You can’t laugh in here, This is the war room!

This is a piece about the development of the script Dr. Strangelove: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. SPOILERS SORT OF AHEAD

In 1964 Columbia Pictures nervously released Dr. Strangelove: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (1964)[1F], Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War comedy in which a US General snaps and sends nuclear bombers to Russia, leaving the President and his aides to try to solve the situation before the bombers destroy their targets and commence World War Three.

Kubrick, during the late fifties, had become incredibly afraid and fascinated by the prospect of nuclear war, he frequently read books on the subject, befriended experts in the field [2F] and then bought the rights to a book called Red Alert by Peter Bryant [2B]. After filming Lolita (1962) [3F] he and his production partner began work on ‘Edge of Doom’ a serious thriller based on Red Alert, as their writing sessions went deep into the night, the two found themselves wondering about the sillier possibilities of the story such as ‘What if they were hungry?, would they order out or cook themselves?’ [2F]. After sometime, James B. Harris disagreed that it was wise to turn ‘Edge of Doom’ into a comedy and he left the project to work on and direct The Bedford Project (1965)[4F] a film about an American battleship chasing a soviet nuclear submarine, told in a completely serious tone. Kubrick began the comedy re-write of the film, and hired Terry Southern to co-write on Peter Seller’s suggestion [2B]. Furthermore, Kubrick is a fan of Southern’s book The Magic Christian [3B] and was aware of his work as a satire writer already with books such as Candy [4B] which satirised pornography films of the time and modern sexuality.
This man wrote one of playboy’s 25 sexiest books ever. Think about that for a moment.

Southern was hired for a month from November 16 to December 28, 1962 [5B] to add jokes. The earliest draft of the comedy version of the film was ‘The Delicate Balance of Terror’ in which Aliens observe the events of Red Alert from space. It was described as ‘a film within a film’ [5B]. Later on they decided that for its message to work best, they should ground it in reality. From there they develop the final script; Dr. Strangelove: Or How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.
The differences between the book and the film are subtle and vast at the same time.
The primary concepts which are changed are its tone, the catalyst for the events that occur and the ending. The tone of the book is serious and does not make a single joke about the General sending the bombers towards Russia, nor the President’s frantic attempts to fix the situation before it’s too late. Conversely, the film satirises the book, not so much with the events themselves but with the characters placed in this deadly apocalyptic situation. The majority of the characters are very expressive with their actions, especially General ‘Buck’ Turgidson who is regularly jumping around the war room and talking extremely quickly or the never-seen-but-referenced Russian Premier Dmitri Kisov who is drunk and difficult to communicate with, asking bizarre questions and arguing about petty things. The catalyst for the events in the book is fairly different to that of the film, for in the book the General Quinten, who is to be relieved of duty due to worries about his mental state, orders his wing of bombers to attack Russia. The book is sympathetic towards Quinten with his under-officer eventually agreeing with him about the attack and displaying him as a man with an exceptional amount of strain for a single man to bear. Whereas the film displays the intimidating General Jack D. Ripper who decides that Russia must be destroyed since they have been ‘sapping his bodily fluids’ which he discovered ‘during the physical act of love’ in which he found himself feeling ‘a profound sense of fatigue’, so quite simply he decides to destroy Russia on the fact that he underperformed during sex and blames the communists for this problem.

This change was possibly to liken the nuclear arms race to men’s obsession with being better and ‘bigger’ than their enemies, in the film there are a great number of references to sex and sexuality through the names of the characters (President Merkin Muffley, slang for female genitalia) and symbolism (in particular Major Kong riding the nuclear bomb as a giant phallus [1B]).
The ending of Red Alert is vastly different to that of Dr. Strangelove (1964.)
In the novel, the non-answering bomber (Called the Alabama Angel in the text) drops a nuclear bomb near its target but doesn’t damage or destroy it, the premier of Russia is intent on destroying one of the USA’s cities as retribution, but is talked out of it.
This was positive ending for a book about nuclear annihilation, as no ‘world-ending’ situation is created. In contrast, the film ends with the bomber hitting a different target to the one it was assigned, since it was running low on fuel. The bomb hits and the doomsday machine becomes active, Dr. Strangelove proposes a way to survive by living in a mineshaft for a hundred years and ways to repopulate the Earth (‘Ten females to each male…as each male would be expected to prodigious service along these lines the women would have to be chosen for their sexual characteristics which would have to be of a highly stimulating nature.’)
Dr. Strangelove looking ‘highly stimulated’

followed by General ‘Buck’ Turgidson’s exclamation that the Soviets would still try to beat them at hiding in mine shafts creating a ‘mine shaft gap’ which is a parody of the ‘missile gap’ or ‘bomb gap’ noted in many theories about Nuclear Strategy [1B]. A ‘missile gap’ is when the opposing nation has better or significantly more nuclear missiles than the other and during the time in which they are building new/more missiles to catch up is the gap where the opposing nature has the potential to ‘win’ in nuclear war. Finally Dr. Strangelove rises from his wheelchair saying ‘Sir! I have a plan…MIEN FUHRER I CAN WALK!” and there follows a montage of nuclear explosions set to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”.

