Andrew Garfield, Marc Webb, Tobey Maguire, Sam Raimi: what if Alain Resnais and Henry Winkler were added to that list? It seems improbable, but once upon a time the legendary director of the French New Wave and the Fonz were close to creating the first Spider-Man film.
In the late sixties, Resnais was one of the most respected arthouse directors around. Responsible for classics like Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima, Mon Amour, surely a gaudy superhero film was the last thing on his mind?
In reality, Resnais was actually a huge comic book fan, an unsurprising fact when you consider the popularity of the form in his native France. Later in life he even told Stan Lee that he had learned to read English from Marvel comic books. Back in 1958, Resnais tried and failed to adapt the classic Tintin story, The Black Island, and another comic book hero Red Ryder. Just think how differently Resnais might have been perceived if his filmography had read: Night and Fog, Red Ryder then Hiroshima, Mon Amour!
Resnais went on to make further classics like Muriel and Je t’aime je t’aime, until an offer from the webslinger swung into his life for the first time:
“A small American production company actually offered me Spider-Man in 1968 or 1969. This was the time when superheroes dressed in pyjamas. I refused, arguing that any American filmmaker would do better than me.”
A sensible conclusion perhaps? Back in the late sixties, superheroes were extremely popular, but had none of the prestige of the modern Marvel behemoth. Despite, or maybe because of, his love of comics, Resnais rejected the offer, later stating, “As a young filmmaker, there was one thing that felt forbidden: adapting a novel or a comic book, because I thought it was impossible.” So it wasn’t a case of Resnais feeling over-qualified for the lowbrow sensibilities of a superhero film, but more accurately his huge respect for the form making it untouchable in his eyes.
Nevertheless, Resnais’s love of comic books and Marvel was undiminished and soon after he got in touch with Stan Lee. The two became firm friends, but at the time, Spider-Man was the last project on either of their minds. Instead they had far more ambitious plans, collaborating on not one but two new film ideas. The first of these was called The Inmates and Lee said it was
“to do with the whole human race, why we’re on Earth, and what our relationship is with the rest of the Universe. It poses a theory which I hope is a very original, unusual one. It’s very philosophical – but there is a lot of science fiction. I’ve written the treatment for it, and I suggested that Alain get another screenwriter to do the screenplay, but he keeps saying he wants it to be my script completely – he wants it to be my language.”
At the same time they sold a treatment for a film called The Monster Maker for $25,000, a lot of money back then. It was about a Roger Corman-esque filmmaker who tried to make the step up to high-budget, quality films and according to Lee, “it had to do with pollution and stuff – a crazy movie but it would have worked if Alain had let me rewrite it.” Sadly, Resnais’s stubbornness and commitment to his vision got in the way again as he refused to allow alterations to Lee’s script or reduce the budget. As Lee later recalled, somewhat bitterly, “I said, ‘Alain, I’ll change it, I’ll change it!’ ‘No, you wheel not change a word!’ Well, the goddamn script is still sitting there, on a shelf somewhere.”
After these aborted attempts to meld their comic book and arthouse ideals, the pair remained in contact and after the success of Superman: The Movie, Lee offered one final proposal to his close friend: Spider-Man, with Henry Winkler.
It’s unclear whether Resnais refused Lee or if the project fell through of its own accord, but either way, it’s probably for the best. Despite the sci-fi slant of some of his work, a Spider-Man film seems a step too far for Resnais, and as much as Henry Winkler was a huge star when this idea was pitched, it’s hard to imagine him doing justice to the dual roles of Peter Parker and Spider-Man.
One can only wonder what could have been if Resnais had been born 30 years later, at the height of his powers just as the cinematic age of superheroes was beginning. He may have once stated that he felt it was impossible to adapt a comic, but “when I saw the two Tim Burton Batman films, I recognised I was wrong.” Maybe, with the superhero world a more respectable prospect on screen, the stars would have aligned for Resnais, Lee and Spider-Man. It’s certainly fascinating to imagine what he would have done with the franchise, but alas, with the French filmmaker passing away last month, now we will never know.
Do you think a Resnais Spider-Man film would have been a dream or a nightmare? Would the inclusion of the Fonz have made it happy days for the franchise? Or are you more upset that The Inmates and The Monster Maker never got made? Tell us your thoughts! Don’t forget to share this if you enjoyed it.