Dr. Strangelove began life as a novel called Red Alert (or Two Hours to Doom in England, where it was first read by Kubrick). The novel, by British author Peter George, features the same basic premise as the film: a deranged Air Force general intentionally initiates a nuclear confrontation between American and the Soviet Union. In the novel, the President offers up a sacrifice of American targets to the Soviet leader in order to avert global annihilation. The novel ends with the rogue bomber squadron missing their target in Russia, thus averting nuclear winter.
In the late 1950s, Stanley Kubrick became obsessed with the threat of a nuclear war. He began rapidly consuming military and political books on the subject, and considered moving to Australia out of fear of the bomb. After reading Red Alert, Kubrick was moved to create a thrilling dramatic film that closely followed the events of the book as written. He purchased the rights to Red Alert and began collaborating with George on a script.
However, while writing the script, Kubrick kept finding himself having to leave out true-to-life details that seemed absurd, to keep it from becoming comedic. He began to see inherent comedy in the paradoxical idea of mutually assured destruction. Kubrick eventually decided that a serious treatment of the subject wouldn’t be taken seriously, and he and George began reworking the script into a comedy, hiring the satirist Terry Southern to help transform the script just before filming. Peter Sellers also played a part in writing the script, as Kubrick gave him incredible freedom to improvise in his several roles and added these improvisations into the script during filming if he liked them. The fundamental plot of the film stayed true to the plot of the novel throughout this rescripting, with a few changes.
Through this collaboration, the script became an outrageous black comedy, full of sexual innuendo, wordplay, and one-off jokes. However, much of the comedic tension and irony of the film came from Kubrick’s research into the defense strategy of the US and the remarkably realistic satirizing of the military. Kubrick met with several military and defense insiders, scientists, and politicians, such as Alastair Buchan, Thomas Schelling, and Herman Kahn, in order to get a fuller picture of the country’s often hidden nuclear policies.
Kubrick decided to use an extreme extension of mutually assured destruction—a doomsday machine that would wipe out all life on earth including its home country—as the crux of the film. Such a machine is the logical conclusion of mutually assured destruction, and was used by Herman Kahn in On Thermonuclear War (1960) to demonstrate the flaws of such a policy. As ridiculous as it might sound, however, a doomsday machine was very much a part of political and social consciousness at the time. Physicist Leo Szilard first theoretically described a bomb that could produce enough nuclear fall-out to wipe out life over vast areas in 1950, in order to point out that the progression of nuclear technology could eventually wipe out life on earth. The US Air Force then requested such weapons, which were seriously investigated but never deployed. In 1964, the year of Dr. Strangelove’s release, the US Department of Defense updated a book called the Effects of Nuclear Weapons to include a section that described such a device and its effects.
It is unclear how much Kubrick really knew about the defense strategies of the US and Soviet Union when writing the script because the details of these policies were mostly unknown to the public. However, his contact with military insiders, particularly with Herman Kahn, comes out throughout the film in minute details, characterizations, and major plot points.
The Cold War had yet to be viewed through a comedic lens with any success; the idea of making a comedy about the end of the world and massive death tolls had to be considered with great care. The absurdism of the film facilitates the comedic treatment of such a subject, and led it to massive critical and commercial success. However, it did face substantial backlash as anti-military, anti-US, and juvenile. The single greatest influence that Stanley Kubrick wielded over the making of Dr. Strangelove was to take what was a serious drama charged with melodramatic conventions of the thriller and transform it into what many consider one of funniest films ever made, despite the risk of such a treatment of his subject.