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Stanley Kubrick once explained how he adapts novels into screenplays

One of the strongest elements about the illustrious filmography of Stanley Kubrick is the fact that it has tackled a wide variety of subjects, ranging from the apocalyptic consequences of human evolution in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the hilarious hypocrisies of the military industrial complex in Dr. Strangelove. It is because of this diversity that almost all of Kubrick’s films are religiously studied to this day.

Over the course of his career, Kubrick has conducted film adaptations of iconic source materials and has transformed them into original entities. While some authors like Anthony Burgess have applauded Kubrick’s fiercely creative artistic vision for revitalising their works, others, such as Stephen King, have expressed intense disappointment about Kubrick’s interpretations of their literary efforts.

Kubrick always maintained that it was extremely difficult for a film to possess a wide dramatic appeal while also having the revelatory truths that are embedded throughout literary masterpieces. Having never written an original screenplay himself, the auteur believed: “There’s one great advantage taking it from literary material, and that is that you have the opportunity of reading the story for the first time”.

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He insisted that writing an original screenplay diminishes the objective view one has of a material. Kubrick speculated that any decisive opinions about whether a script was interesting or not would be gone by the time the writer finished drafting it up because they would develop a personal connection to the story. That is why Kubrick always stuck to existing material in order to impart his own sensibilities to their adaptations once he had determined that they were worthwhile projects.

While discussing A Clockwork Orange in an interview, Kubrick described Burgess’ work as a “miracle” and explained that writing a novel like that is a magical process but writing a screenplay is much more “logical”. He claimed that it existed somewhere in the middle of the spectrum whose one end was the act of writing and the other end was the act of breaking a code. To Kubrick, this process did not warrant innovation or invention but methodical programming.

The director claimed that the screenwriter’s intentions do not matter when considering the production aspect of things as well as the funding. That’s why, Kubrick argued, basing one’s screenplay on material that is already recognised as a good jumping off point is a no-brainer because it not only ensures the best opportunity of turning profits but also “the stronger the story, the more chances you can take with everything else”.

That doesn’t mean that Kubrick was advocating for the mindless book adaptations that are churned out every year to capitalise on the brand value of the source material. Instead, the director cited the example of Dr. Strangelove which was based on a suspense novel by Peter George. Instead of following those tropes, Kubrick transformed it into one of the great satirical masterpieces of the 20th century. While Kubrick claimed that the “invention of a novelist” wasn’t required in a screenwriter, reinvention is certainly very important.

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