As ranked by our contributors, a list of the greatest films never made. The criteria for this survey is that the projects were all at one time planned or attempted by one or many directors. This is not a list of unproduced screenplays, but of unrealized productions. Any films that were ultimately made by another director have been discounted, hence the absence of Orson Welles’s The Big Brass Ring.
1. Heart of Darkness Orson Welles
Adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novella. The production began to fall apart when Welles took a long delay in getting the script out to his actors. In addition, the script was too long (at 184 pages) and with special effects work, miniatures, process and matte shots, and huge jungle sets, the film’s budget exceeded $1 million.
2. Genesis Robert Bresson
A lavish adaptation of the Book of Genesis. Dino de Laurentiis had agreed to finance, but Bresson abandoned the project only to take it up again and then abandon it a second time. He once said that one of the frustrations with the production was that he couldn’t make his animal performers do as they were told.
3. Napoleon Stanley Kubrick
A biopic on Napoleon set to be made just after the successes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick was so enthusiastic to make the project that he confessed to identifying with Bonaparte even down to the way he ate his food. Jack Nicholson was slated to play the title character, but when corporate changes hit MGM, Kubrick lost the approval.
Eisenstein with Sternberg, who would later adapt the novel
4. An American Tragedy Sergei Eisenstein
1930 Adaptation of Dreiser’s novel to be produced by Paramount. Selznick thought the script terribly moving, but too depressing for commercial success: “a subject that will appeal to our vanity through the critical acclaim…but that cannot possibly offer anything but a most miserable two hours to millions of happy-minded young Americans.”
5. Jesus Carl Theodor Dreyer
Aimed to depict the historical Jesus (a human Jesus) and “to stamp out the myth that the Jewish people are to blame for Jesus’ death.”
6. The Adventures of Harry Dickson Alain Resnais
Based on a 1931-40 crime series by Jean Ray: to star Dirk Bogarde or Laurence Olivier as the eponymous Harry Dickson with mostly British and American actors in the cast, including Vanessa Redgrave. Surrealist Andre Delvaux had signed on to design the sets and Stockhausen had agreed to pen the music.
7. I, Claudius Joseph von Sternberg
Adaptation of the Robert Graves novel. The film was abandoned because of a serious car accident during production involving one of the actors.
8. Kaleidoscope Alfred Hitchcock
After watching Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Hitchcock felt he was a century behind the Italians in technique. He asked the novelist Howard Fast to sketch a treatment about a gay, deformed serial killer. Pleased with the results, Hitchcock composed a shot list with over 450 camera positions and shot an hour’s worth of experimental color tests. However, MCA/Universal were disgusted by the script and immediately cancelled the project reducing Hitchcock to tears.</p>
9. The Aryan Papers Stanley Kubrick
Based on novel by Louis Begley Wartime Lies about the young son of a wealthy jewish family forced to flee when the Germans invade Poland. To shoot in Denmark. Cast to include Joseph Maziello of Jurassic Park, and Uma Thurman or Julia Roberts.
10. The Idiot Andrei Tarkovsky
An adaptation of the Dostoevsky novel, but Tarkovsky died before it could be realized.
11. Leningrad: The 900 Days Sergio Leone
Inspired by the “invasion theme” of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. Influenced by Times journalist Harrison Salisbury’s book 900 Days—the Siege of Leningrad. A story of doomed love between a cynical American newsreel cameraman and a young Soviet girl against the epic background of the siege (Leone: “think of Gone with the Wind”). Leone imagined Robert De Niro in the lead. Music by Ennio Morricone. To be shot in the USSR. Delayed indefinitely by Leone’s inability to commit his many ideas to paper and Soviet producers’ reluctance to grant permission.
12. The Moviegoer Terrence Malick
Adaptation of Walker Percy novel.
13. À la recherche du temps perdu Luchino Visconti
In 1969 Visconti commissioned a script by Suso Cecchi d’Amico. Visconti conducted rigorous research around Paris and the Normandy coast. The usual collaborators were retained: Nicole Stéphane, photographer Claude Schwartz, costume designer Piero Tosi, and set designer Mario Garbuglia. Silvana Mangano was to play Duchesse de Guermantes, Alain Delon or Dustin Hoffman the Narrator-Protagonist Marcel, and Helmut Berger Baron Charlus’s homosexual protégé Charlie Morel.—huge cast, huge budget, four hours long. Laurence Olivier or Marlon Brando considered for Charlus.
14. The Duchess of Langeais Max Ophüls
The film, an adaptation of the Balzac novel, was meant to be a comeback vehicle for Greta Garbo. Screen tests were taken, but the film could not get financial backing and fell apart.
15. The Crusades Paul Verhoeven
With a $150 million budget, Arnold Schwarzenegger was signed for the lead role. The film was to be produced by Carolco, who in the same year produced Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island. The company didn’t want to take a risk by doing two big-budget films at once, so Verhoeven made Showgirls instead while Cutthroat Island filmed. When Cutthroat Island flopped, Carolco went bankrupt and The Crusades never materialized.
16. The Cradle Will Rock, Orson Welles
Based on story of Welles’s 1937 production. John Landis and George Folsey to executive produce. Welles rewrote screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. Rupert Everett to star as Welles.
17. À la recherche du temps perdu, Joseph Losey
In the Seventies Harold Pinter teamed up Losey and Proust scholar Barbara Bray to develop a screenplay.
18. Gershwin, Martin Scorsese
Paul Schrader wrote the script for this biopic about the American composer. It was intended that there would be lavish production numbers of Gershwin’s works that would be related to scenes from his life discussed by Gershwin on a psychologist’s couch. The project was cancelled due to complications with rights and the fear that a young audience would not understand or care about Gershwin.
19. The House of Bernarda Alba, Luis Buñuel
20. The Conquest of Mexico, Werner Herzog
From the perspective of the conquered Aztecs. He says the film would be so expensive that it could only be made with the backing of a Hollywood studio.