The Guardian (1990) – WTF Happened to This Adaptation?

The WTF Happened to This Adaptation series looks back at the 1990 horror film The Guardian, directed by William Friedkin

Here we are with another case of “Wait, that was a book first?” Although, having watched the movie for the first time and seeing its reputation online, this is also a case of “Wait, that was a movie?” William Friedkin was a master filmmaker and although most of his stone-cold classics happened before 1990, he proved he still had plenty in the tank with things like The Hunted and Bug to name a couple. He was a replacement director which seems surreal considering his talents and he was one of 3 credited writers on a little remembered horror movie adaptation from 1990. The Guardian (watch it HERE) is based on The Nanny from 1987 and it’s a strange pairing of source material and finished product. Both pieces of media are mostly slept on in their respective fields but how close did Friedkin and the other writers come to matching the book? Always do a background check on your employees as we find out what happened to this adaptation.

The Movie

Universal pictures in 1989 decided to option a book by Dan Greenburg who had had some success with his works being adapted already. The movie was The Guardian, and it was based on the novel The Nanny from 1987. Originally the studio had tapped Sam Raimi to direct after he was coming off the failure of Crimewave and the success of Evil Dead II. He would drop out to direct Darkman and boy; did we luck out. While the original script for The Guardian may have turned out to be a decent Sam Raimi flick and, lets be honest here, there’s a strong chance we would have seen Bruce Campbell in a bigger role here, if he stays, we most likely don’t get Darkman and that would be a travesty. Exit Sam Raimi and enter the legendary Oscar winner William Friedkin. It’s claimed by the original writers that the first script was sillier and more up Raimi’s alley, but Friedkin would get very involved and rewrite it enough to get a credit.

Friedkin started his Hollywood career with the TV movie The People Vs. Paul Crump in 1962 but hit it big in the 70s with a trio of heavy hitters that were The French Connection, The Exorcist, and Sorcerer that was a remake of the great 50s French film The Wages of Fear. While he would never match that trilogy again, the man who died out of spite to haunt David Gordon Green, would have hits well into the 2000s. The writers on the movie include Friedkin as well as both Steven Volk and author of the book Dan Greenburg. Greenburg had a solid and lengthy career that included a lot of adapting his own work. This and Private School are probably his most famous movies but none of them really lasted in the public zeitgeist.

Volk, by accounts behind the scenes, was driven to a nervous breakdown with the number of changes, had a fun career with his first screenplay being for Ken Russell’s Gothic. After today’s movie he did the TV movie Ghostwatch and with all the attention that the superb Late Night with the Devil is getting… you should go check out Ghostwatch. Not the same, but similar styles. The rewrites didn’t just stress Volk out either as many of the actors, particularly Jenny Seagrove, were frustrated by the constant changes. Speaking of which, Jenny Seagrove, along with Dwier Brown, Carey Lowell round out the main 3. The late, great Miguel Ferrer and Brad Hall round out the cast. Seagrove, who plays the villain here, also appeared in Local Hero among a ton of other things.

Dwier Brown has been a that guy for a while with credits in Field of Dreams, House 1 and 2, To Live and Die in LA, and Gettysburg. Carey Lowell hasn’t had the longest career, but it is an impactful one with 50 episodes of Law and Order and of course as one of the tougher Bond Girls in Licence to Kill. Miguel Ferrer needs no introduction, but I’ll call out Night Flier and Brad Hall is actually more of a writer than actor. The movie made 17 million but I can’t find its budget and it did not do well with critics, with Roger Ebert hating it more than most.

The Guardian (1990) – WTF Happened to This Adaptation?

The Story

The Nanny is a relatively short novel written by Dan Greenburg and published in 1987. Greenburg was born in Chicago and got degrees from the University of Illinois and UCLA. While he was first published in Esquire magazine, he would go on to be an editor for other publications and end up writing several fiction and non-fiction stories. His first wife was famous author and director Nora Ephron and even though we are discussing an adult horror novel today, his biggest contribution to literature is through a series of kids’ books called the Zak Files. This would even be turned into a Canadian TV series that lasted over 50 episodes. To stay relevant, he would often visit schools and chat with kids there or even throw some of his ideas at them to see what they thought. He had a modicum of success in the Hollywood realm as well. In addition to today’s movie being adapted by Friedkin and company, he would also write screenplays for some of his other works that got turned into film or tv series. He lived until the age of 87 and just passed away at the end of 2023.

