In the early 90's—I'd guess 1991 or '92, but I can't swear to it—I was approached by Marvel's then-editor-in-chief, the lovely and talented Tom DeFalco, about writing a treatment for a Doctor Strange movie. Those were the days when Marvel's attempts at translating their universe to the big screen...well, let's just say they weren't exactly working; so someone up the food chain had the idea to let a few of people who actually wrote the comics have a crack at adapting the characters. I believe Tom came to me because a) I'd had experience writing for television and b) he knew I loved Doctor Strange—who remains one of my all-time favorite characters. (If I'm not mistaken, the great Roy Thomas was asked to write a treatment for Doc, as well.) I wrote the story—and had a wonderful time doing it—cashed the check, and, as you all know, my treatment was then developed into a screenplay that became the basis for a big budget epic that grossed hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.
Okay, the treatment was filed away and forgotten.
Well, not totally forgotten. I was recently going through my file cabinets—stuffed with old work that was either done in the pre-digital age or not saved in digital form—and came across my original copy. Given that Marvel is now prepping a Doc Strange feature film, I thought this would be a good time to share the treatment with you.
Looking back, I'm amazed at the liberties I took with Doc's story. As best I recall, I was trying to retain the essence of Stephen Strange's journey while presenting his origin in a way that a broad audience could appreciate. What follows is presented exactly as I wrote it—I resisted the mighty urge to go in and rewrite my younger self (with the exception of some very minor formatting and punctuation fixes)—more than twenty years ago. I make no claims to greatness for it, but I think it's an interesting interpretation of the Doctor Strange saga and I hope you enjoy it.
This is Part One. Parts Two and Three will be along next week. (And let's not forget that Doctor Strange is ©copyright 2013 Marvel Entertainment.)
DR. STRANGE MOVIE OUTLINE
on a BOY'S FACE: wide with wonder. CAMERA PULLS BACK to reveal STEPHEN STRANGE, nine years old, flying over a suburban Long Island neighborhood at night. By the look of the houses and cars, it's the mid-1960's. Stephen is doing loops, dive-bombs, sailing, ghost-like, through walls: all in all having the time of his life. But beneath this, at first almost inaudible, but picking up in volume, we HEAR a MAN'S VOICE, shouting; HEAR the sound of leather striking flesh. As the SOUNDS reach their HEIGHT, we see Stephen tremble; see tears stream down his face. But then the SOUNDS STOP, replaced by the SOUND of FOOTSTEPS, receding. Then, Stephen begins to sail backwards, as if he's being carried off, like a leaf in a hurricane, against his will. Back, back, back he goes -- till he comes down through the roof of a house in a poorer part of town. Enters a boy's bedroom; and there, on the bed, is a body: his body. Curled up in a fetal ball. Bruised; tears streaking the cheeks. That seems perfectly natural to Stephen.
What doesn't seem natural is the DEMONIC ENTITY, sweeping around his bed, trying to get into that body. Time and again it circles the room, then swoops down like a bat, hitting against the base of the body's neck. Each time it seems to get a little further in; a few more tries and it will surely succeed.
Stephen floats there, panicked. He doesn't know what to do.
Then -- there's a SWIRL OF LIGHT that grows and takes the form of a MAN: a face that could be any of a dozen nationalities; that could be forty years old...or four-hundred. Eyes of wisdom, compassion, love. "Don't worry," the old man says; "I will help you." Stephen can barely croak the words, "Who are you?" "I," says the old man, "am the Ancient One." "Ancient One?" Stephen says -- and as soon as he says that name, the demonic entity explodes in a shower of light and sparks.
And Stephen finds himself in bed, in his body, shooting bolt upright.
HARD CUT TO: Today. New York Citv. The West Village. Morning. STEPHEN STRANGE, late thirties, shoots bolt upright in bed. Sweating. Disoriented. Hung over. The woman beside him, his girlfriend, VICTORIA BENTLEY, stirs. Asks if he's all right. "Just a dream," he says. "No...a memory." But the dream's already fading. "Hell, I don't know what it is." The CLOCK RADIO ALARM by the side of tbe bed KICKS IN. And, as Stephen and Victoria prepare for their day, we learn that Victoria's a journalist, originally from England, working for a Rolling Stone-like magazine. Stephen is a doctor...a surgeon... working at the N.Y.U. hospital; highly respected. But there's a suggestion -- from Vicky -- that Stephen's star may be on the wane; he blows this off: "Nothing to worry about."
