Remembering Napoleon’s Defeat of Kubrick

One of the challenges for a historical novelist or screenwriter is knowing when it’s time to move from research to the blank page.

Determined to tell the story of Napoleon, the late director Stanley Kubrick spent two years gathering background information for what he believed would be “the greatest movie ever made.” Yet the more he delved into his subject, the more he became swallowed up by the sheer vastness and enigma of the French general and emperor. As a result, Kubrick’s obsession never made it to the screen, but the surviving relics of his Sisyphean labors have now been collected for our benefit.

Kubrick expert Frederic Raphael, a prolific novelist and screenwriter, has applauded this effort in his review in The Wall Street Journal (August 13, 2011) of Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made, a collection of the director’s notes and files edited by Alison Castle.

According to Taschen–the publisher of this massive undertaking of ten books totaling 2874 pages–film buffs had long waited for Kubrick’s film on Napoleon, which was slated to go into production after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Enlisting dozens of assistants and an Oxford don, the director accumulated nearly 15,000 location scouting photographs and 17,000 slides of Napoleonic imagery.

Both M.G.M. and United Artists, however, decided at the time that historical epics were no longer marketable, and Kubrick never realized his dream.

“The more material [Kubrick] perused, the more he thought he needed,” said Raphael in his review. He also observed that “Kubrick exhibited an appetite for learning that smacks of neurotic postponement.”

Kubrick agonized over many of the conundrums that plague writers of historical fiction, including how to depict 19th century French characters speaking in English without making them sound apocryphal or anachronistic.

Raphael concluded that “it was always going to be impossible to cram everything onto the screen. But why did he bother creating from whole cloth when, for instance, Vincent Cronin’s one-volume life of Napoleon offered quite enough material on which to build an imaginative script?”

Historical novelists who become immersed in their subject know all too well the answer to that question.