The script, which has been certified by Kubrick experts, is said to be virtually complete, raising the question, would a film or TV company take it on today? We’ve just had a semi-complete Orson Welles movie pieced together, after all.
Entitled Burning Secret, the script is an adaptation of the 1913 novella by the acclaimed and often-adapted Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. In Kubrick’s adaptation of the story, a suave insurance salesman befriends a 10-year-old boy at a spa resort so he is able seduce the child’s married mother. In Zweig’s original, the story is set in Austria but Kubrick’s script transfers the story to America of the 1950s with American characters.
The visionary filmmaker wrote it in 1956 with American novelist Calder Willingham (The Graduate), with whom he went on to collaborate on anti-war movie Paths Of Glory a year later.
The screenplay was initially in the works with MGM and the script has the studio’s stamp on it. The manuscript is dated 24 October 1956, when Kubrick was still forging his career, having just made crime pic The Killing. Today, MGM is unsure as to whether it has any ownership of the IP. The studio told us it is “reviewing the matter internally”. The Kubrick Trust and Kubrick’s family don’t own any rights to it.
It is not entirely clear why the picture didn’t see the light of day at the time but biographers have speculated that it could have been down to staff turnover at the studio or a contractual dispute arising from Kubrick’s concurrent work on Paths Of Glory. Kubrick scholars have also said the subject matter could have been deemed too risqué. Infused with passion and the theme of adultery, and with the experience of a 10-year old boy at its heart, academic Nathan Abrams previously told The Guardian the project could have fallen foul of Hollywood’s Production Code, “The child acts as an unwitting go-between for his mother and her would-be lover, making for a disturbing story with sexuality and child abuse churning beneath its surface.”
He described Burning Secret as “the inverse of Lolita”, Kubrick’s adaptation of the controversial Vladimir Nabokov classic. “In Burning Secret, the main character befriends the son to get to the mother. In Lolita, he marries the mother to get to the daughter. I think that with the 1956 Production Code, that would be a tricky one to get by. But he managed with Lolita in 1962 – only just.” Such a plot-line might remain problematic for studios today. An indie might be more receptive.
We spoke to the recently revealed current owner of the script, Oscar-nominated composer Gerald Fried about how he came to the project. Fried was a life-long friend of Kubrick and was the composer on his first five films, including The Killing and Paths Of Glory, “We grew up as friends together in New York,” Fried told us. “I did five movies for him so it was natural that I would discuss the music possibilities for this film. He never asked me to return the script so I just added it to the big pile of projects I had in my apartment. I have many letters and pictures from Stanley. If they do ever make a film version of the script I’d like to be considered for the composer role,” laughs the 90 year-old.
Since the script came to light some months ago, Fried’s son Joshua, who manages his father’s film archive, has been contacted about it by a small number of film professionals, including Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s producer on movies including The Shining, Barry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket. Harlan, the brother of Kubrick’s wife Christiane, was also an executive producer on A.I., the big-budget sci-fi project long-championed by Kubrick but only filmed after his death by Steven Spielberg. However, Harlan told us that at 82 his filmmaking days are behind him.
Interest is understandable, nonetheless. “As far as I’m aware this is the only known Burning Secret manuscript,” Joshua Fried tells me. “I suppose somewhere in a vault there may be another copy but that would be several layers before whoever most recently bought MGM and this was a project the studio rejected at the time. The only way to see this text is to have this object or be me or academic Nathan Abrams with whom we shared it.”
Does he think it could work as a film? “There are some parts which could seem a little dated but the denouement is very strong. It solidifies the transformation of the child and solidifies his relationship to all the adults. Before that he is bewildered by their behavior. A lot of meaning is packed into that one moment. The project also has some strong resonance with Eyes Wide Shut in terms of its themes of sexual mystery.”
A version of Zweig’s novella, based on a different screenplay, was made in 1988 by Kubrick’s former assistant Andrew Birkin. There was also a 1933 Austrian-German version from Robert Siodmak. Kubrick of course worked on numerous intriguing film projects that were never completed, among them, Napoleon and Aryan Papers.
If Kubrick’s Burning Secret script were ever to be taken on for the silver screen, chain of title would only be one hurdle. The subject matter might still trouble some, while doing justice to a Kubrick concept might be the most difficult challenge of all to overcome.