“A true history of cinema – once stated Jean-Luc Godard – must include all the histories of the films that were never made” (p. 1). Indeed, this very history should also draw attention to the more than two hundred projects that the French-Swiss filmmaker had conceived and never filmed; or the film projects embraced by David O. Selznick, which correspond to at least 45% of the narratives archived in the Story Departments of the famous Hollywood producer. Apart from that, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah is also precious when it comes to understanding narrative and decision-making processes, with over 200 hours of unedited interviews.

Filmmakers, producers, editors and screenwriters are the key professionals having constantly faced the shadow of the unmade, the abandoned and the incomplete in the midst of the film industry. These are some of the crucial topics present in Shadow Cinema: The Historical and Production Contexts of Unmade Films. Without a doubt, this collection of essays and articles is a milestone and should be read carefully by anyone who has been analysing incomplete film works and other similar failure processes.

Essentially an economic art, cinema has been leaving traces of its aesthetics, thought processes and most genuine artistic dreams among these abandonments. The introduction, signed by the editors of the book, directly addresses the meaning of the unmade in film studies. “Shadow Cinema emerges, making the case for the serious study of unmade, unfinished, unseen and unreleased projects from across film history as a vital element of academic inquiry” (p. 4). As a result, editors and authors point out many key conceptual, methodological and even theoretical points.

What does “failure” mean for a film project? How and what does it possibly contribute to revise film history? Along the lines of similar epistemological questions, the editors argue “that is the key contribution of the study of shadow cinema: to take a revisionist approach in order to provide a holistic perspective on the ongoing industrial, political and cultural history of film industries around the world” (p. 7). Additionally, we find that the main focus of this book revolves around production aspects, with a special attention to the context of production, the producer’s dilemmas, their risks, choices and decision-making processes.

Many interesting unmade, unfinished, and unreleased projects are addressed throughout the book, which is divided into four different parts. In “Producers and Production Companies,” the first part of the book, Fenwick, Eldridge and Spicer conduct readers through the production details of some of Kirk Douglas’, Selznick’s and Michael Klinger’s abandoned film projects. Viva Gringo, for instance, is a film project that doesn’t have any script. “Can a film even exist – inquires Fenwick – with such little archive information available?” (p. 35). Lacking this narrative evidence, this sort of research of unproduced pictures will collect news, letters, advertisements, correspondence and other material to track the main goals of these projects as well as their potential stories and outcomes.

“What is shadow cinema?” – asks David Eldridge in his essay about Selznick’s incomplete film projects. Impulsive and searching for innovative film ideas, Selznick faced many famous conflicts against Hollywood censors (the Hays Office) during his career. Although these shadow pictures did not happen as Selznick had envisioned, they point out nuances of “asymmetrical power relations” (p. 68), which is quite a difficult aspect to grasp in film history research.

“Directors and Auteurs” is the title of the second part of the book. Focused on film authors such as Godard, Ken Russel and the Indian filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, its articles conduct readers through many aesthetic features not fully revealed when analysing only the released pictures. As both thinker and filmmaker, Godard offers a compelling case. His unproduced projects, examined by Michael Witt, such as Pour Lucrece (1962), shed light on a complex dialogue with theatres, plays, and how the stage influenced his intriguing mis-en-scène. Matthew Melia also draws attention to how unproduced projects conceived by Ken Russell have migrated to existing, frequently recycled and forming the basis of later projects. These cases offer a wider comprehension of creative and generative processes of well-known directors in film history.

The difficulties faced by Ghatak reveal, in addition, that unmade pictures are indirect consequences of historical and biographical events. With a tendency to question religion and a little bit distant from the communist tendencies of his time, permeated by problems with alcohol, Ghatak’s unfinished projects were the result of many different variables, including complicated copyright issues. The essay on Ghatak combined the evidence of the three main points that result in incomplete and abandoned film works and ideas, which are economic, biographical and moral issues.

“Questioning the Unmade” and, finally, “Reconstructing the unmade” are the third and fourth parts of the book. With a pertinent point of view, the editors have chosen to bring epistemological issues around the coexistence between the made and the unmade. However, most of the articles edited in the Shadow Cinema collection highlight marginal aspects of the potential production of those failed projects, neglecting to understand their projects in their potential styles and dramatic topics. Budgets, agreements, co-productions and other economic details have, in the majority of the texts, led the analyses. Hidden to the readers are other aesthetical choices which may be, under many circumstances, more relevant, although subtle, such as the coexistence of made and abandoned works as a comparative method. 

Inspired by these ideas, the chapters about Samuel Fuller’s Tigrero, written by Andrew Howe, and Clouzot’s L’enfer, by Lucy Mazdon, analyse pictures made about well-known incomplete film projects. In Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made (1994), the Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki invites Samuel Fuller to once more visit the Karajá community which he had filmed three decades ago. Kaurismäki’s picture is an expressive example of the documentary that investigates the unmade, along with the director’s original ideas. This very picture, however, flirts with an evident prejudice and naïve romantic point of view toward the representation of the Karajá people.

