Sorry, Guillermo del Toro, there’s another auteur adding to his pile of famously unrealized epics: Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick, would-be director of Napoleon and Aryan Papers (even a Beatles-starring Lord of the Rings) and actual director of The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, added Doctor Zhivago to his list of films that sputtered before the finish line thanks to the discovery of a long-lost letter.
The Guardian reports that, according to a 1959 letter, the legendary filmmaker was trying to snag the rights to Boris Pasternak’s novel. That’s half a decade before director David Lean finally brought it to the screen. Further documentation revealed that Kubrick was also looking to reunite with his Paths of Glory star Kirk Douglas on the project through the latter’s production company, Bryna Productions.
Dug up by British film historian James Fenwick – who found the documents hiding in the University of the Arts London’s Kubrick archive and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research’s Kirk Douglas papers – this new information gives Kubrick nerds the world over yet another unmade film to speculate over when they’re tired of debating how A.I. would’ve been different if Kubrick had been behind the camera as planned.
To aid in that dorm room debate is Kubrick himself, who encourages hypotheses of how he’d adapt the story in his own self-effacing writings. “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 of Doctor Zhivago.
An epic that even the director doesn’t quite get? Sounds perfect for a bunch of Doctor Zhivago-style Room 237 interpretations. The late filmmaker left plenty on the table after a long career of perfectionist craftsmanship, which makes his handful of abandoned or otherwise unfulfilled projects all the more tantalizing for those that love his work.
While it’s unclear if Douglas would’ve really starred in the project as well as producing it, these archival texts certainly conjure up a fascinating “what if?” scenario where Spartacus never happened and Douglas, not Omar Sharif, brought Yuri Zhivago to the screen.