Steven Spielberg Stanley Kubrick: Why Spielberg Shouldn't Adapt Kubrick's 'Napoleon'


In bad news for film aficionados everywhere, Steven Spielberg recently revealed he intends to develop an abandoned Stanley Kubrick Napoleon script into a miniseries. Little is known about the biopic, which Kubrick quit in 1971, except that the deceased filmmaker expected it to be “the best movie ever made.”

Both men are good at what they do, and both do very different things. We saw what happens when their minds collide 12 years ago, when Spielberg turned Kubrick’s concept for AI: Artificial Intelligence into an unremarkable Haley Joel Osment vehicle. Because of their contrasting and somewhat mutually exclusive styles, it’s hard to imagine Napoleon faring any better. 

Kubrick began his career as a photojournalist, an occupation that informed his film-making. His movies are visual clinics, notoriously grand in both scope and subject matter. In the early 1970s, he constructed a new camera with which to film his period epic Barry Lyndon: his visual inspirations were 18th century oil paintings, and he wanted his film’s visual style to reflect the composition, natural outdoor lighting, and candle-lit interiors of those works. Yet aside from the visuals, the movie itself is ponderously paced and hard to sit through.

Spielberg, on the other hand, is an escapist at heart. His admiration of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers and Saturday matinee serials are on full display in his most famous films, from Jaws to Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Adventures of Tintin. Pacing is key: if it’s slow, odds are Spielberg didn’t make it. This is also a reflection of his background in television, and that medium’s emphasis on a rapid, mobile, and constantly engaging presentation of information.

But their differences are most prominently displayed in their famous science fiction efforts. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick’s 1968 epic about the evolution of humanity, deliberately makes it ways through various locales and time periods, from Africa in the past to outer space in the future. The film is long and sometimes hard to follow, and features no prominent characters to emotionally connect with. In E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, alternately, Spielberg presents the heartwarming, kid-friendly tale of a little boy who befriends an alien. Using Skittles as a symbolic goodwill olive branch, no less. It’s hard to imagine two approaches to life “out there” that differ as profoundly as these two films.

If there’s any common ground, it appears when Spielberg takes Kubrick’s work as inspiration for his own. One need only look at the ever-present “mound” in Close Encounters of the Third Kind to be reminded of Kubrick’s 2001 "monolith."

When Spielberg's escapism and sentimentality meets Kubrick’s comparatively cold and deliberate aesthetic, the results are mismatched. AI felt like exactly what it was: Spielberg’s attempt to make a Kubrick movie. The only hope for Napoleon lies in Spielberg’s aptitude for historical drama. Schindler’s List, for example, stands apart as one of the more powerful Holocaust films I've ever seen.

So there is hope for Napoleon. But the last creative “partnership” between these two leaves me skeptical regarding its success.