Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon biopic has long been considered the greatest film the director never made, but now cinephiles can add “Doctor Zhivago” to that list thanks to a recently discovered letter from six decades ago in which Kubrick wrote to “Zhivago” author Boris Pasternak asking for rights to the epic novel. The discovery was made by British film historian James Fenwick (via The Guardian) during his research for two upcoming books, “Stanley Kubrick Produces” and “Shadow Cinema: The Historical and Production Contexts of Unmade Films.”
According to Fenwick’s research, Kubrick and producer James B. Harris were interested in acquiring the rights to “Doctor Zhivago” as early as December 1958. The two men were in discussions with Kirk Douglas’ production company Bryna Productions to mount the “Zhivago” adaptation as a Hollywood production, years before David Lean started work on his famous adaptation in the U.K. The plan was for Douglas to star in the title role, reuniting the actor with Kubrick after “Paths of Glory.”
Kubrick wrote in a letter to Pasternak dated January 8, 1959: “The last film we made, ‘Paths of Glory,’ received the best picture of the year award in Belgium, Brazil and Finland. We would now like to buy the motion picture rights to ‘Doctor Zhivago.’ We have contacted the law firm in New York who represent the Italian publishers of the book. Negotiations are at a standstill as they are not yet prepared to finalize a deal.”
Additional evidence relating to Kubrick’s “Doctor Zhivago” plan was found in the Kubrick archive at the University of the Arts London and the Kirk Douglas papers at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. An unseen passage from Kubrick’s personal notebook in the early 1950s found the director already eying a massive literary adaptation.
“The precise moment of absolute success for a director is when he is allowed to film a great literary classic of over 600 pages, which he does not understand too well, and which is anyway impossible to film properly due to the complexity of the plot or the elusiveness of its form or content,” Kubrick wrote.
Kubrick’s “Zhivago” plan never got off the ground, but his wish to reunite with “Paths of Glory” star Douglas was granted as the two instead got to work on 1960s’ “Spartacus.” Two years later, Kubrick would release his Vladimir Nabokov adaptation “Lolita.” David Lean’s “Zhivago” opened in 1965, starring Omar Sharif in the title role opposite Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, and Alec Guinness. The film was a smash success, winning five Oscars out of 10 nominations. Adjusted for inflation, “Doctor Zhivago” grossed $2.2 billion and remains the ninth highest-grossing film ever released.
Head over to The Guardian’s website to read more about Kubrick’s “Zhivago” and Fenwick’s discovery.