On her part, Mazdon addresses L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot (2009), directed by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea Annonier, in the tenth book’s chapter. Considered a film maudit, a cursed picture, L’enfer was quite an experimental film, with music composed by Pierre Boulez, and embraced many kinetic experiments. Shot in 1964, the picture’s plot focused on misanthropy, paranoia, jealousy and pessimism. It was, however, interrupted due to a heart attack of the meticulous French director. A mix of documentary, fiction, reconstruction and homage, L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot is also a sort of “making-of.”

In the fourth and last part of the book, there are three chapters dealing directly with the “reconstruction of the unmade.” Alexandra Heller-Nicholas researches the film project Phantasmagoria: The Visions of Lewis Carroll, which would have been made by Marilyn Manson. It would have been his film debut, with a very controversial plot to say the least. Manson played himself in the role of a transgressive paedophile, causing polemic, and uncomfortable receptions by a wider media audience. “The Phantasmagoria projects offers us – notes Heller-Nicholas – a profoundly contemporary instance of shadow cinema, which speaks directly to the contemporary industry, the speculative power of online discourse and the volatility of celebrities and fandoms” (p. 230). An aspect that stands out as most interesting in this last part of the book is the portrayal of society’s struggle to accept some of these production ideas – the public debate and public life are permeated by specific values and ethics, and to see the frontier between this context and film projects that challenge such structure is fruitful, as we can see how they influence and affect each other – and not only in the struggle to accept such ideas, but also outright rejection to them.

This is exactly the case of the boycott conducted by the Leeds Revolutionary Feminists against the production of The Yorkshire Ripper, which was to be produced by MGM in 1980. In a remarkable and well-organized wave of social manifestations and protests, such feminist movements denounced one more picture that capitalized on the Yorkshire Ripper and the development of the so-called “rape culture.” In many articles, interviews and other sorts of public interference, feminists and academics claimed against pictures that naturalized male dominance through an erotic perspective. After the media impact of these demonstrations the film project was put permanently on hold by MGM.

Entitled “The Unmade Undead: A Post-Mortem of the Post-9/11 Zombie Cycles,” the last chapter of the book reconstructs the cycle of horror pictures made after the 9/11 catastrophe. In his analysis, Todd K. Platts observes the dialogues among individual films, film cycles and film industry behaviour, dealing more directly with the desires of the larger audience. Within the context of the 9/11 episode, it came to be that many horror pictures were gradually fading due to the emergence of other interests. Although well analysed and with detailed arguments, Platts’ understanding of “cycles” – and consequently the editors’ – must be reduced to a very specific film industry circumstance. Film cycles in Hollywood and European film markets do not have the same impact and behaviour in the vast majority of other countries.

Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes, for instance, has noted that film cycles in underdeveloped countries tend to be marked by incomplete film projects and erasure of their most important cinematic ideas, besides the impossibility of creating a film tradition for further generations.1 In these countries, project failures may reveal as relevant potential imaginary worlds and scenarios as films in developed countries. Inspired by these processes of failure, one should then ask whether unmade, unfinished, unseen and unreleased projects have similar characteristics in different conditions of production.

Although considered essential, the holistic and global perspective pointed out in the book’s introduction is not achieved by the choice and selection of film industries and filmmakers by the editors. Most of the films and cases analysed come from Hollywood and from British cinema. Except for the presence of French and Indian filmmakers, one will not find any other film tradition outside the Anglo-Saxon sphere. There are no mentions, for instance, of film failure in Africa, Latin-America or Eastern countries. Besides, such silence reveals an epistemological weakness: it treats production contexts as equals. In underdeveloped countries, however, most of the film projects have remained invisible from film history. To unfold the historical and production context of unmade films as the book’s subtitle suggests, a wider geographical perspective should have been included and, therefore, a really holistic perspective would have been attained.

I see this as a central issue for the research of the unmade films. The editors and authors, however, have preferred to focus exclusively on film productions of stable film industries, such as Hollywood, or on European filmmakers, rarely including other main industries, excepting the case of Ritwik Ghatak. The book feels lacking a more real and complex meaning of failure and shadow cinema. Unfortunately, this collection ends up shedding light only on the more central historical contexts, while casting shadows over the potential strength that unproduced pictures may reveal in underdeveloped countries. This decolonial bias is urgent for the unfolding of this new and vibrant field of research.

James Fenwick, Kieran Foster and David Eldridge, eds., Shadow Cinema: The Historical and Production Contexts of Unmade Films (New York, Bloomsbury, 2020).


  1. Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes, “Cinema: A Trajectory within Underdevelopment”, in Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes on Brazil and Global Cinema, Maite Conde and Stephanie Dennison, eds. (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2022), pp. 192-208.

About The Author

Pablo Gonçalo is an Assistant Professor at the University of Brasilia. In 2019, he was awarded Fulbright Junior Visiting Scholar at the University of Chicago. Since he got his PhD, he has been researching unfilmed screenplays. He has presented papers in conferences such as SCMS, NECS, and Screenwriting Research Network. His first book analyses the collaboration between Peter Handke and Wim Wenders. Hollywood Paper Films, his second book, focuses on unfilmed screenplays of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Related Posts