Long before the success of "National Lampoon's Animal House" launched careers and a renewed interest in Greek fraternities, it had to get sold as a story. After multiple directors passed on it, John Landis would eventually come on board, telling Indiewire that he "was hired to develop it, basically to supervise the rewrite." The screenplay was a collaborative effort, the work of "The National Lampoon Show" star and writer Harold Ramis, "National Lampoon Magazine" co-founder Douglas Kenney, and Chris Miller, whose "The Night of the Seven Fires" story served as a springboard for what would become the sordid saga of Faber College's Delta Tau Chi house. Early drafts were going long on absurd concepts; one seedling of a story focused on cult leader Charles Manson as he navigated high school.

In Matty Simmons' book "Fat, Drunk, and Stupid," the producer looks back on the writing process for "Animal House," which often took place in their respective homes, Lampoon's boardroom, or at producer Ivan Reitman's Toronto home. Simmons would yell "Black hats! White hats!" at the writers, in reference to the old Hollywood Western trope of clearly established good guys and bad guys; these would evolve into the Deltas and the snooty Omegas, plus one mean Dean. Simmons recalls:

"So Doug, Harold, and Chris wrote a treatment. A treatment is normally twenty to thirty pages long. Ours was 114 pages long. I remember one studio executive later saying, 'This is like 'War and Peace' on speed. Usually I read a treatment in fifteen to twenty minutes, this one took two hours.' The ideas were there, as was the humor, but it was all over the place and I had great doubts about some of the elements in it."

Laser Orgy Girls?

So, the writers plodded away at further drafts. "We had a treatment that had taken nearly a year to write and wasn't exactly structured," Simmons continues, "but we were sure we had something."

Nick de Semlyen's book "Wild and Crazy Guys" paints a picture of "controlled chaos" in the writing room, a space wherein Miller, Ramis, and Kenney "typed with one hand while holding joints with the other." This shouldn't be shocking to those familiar with National Lampoon where dead dogs, drugs, and debauchery rule the day. Semlyen describes Universal president and all-around square Ned Tanen grumbling to the writers, "I'd never make this movie — except you're the National Lampoon."

What grew from those smoke-filled writing sessions was a loose expansion of Miller's short story "Night of the Seven Fires," a lewd account of his fraternity initiation at Dartmouth College first printed in the October '74 issue of "National Lampoon Magazine" alongside pieces like a "Boys' Life" parody and Kenney's send-up "Nancy Drew and the Case of the Missing Heiress." One element that didn't make the journey from story to screen: an inebriated freshman vomiting on another's genitals. It would briefly carry the title "Laser Orgy Girls" before swapping the lasers and orgies for food fights and toga parties, and the rest is history.

In the end, the story may not have been "War and Peace," but it was a sprawling tale of failure and triumph, carefree abandon and coiled rage, all in a 109-minute party. One part hilarious writing, one part stacked cast, and one part disciplined director made for a comedy classic as intimidating for its successors to match as any Tolstoy work.

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