This change in ending was due to Kubrick’s belief that the positive/happy ending of the book was illogical and unfitting with the message of the story. With this new ending where the doomsday machine is activated, and actually shows the end of the world, the book is almost anti-climactic by comparison. In the original script, the ending was meant to be a ‘pie-fight’ where the Soviet ambassador was caught spying on the ‘big board’ and he throws a pie at General Turgidson but he ducks and it hits the president, causing flurry of white custard pies to throw around covering everything, then Dr. Strangelove attempts to commit suicide but his ‘other’ hand stops him and the shot fires into the air stopping the pie-fighting generals, he tells them that they should stop being so childish and points to the President and the ambassador who have started building sand castles out of the custard, Turgidson says that the world is now in the hands people like Dr. Strangelove and it ends there. This scene was cut by Kubrick due to his feelings that it was ‘it was farce and not consistent with the satiric tone of the rest of the film.'[3W].

Pictured: Pies. Not Picture: Good Satire.

However, there is an unresolved debate about the script, for Kubrick was very annoyed at the fact that Terry Southern was credited with the turning of the film into a satire from a serious film, when in fact Kubrick and Peter George had been working on the script for eleven months prior [5B] and also when the advertising of The Loved One [6F] displayed ‘the writer of Dr. Strangelove‘ which angered Kubrick further. Nowadays it is not widely known that Southern’s contribution was small compared to that of Kubrick’s and George’s and he is still commonly known as the main writer of the jokes in the film [1B].

The release of Dr. Strangelove [1F] was difficult for Kubrick as the studio (Columbia Pictures) were very nervous about the concept and didn’t expect it to make any money. However they may have been nervous at the time as their liaisons with Kubrick said ”The publicity department is having a hard time getting a handle on how to promote a comedy about the destruction of the planet.” [2W] and earlier on in the production “Just tell Stanley, that New York does not see anything funny about the end of the world!…as we know it.” [2W].

Dr. Strangelove’s marketing department after giving up.

They were wrong to be nervous as it turned into a box office hit and was selected by the library of Congress as one of the fifty greatest films of all time [2W], It was also nominated for four Oscars and won ten awards (Including Best British Film at the BAFTAS [1W]), To this day it remains one of the most popular and highest acclaimed comedy films of all time [4W] and influences many films even now [5F].

As it stands, Dr. Strangelove or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb [1F] is exceptional example of satire of important issue, feature-film scriptwriting and proof that great adaptations don’t need to be faithful to the source material they can be a completely new experience but still getting the same important message across.

Ahead: Tl;DR unless you’re really interested about where I got the information.


[1B] Naremore, J. (2007) On Kubrick, London, British Film Institutive
[2B] Bryant, P. (1958) Red Alert, Milton Keynes, Lightning Source UK Ltd.
[3B] Southern, T. (1959) The Magic Christian, Budapest, Andre Deutsch Ltd
[4B] Southern, T. (1958) Candy, Paris, Olympia Press
[5B]Hill, L. (2001) A Grand Guy: The Art and Life of Terry Southern, London, HarperCollins

[1W] IMDB, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)” (Online) (15/04/2010)

[2W] Visual Memory, “The Kubrick Site: Terry Southern on ‘Dr. Strangelove’” (Online) (13/04/2010) (Note: This is a reprint of a Journal article from Grand Street Issue 49#)

[3W] Visual Memory, “The Kubrick Site: Kubrick’s Interview by Joseph Gelmis” (online) (14/04/2010) (note: Excerpted from “The Film Director as Superstar”)

[4W] MetaCritic, “Metacritic: Best-Reviewed Movies” (online) (14/04/2010)

[1F] Kubrick, S. (dir.) (1964) Dr. Strangelove: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (film) UK, Columbia Pictures
[2F] Naylor, D. (dir.) (2000) Inside: ‘Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ (documentary) USA, Columbia Pictures
[3F] Kubrick, S. (dir.) (1962) Lolita (film) USA/UK, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
[4F] Harris, J.B. (dir.) (1965) The Bedford Incident (film) USA/UK, Columbia Pictures
[5F] Snyder, Z. (dir.) (2009) Watchmen (film) USA, Warner Bros. Pictures
[6F] Richardson, T. (dir.) (1965) The Loved One (film) USA, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer


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