What is the Same

A couple moves from Chicago to another big city where the husband, Phil, gets a job at an advertising firm and the wife works with interior design. They become pregnant and have a baby boy but both wish to work still and decide to go through an agency to hire a nanny. While an English woman is a possibility, they aren’t entirely sold on her until they ultimately decide to hire her. She bonds with the child almost instantly and Phil even walks in on her giving the boy a bath with her inside the tub too. He finds her very attractive and even has a dream that he is having an affair with her. There are some questionable things that come up about the nanny and the couple is warned by a former employer of the dangerous that nanny presents.

People that have a relation to the couple die and its clear that nanny is something much more than just a caretaker. They try and flee from the nanny but one of the family members becomes sick with a coma like mystery illness and they are forced to fight the nanny to save themselves. Phil is able to kill her and all three of the family members surprise their shocking ordeal.

What is different?

This is a case of a bunch of writers, including the original author, bringing in a ton of different ideas as well as the director having a certain vision. That director is William Friedkin, and he typically has the sway to get what he wants. The bare bones of the story is certainly present. The book couple is Phil and Julie Pressman while the movie is Phil and Kate Sterling. They have a baby boy in both stories with Jake as the name in the movie and Harry in the book. They end up hiring a very attractive English Nanny who is named Camilla in the movie and Luci Redmon in the book. The two types of media split fairly drastically from there, however.

The book opens with a flash forward of the nanny creature going after Phil and his family in a house in upstate New York from both Phil and the monster’s point of view. Also, the book takes place after the couple moves to New York while the movie takes place in LA. The movie shows us exactly what the Nanny is, kind of, as she is with a different family and takes the younger child to a tree to sacrifice. That’s probably the main difference. The movie monster is a tree nymph monster that has ties to a specific tree and must keep it alive while the book nanny monster is more of an undead creature. The book does a good job not really explaining much or showing what she’s really capable of until the end while the movie takes the make-up and special effects approach to show what she is. She can also summon and even shift into the form of a wolf in the movie while the book she is just very strong and resilient to most attacks.

The Guardian (1990) – WTF Happened to This Adaptation?

The tertiary characters also vary from page to screen with Phil’s coworkers being focal points and his boss even dying trying to protect him. What’s cool in the book is that we never really know how The Nanny kills her victims but boy is it described as brutal in the aftermath. The boss character in the book, Mary Margaret Sullivan, is somewhat replaced by Ned who is the architect that built the house that Kate and Phil moved into. He has a crush on Camilla and finds out what she really is even though it costs him his life before he tries to warn them with a phone message. The violence in the movie is really amped up from the book while the story has a much more dread inducing implied tone. A great example of this is the biker scene from the movie where Camilla and her tree absolutely wreck a gang that is trying to assault her.

While there are quite a few things taken directly from the book such as some of the names and even scenes, they are clearly two different stories told from the same idea. We learn of what Camilla did through the poor family shown in the beginning while book Phil finds out by calling the references given by Lucy. There are very short chapters intercut that have a nameless man in a hospital of some kind and we slowly learn that his family was destroyed by Lucy and he eventually gets a call in to Phil. While the book has that opening chapter just like the movie shows the prologue chapter of the family before, it’s much more effective and original told by short, disjointed chapters that randomly appear. One of the final big differences is with the ending. While Julie and Harry in the book become comatose from whatever power that the nanny exudes, its just the baby in the movie and the movie has a much more definitive ending. Camilla is killed along with her tree and melts away completely while the final chapter of the book has miss Redmon trying to get with another client, having healed from all of her injuries and possibly being immortal.


Both in the realms of Fredkin’s filmography and 90’s horror in general, The Guardian isn’t discussed or even remembered fondly. It has a Scream Factory Blu-ray and is a neat if not messy horror movie to enjoy once. The same, however, could be said of the book which has no Wikipedia entry let alone any other YouTube deep dives into it. While it is one of a handful of books by the author that got turned into a movie, its certainly not his most famous contribution. That being said, it’s a very quick read and not an expensive book to find. While neither will stay with you for the rest of your life, I think the book explores more interesting and clear ideas and makes its characters much more relatable in the end. My vote is the book but check both out and decide for yourself.

A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Adaptation? can be seen below. To see the other shows we have to offer, head over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

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