Study Guide

Dr. Strangelove Screenwriter

Screenwriter

Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, Terry Southern (and Let's Not Forget about Peter Sellers)

It All Began with a Little Paranoia

It all started when Stanley Kubrick got paranoid about the Bomb. Well, "paranoid" is probably not the right word, cuz like...the nuclear annihilation of all life on Earth was a very real possibility. Especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which almost sparked a nuclear war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R, Kubrick's fear of a potential nuclear war was well founded. But instead of hunkering down in a bunker somewhere with a lifetime's supply of beans, Kubrick dealt with his fear the way any great filmmaker would—he decided to make a movie about it.

Red Alert

Kubrick devoured stacks upon stacks of books about the bomb and thermonuclear war in general (ya know...a little light reading). Eventually, James Harris recommended a novel by Peter George called Red Alert, which is all about a crazy general who unilaterally starts a nuclear war.

At this point, Kubrick had all intentions of creating a totally serious adaptation of George's novel. So he bought the rights to the book, brought George on to help him adapt the screenplay, and the two set out to create a thriller that warned the world about the very real threat of the human race basically committing mass suicide through nuclear war. Uh, wait...isn't Dr. Strangelove a comedy, though? How'd that happen?

Things Get Weird

Despite the fact that the subject matter was about as serious as subject matter gets, Kubrick kept coming across stuff that was just plain funny. He found himself cutting details from the script that were absurd and likely to get unintended laughs. But suddenly it occurred to him that the way the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were building up arms that could potentially destroy our species was, in fact, absurd. In a way, the situation he was so fearful of was darkly hilarious.

Kubrick and George re-imagined the tone of the whole script and let it be as absurd as it wanted to be. They even put a frame on the whole story, where aliens find a devastated Earth and try to figure out how it all went down (though this was eventually dropped). At Peter Sellers' suggestion, Kubrick also brought on funny-guy author Terry Southern, whose satiric novels Candy and The Magic Christian had recently become popular. Southern actually did a lot of his writing on set (while on amphetamines) and came up with some of the film's funniest lines.

The Sellers Factor

We'd also be totally remiss if we didn't mention Peter Sellers' uncredited contribution to the script. Sellers was famous for his mad improvisation skills, and Kubrick would just let him do his thing on set with the cameras rolling. Dr. Strangelove's weird arm shtick, Mandrake's awkward interactions with Ripper, President Muffley's ridiculous conversations with the Soviet Premier Dimitri—Sellers made all this stuff up on the spot. Kubrick knew a good thing when he saw it and included the best Sellers' improv in the film and the final script.

The Consultant

Herman Kahn was a military theorist who worked for the Rand Corporation, the research arm of the Air Force (satirized in the film as the Bland Corporation), and wrote a book titled On Thermonuclear War. Kubrick studied the book extensively while planning the movie, and spoke with Kahn many times. Lots of ideas from the book are included in the film, like Turgidson's belief that nuclear war was winnable, even if it meant tens of millions of American casualties. Kahn described a "Doomsday Machine" and suggested mineshafts as evacuation centers in the case of nuclear attack. Muffley's question about whether the living would envy the dead is taken right from the book. (Kahn's answer? No.)

In a New Yorker essay about Kahn, Louis Menand writes:

There were so many lines from On Thermonuclear Warin the movie, in fact, that Kahn complained that he should get royalties. ("It doesn't work that way," Kubrick told him.) Kahn received something more lasting than money, of course. He got himself pinned in people's minds to the figure of Dr. Strangelove, and he bore the mark of that association forever. (Source)

Kahn didn't contribute at all to writing the screenplay, but he definitely inspired the writers.

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