9 of the best movie screenplays that never got made

In Hollywood, any screenwriter will tell you that the process of getting a movie made is one hell of an uphill struggle. While critics and cinephiles alike always enjoy bemoaning the fact that modern movies seem to be getting less and less original, focusing on endlessly rebooting and updating easily-marketable properties to sell to the lowest common denominator, In fact, it’s a commonly accepted axiom that 99 per cent of all screenplays written in a year, even those developed by professional and well-regarded authors, will never see the light of day.

Over the years, there have been scores of truly innovative and well-crafted stories that have been mired in the development stages and then axed. Hollywood executives are fickle beasts, always chasing the next big trend or money-making concept. Hesitate for too long and producers will quickly lose interest. As someone who’s fascinated by the mechanics of storytelling, I’ve always found it enlightening to read up on what could have been, and brood over the shlock that ended up replacing it. If you want to really depress yourself, then check out some of the best movie screenplays that never got a chance.

1. 1969: A Space Odyssey (Or How Kubrick Learned To Stop Worrying And Land On The Moon)

For years, conspiracy theorists have insisted that the moon landing was faked and that only Stanley Kubrick (a man who represented the logistics of space travel so accurately in his movie 2001: A Space Odyssey that NASA consultants thought there had been a leak) was capable of filming it. But how would a famously prima donna director conduct this kind of illusion? That’s exactly what screenwriter Stephany Folsom wanted to explore in the script for 1969: A Space Odyssey (Or How Kubrick Learned To Stop Worrying And Land On The Moon). So far the script has been in development hell for the last four years, despite the fact that it has routinely appeared on the Hollywood Blacklist for best screenplays. Maybe we’ll see it one day; who knows?

Director Stanley Kubrick. Credit: Getty

2. Superman Lives

In the mid-90’s, the Superman movie franchise was in dire straits after Superman IV: The Quest for Peace tanked at the box office and was a critical failure. Executives at Warner Bros. were looking for a way to revitalise the property and turned to Clerks director (and longtime comic book fan) Kevin Smith to look over a screenplay entitled The Return of Superman. Smith hated the draft he was shown, and offered to write his own. From the little we know of the project, it sounds as though it would be been pretty trippy, and would have starred (of all people) fellow Superman geek Nicholas Cage as the Man of Steel. Other plot points include a luminous super-suit, and a Lex Luthor/Brainiac hybrid (a subtle allusion to Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?). Best of all? The movie was to be helmed by Tim Burton. Eventually conflicts with producer Jon Peters (who wanted, among other things, no flight, no super suit, and a battle with a giant spider) left the project mired in development hell.

3. At the Mountains of Madness

I myself am a big fan of the works of H.P. Lovecraft and, apart from the campy and thoroughly tongue-in cheek Herbert West: Reanimator, we haven’t seen a decent cinematic adaptation of any of the stories from the Cthulhu Mythos - although horror movies have been pilfering from him for decades. So for Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo Del Toro to plan to make a movie version of At the Mountains of Madness, it seemed too good to be true… because it was. Although Del Toro and screenwriter Matthew Robbins wrote a screenplay back in 2006, it was deemed to be too similar to the (completely mediocre) crossover movie Alien versus Predator, which was also set in a pyramid in the Arctic built by an ancient civilisation who interacted with eldritch horrors from space. In 2011 it looked as though the project looked like it was going to get made… but then studio executives tried to push for a PG-13 rating instead of an R and Del Toro pulled out. By the time Ridley Scott’s Prometheus came out, the project was killed.

4. Night Skies

After the success of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the director wanted to work on something that approached the subject of extraterrestrial life from a more overtly creepy angle. Night Skies was his take on that idea: a movie that can best be summed up as "Straw Dogs, but with aliens instead of yokels." Written by John Sayles, Night Skies would have concerned a rural American family whose farmhouse is terrorised by malicious aliens one night, in an incident akin to the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter. Eventually, Spielberg came to the conclusion that a film that approached alien life from a more optimistic angle would be better, and thus Night Skies gradually mutated into ET.

5. Alien: Engineers

Speaking of Prometheus, I can’t be the only person who was disappointed by that movie. Despite strong performances, a great premise (who wouldn’t want a decent Alien prequel? Come on) and awesome visuals, it failed to live up to the hype and some of those plot holes were too glaring to overlook. But before Lost writer Damon Lindorf was brought in for a big rewrite, John Spaihts’ script, entitled Alien: Engineers was a lot more coherent. This movie would have acted as a direct sequel to Alien, taking place on the planet LV-426, and featuring a battle with an Engineer born alien called the "Ultramorph". Alien: Covenant came out earlier this year, and used certain elements of this screenplay, but many fans feel that it’s just muddied the franchise even more.

6. Nottingham

I’m sure that by now most of us have forgotten Ridley Scott’s bland and uninspiring 2010 reinterpretation of Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe as the eponymous archer. But there was a time when the original script for this lacklustre flick was considered one of the hottest screenplays ever. Together, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, he wrote Nottingham, a dark and morally ambiguous take on the mythos, in which the traditionally-villainous Sheriff of Nottingham is the protagonist, using medieval detective methods to catch a nobleman-murdering bandit rebel; gradually revealed as Robin Hood. Although it was a bold idea, director Ridley Scott wanted to make something in the vein as his already-successful historical epics, and thus had Brian Helgeland do a rewrite.

7. Napoleon

Following the conclusion of his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick wanted to begin work on his magnum opus and explore one of his own personal obsessions: the life of French Emperor, Napoleon. To that end, he spent two years extensively researching Napoleon's life, reading hundreds of books, as well as Napoleon's personal memoirs. Jack Nicholson was cast as the lead, and the movie was in pre-production and ready to begin filming in 1969 when MGM cancelled the project. Steven Spielberg has since expressed a desire to adapt Kubrick’s screenplay and turn it into a TV miniseries.

8. Crusade

Dutch director Paul Verhoeven is best known for his sci-fi films, which typically take a cynically satirical look at modern society through the lens of speculative fiction (such as RoboCop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers). With Crusade (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) he would have turned his attention to medieval history that cast the European invaders of the holy land as bigoted, genocidal bigots invading an innocent people. “The story of the Crusades,” he stated, “is the murderous attack of the Christians on the Arabs and the Jews” - a story of Islamophobia and hawkish jingoism made all the more poignant by the Gulf War. Unfortunately, the $200 million needed to actually make the picture meant that the screenplay was canned.

Director Paul Verhoeven. Credit: Getty

9. The Tourist

There was a time when Clair Noto’s weird and disturbing sci-fi script for The Tourist, was all anyone in Hollywood was talking about. Kim Bassinger was planning to star in it, Alien designer H.R. Giger was lead artist, and Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola had optioned the rights. The plot was a little like Men in Black, with the comedy exchanged for a sensual surrealism. In it, a number of aliens are in hiding on Earth in secret and Grace Ripley, our protagonist, has morphed into human form and assumed the persona high-powered business executive in New York. By night she hangs out with other extraterrestrials at a club called “The Corridor.” It was dark, noirish, feminist and uncompromisingly sexual. So what went wrong? Ultimately, too many executives and producers got involved, and seemed too willing to compromise on her vision without her consent, so she exercised her get-out clause, and the movie never got made.

It's a shame that we'll never get to see some of these films, or that if they do they'll be so far removed from the author's intent that they may as well be a completely different movie. Still, hopefully this won't discourage new talent from producing art and writing movies of their own.