Space oddity: Who will film Kubrick’s lost screenplay?
Now that it’s been found, there might be nobody brave enough to make ‘The Burning Secret’ into a movie
It’s 1955 and 27-year-old director Stanley Kubrick and his production partner James B Harris have just landed a deal with MGM after Kubrick’s third feature, The Killing, a moderately successful but technically innovative take on the heist genre has attracted the attention of studio executives.Looking around for a new project, Kubrick remembers Paths of Glory, a book by Humphrey Cobb about the futility of war, which left a lasting impression on him when he read it as a young man in the offices of his doctor father. While Harris is keen on the idea of adapting the story of three World War 1 soldiers who are executed for cowardice, MGM executives are less keen and send the eager pair of youngsters down to the studio’s library to look for more suitable material. There they come upon a novella by Jewish Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig. The Burning Secret, the story of a young boy who is lured into a false friendship by an older man who wishes to commit adultery with the boy’s mother, excites Kubrick and is green-lit as his next project by the execs.Looking for a collaborator for the screenplay, Kubrick approaches novelist Calder Willingham who is busy in Ceylon doctoring the script of David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. Upon his return Willingham and Kubrick get down to work on The Burning Secret script and produce a 100-page draft which they submit in the nick of time for comment from MGM. Then, as so often with things in the movie business, factors beyond their control (as well as some they should’ve controlled) put an end to Kubrick and Harris’s Zweig film.There is a shakeup at MGM and the executive they’ve been working with is fired. Then it turns out that, in breach of his contract, Kubrick has secretly been working on a script for Paths of Glory after hours. Kubrick would eventually go on to make Paths of Glory for rival studio United Artists in 1957 and it’s still regarded as one of cinema’s finest anti-war films.The Burning Secret would eventually be made with a different script by one of Kubrick’s former assistants, director Andrew Birkin, in 1988. What became of Kubrick and Callingham’s first draft for their adaptation remained a mystery until last weekend when Bangor University professor and Kubrick expert Nathan Abrams discovered it while researching a book on the director.Kubrick died in 1999. Over the course of his 45-year-long career he became known for the meticulous level of his preparation and the increasingly long time he took to make his 13 completed films. There are the legendary unfinished projects which he spent years researching and which then fell through for one reason or another. These include an epic film on the story of Napoleon, which he spent more than two years researching, reading an estimated 1,000 books on the French general and compiling thousands of cards detailing his subject’s thoughts about everything from the food to the weather on specific days in history. There was also Aryan Papers, Kubrick’s Holocaust film, adapted from the book War Time Lies by Louis Begley, shelved just before shooting was set to begin thanks to the earlier release of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Spielberg would go on to direct Kubrick’s AI in 2001, the only uncompleted Kubrick project to see the light of day after his death.In 2008 journalist Jon Ronson directed a documentary, Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes, in which he was given access to Kubrick’s sprawling archive of material used in the production of his films, but that film did not unearth The Burning Secret script. According to Abrams the script had been in the possession of a relative of Kubrick’s who made it available to the scholar as part of his research on the making of Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick’s successful adaptation of Dream Story, a novel by Zweig’s fellow Austrian Jewish novelist Arthur Schnitzler). Abrams has said the screenplay is over 100 pages long and described it as “a full screenplay so could be completed by filmmakers today”.That’s got many cinephile hearts ajitter but the truth is that an early 20th-century sexual mores story, which has been brought to the screen once before, may be a tough sell for even the world’s top directors in a current cinematic climate filled with superheroes and buddy comedies. Once again, as it did so many times in his life, time may just have run out for Stanley Kubrick. The Burning Secret may sadly remain an interesting artifact rather than a cinematic reality.