill the teenagers, but in the end, their crime is revealed.

Duncan's revenge plot is bloodless (with the exception of Barry) but horrifying in its thematic gravity. It explores the guilt of taking another human being's life. Williamson's version raises some of the questions associated with the teens' guilt only to neatly resolve them through an incredible—and highly implausible—twist at the end of the film. But the teen slasher genre is not interested in complex emotions. The film adaptation of I Know What You Did Last Summer owes more of a debt to classic teen slasher films like Halloween (1978) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) than the book on which it is based. These films established tropes—including the serial killer with a calling card, the final confrontation, the “final girl”—that would be repeated again and again, and even satirized in Williamson and Wes Craven's 1996 film Scream. Williamson lifted Duncan's characters—and a very rough semblance of her plot—and rearranged them to fit the demands of the teen slasher genre.

The film opens with an aerial shot of the North Carolina coast (Duncan's book takes place in New Mexico) and focuses in on a teenager sitting on a cliff. It is the Fourth of July in a small fishing village, and Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.), and Barry (Ryan Phillippe) are celebrating Helen's (Sarah Michelle Gellar) beauty pageant win. She has been crowned Croaker Queen, after a local fish, but as Roger Ebert wrote in a review, the pun is clearly intended. Like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer has moments of self-awareness, though it is, on the whole, a straightforward genre film. Drinking on the beach, the foursome discuss an urban legend in which a teenage couple—engaging in premarital sex—hear a scratching noise, only to find a giant fishing hook embedded in their car door. Julie and Helen joke that they know the story is not true because such stories are made up to discourage women from having sex. A few beats later, Julie loses her virginity to her boyfriend, Ray. The scene is important because Julie, played by a fresh-faced Hewitt, is the film's “final girl.” The trope, epitomized by Julie and Helen, was coined by feminist scholar Carol J. Clover. A horror film's “final girl,” the one who survives, often does so by dint of her virginity. Williamson half-heartedly subverts this trope by having Julie lose her virginity, but the sex itself is immaterial. Her character is smart and otherwise virtuous unlike (the film suggests) her vain friend Helen, who wears short skirts and oozes sexual confidence.

Driving home from the beach—with Ray at the wheel, not the drunk and belligerent Barry as in the book—their car hits something. They stop the car and find a man's body. Williamson softens the emotional blow of the killing by making the victim an adult but raises the stakes by having the characters dispose of the body in the lake. The plot chugs along as in the book, except instead of a faceless stalker, the teens are terrorized by a serial killer wearing a fisherman's slicker who has a hook for a hand. The frightful image fulfills the slasher genre's most important trope: killers must have a calling card. Thanks to the earlier reference to the urban legend, this killer has a fishing hook, just as Freddie Krueger, of A Nightmare on Elm Street, had knives for fingers. As the teens desperately try to find out who he is, the fisherman continues to kill, his methods escalating in brutality. The first of the main characters to die is Barry (the jock) followed by Helen (the beauty queen). With Ray a suspect, that leaves only Julie, who unwittingly climbs aboard the killer's boat to face him, alone, in the film's heart-thumping “final confrontation.”

In the end, Julie and Ray survive and the killer is thought to be dead but actually escapes—providing another teen slasher trope, the possibility of a sequel. But the film ends on a starkly different note than the book. Through an elaborate twist, Julie discovers that she and her friends did not actually kill anyone that night the summer before. The body belonged to the serial killer who was “not quite dead,” another trope. Williamson lets his characters off the hook (literally and figuratively) and thus undercuts the single moral take-away from Duncan's book—that one must take responsibility for one's actions. While Duncan warns readers about the perils of living a lie, Williamson's script says lie harder; the film's marketing tagline was “If you're going to bury the truth, make sure it stays buried.”

But as Duncan herself said, this was all fair game, both legally and in terms of genre. Teen slasher films inhabit a crude moral universe. Like the trope of the “final girl,” character traits are deemed either good or bad—there is no in-between—and crucially, those traits exist only to foreshadow whether that character will live or die. Barry was mean and unrepentant—he died. Helen was too sexual—she died. Ray wanted to report the crime—he lived. Julie tried, on several occasions, to repent for the crime—she lived. In the film, the teenagers' guilt is merely a mechanism to introduce the real point of the film, which is survival.


Released on the heels of the wildly popular horror film Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer grossed over $125 million worldwide. The inevitable sequel, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, came out the next year, in 1998. It starred Hewitt and Prinze Jr., as well as Mekhi Phifer and Brandy Norwood. The story is similar—the group is terrorized by the same killer, played by Ben Willis—but it takes place at a resort in the Bahamas. A third, direct-to-video installment titled I'll Always Know What You Did Last Summer was released in 2006. The original and its sequel were both financially successful but panned by critics, including Ebert. However, the franchise remains a popular horror staple because of its predictability, not in spite of it. The film was later parodied in an episode of The Simpsons, the Scary Movie franchise (2000–2013), and Man Seeking Woman (2015). It also spawned a 2019 musical-theater production, I Know What You Did Last Summer: The Unauthorized Musical.

In 2014 Sony Pictures announced that it planned to remake the original film, employing screenwriter-producer Mike Flanagan setting a tentative release date for 2016; however, those plans never materialized. In 2019 Amazon Studios announced a television series remake, which was to be coproduced by Neal H. Moritz, the original film producer for the franchise, and James Wan of Aquaman fame.

I Know What You Did Last Summer was the first of Duncan's novels to be made into a big-screen production. Earlier that year, however, her 1978 novel Killing Mr. Griffin was adapted as a made-for-television film that aired on a major network channel. In 2009 her more lighthearted book Hotel for Dogs (1971) was made into a film starring Emma Roberts and Lisa Kudrow, and in 2018 the author of the Twilight series, Stephenie Meyer, coproduced a film adaptation of Duncan's 1974 thriller Down a Dark Hall, about Kit Gordy (AnnaSophia Robb), a boarding-school student with supernatural abilities. Duncan's novels Gallow's Hill, Don't Look Behind You, Ransom, and Stranger with My Face were also adapted into feature films or television movies during that period.

Further Reading

  • Lippman, Laura. “The Story behind ‘Last Summer’ Writer: Lois Duncan Will Use the Film Version of Her Book, ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer,’ to Draw Attention to the Murder of Her Daughter.” Baltimore Sun, 19 Nov. 1997, Accessed 6 Mar. 2015.
  • Gettel, Oliver. “‘Oculus’ Writers to Reboot ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer.’” Los Angeles Times, 15 Sept. 2014, Accessed 6 Mar. 2015.
  • Van Gelder, Lawrence. “Creepy Guys, Ghost Stories, Teen-Age Sex: Uh-Oh.” Review of I Know What You Did Last Summer, directed by by Jim Gillespie. The New York Times, 17 Oct. 1997, Accessed 6 Mar. 2015.


  • Duncan, Lois. “An Interview with Lois Duncan.” Interview by Joan Kaywell. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 52, no. 6, 2009, pp. 545–47. Literary Reference Center, Accessed 6 Mar. 2015.
  • Kenny, Glenn. “The Rise and Fall (and Rise?) of Teen Horror Movies.” Salon, 3 May 2010, Accessed 6 Mar. 2015.
  • Lodge, Sally. “Lois Duncan Thrillers Get an Update.” Publishers Weekly, 23 Sept. 2010, Accessed 6 Mar. 2015.
  • Stelloh, Tim. “Who Killed Lois Duncan's Daughter?” BuzzFeed News, 30 May 2014, Accessed 6 Mar. 2015.

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