What was Stanley Kubrick's Vision for 'Doctor Zhivago'?

Doctor Zhivago
'Doctor Zhivago'Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
David Lean's Doctor Zhivago is already an epic, but what if Stanley Kubrick was able to get his hands on it? 

Many movie fans believe the lost Stanley Kubrick movie they're dying to see was either Napolean or AI: Artificial Intelligence, but what if it was actually Doctor Zhivago? The 1965 classic epic was almost a Kubrick film. In fact, a recently discovered letter from six decades ago addressed from Kubrick to Zhivago author Boris Pasternak reveals that Kubrick wanted the book rights and had a few ideas for the film as well. 

The letter to Pasternak is dated Jan. 8, 1959, and says, “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.”

Thanks to history dug up by Kubrick historians, we know that Kubrick and producer James B. Harris were interested in acquiring the rights to Doctor Zhivago as early as December 1958. They even talked to Kirk Douglas’ production company Bryna Productions to produce and have Douglas star. 

Along with this letter, the Kubrick archive at the University of the Arts London and the Kirk Douglas papers at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research have revealed an unseen passage from Kubrick’s personal notebook in the early 1950s with his other ideas on Doctor Zhivago.

“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.

When analyzing this entry, James Fenwick, a British film historian, said: “[This] perhaps indicates how Kubrick might have gone about adapting something like Zhivago. […] I imagine it would have had the grand, epic scale of Spartacus, an adaptation of the 1951 Howard Fast novel.”

As we all know, a little director named David Lean came aboard and made a masterpiece instead. Still, it's fun to think about what the movie would look like in Kubrick's hands. 

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