They exit their brownstone; Stephen asks if they can swing dinner tonight. Vicky says no, she's got that meeting. "Your New Age loonies are taking up more and more of your time." "They're not loonies. Besides...the Baron's coming soon...we've got to get ready." "Wouldn't want to disappoint the Baron," says Stephen. "You could come, you know." "Not for me, Vick. I don't believe is karma and reincarnation. I don't believe in magic or mysticism or your Cosmic Santa Claus." "Seems like lately," Vicky says, "the only thing you do believe in is what you find at the bottom of a bottle." Stephen has no answer as Vicky hops into the cab...and he walks off toward work. Along the way, he stops by a little side-street. Finds himself drawn down it, to an extraordinary house at the end of the street. Dark, mysterious...yet somehow enchanting. He stares at the house -- it seems abandoned; then, like a man coming out of a dream, he turns and walks off. CAMERA HOLDS on a sign: For Sale...A-l Realty.
CUT TO: Switzerland. High in the snow-covered mountains, we find a huge castle...something out of another time. Then, MOVING INSIDE the castle, we find a vaulted library...but, on the shelves, instead of books, there are great gems...and, within each gem, swirling...shapes. Incense is thick in the air. Bizarre ritual masks from a dozen Far East cultures dot the walls. In the middle of the room, a SHADOWY FIGURE sits at a desk, head bowed...perhaps in prayer? There's a statue on the desk -- a sandalwood sculpture -- of an old man; the same old man who appeared to young Stephen Strange in our opening: The Ancient One. A WOMAN appears at the door: "It's time," she says. "Yes," says the shadowed figure -- as he reaches out, grabs the sandalwood sculpture...and snaps it in two. "Yes, it is."
CUT TO: N.Y.U. hospital...where Stephen's day begins with a chewing out from DR. STAN DITKO, the Head of Surgery. There are accusations about absenteeism, lateness, missed rounds. Strange is in total denial. "I'm fine, Stan. Just a few problems I'm trying to work out." "Stephen, you're my friend, you need help. I want you to -- " "I don't need anything except maybe a little time off. I've been doing my job, Stan. I'm still the best damn cutter this hospital's got. Have I ever once...once... botched a surgery?" "Once," says Dr. Ditko, "is all it takes. I'm keeping a very close eye on you, Steve." Ditko leaves. Stephen punches the wall. Hard. A NURSE walking by says, "Not a smart thing t'do, Doc. You make your living with those hands." And, off that, we...
CUT TO: That evening. Stephen in a West Village restaurant, sitting at the bar, nursing a screwdriver. Half-drunk, having a talk with a nineteen year old PUNK GIRL. "You ever fly?" he asks. "Uh-uh," she says; "airplanes scare the shit out of me." "No, I don't mean that. It's a funny thing...I hadn't really thought about it for years, but when I was a kid..." "What?" He shrugs. "Forget it. S'crazy." The girl gives him a come-on, he takes her up on it...but as he's getting ready to go, he looks in the mirror across the bar...and sees an old man standing behind him: the old man from our opening. THE ANCIENT ONE. Stephen turns around: no one there. Looks back at the mirror: no one there. Strange declines the girl's offer; staggers out of the bar.
CUT TO: Victoria at her meeting: it's a group of people who follow a spiritual leader named BARON MORDO. A man, they believe, of enormous wisdom, who has studied with the Hidden Masters, brought all the Great Spiritual Teachings together in a new form for the New Age. Mordo, who has never been to the United States (he lives, in seclusion, in Switzerland), will be arriving in New York in a few weeks...and his American followers treat it like the Second Coming.
CUT TO: Stephen, on his way home. He passes a large poster with a drawing of someone who could be the Ancient One...with the words “Let me help you” beneath the picture. Stephen turns, looks back, but, as with the man in the mirror, there's nothing there: just an ad for a rock show at The Bottom Line.
CUT TO: Stephen staggering into his apartment. The PHONE'S RINGING. He snatches it up. It's his MOTHER. She's upset because he hasn't been to the hospital to see his father, who's had a stroke, maybe dying. (As they talk, Victoria comes in.) Stephen says look, Mother -- "I've been consulting with Dr. Cahn. She's very good. He's in capable hands." "He's been asking for you." For an instant, Stephen seems about to lose it: "Tell him," he snarls; but then he catches himself. "Tell him...I'll come when I can. Good night, Mother." And he slams the phone down. "Why won't you see him?" Victoria asks. "I have nothing to say to him." "My God, the man's dying, you're not going for conversation!" And Strange explodes: "Let him die!" he roars. "Let the bastard die and rot in hell!" Again, he slams his fist against the wall. This time he hurts it...not badly. "Keep it up, Stephen. Keep it up. You're doing one helluva job of destroying yourself." "And it's my business if I do, isn't it?" "Not when you're destroying what we have along with it." And she goes into the bedroom, slams the door.
He collapses in a chair in the living room, picks up a magazine, begins mindlessly thumbing through it. He stops when he comes across a full page ad -- the same as the poster he passed on the way home. The picture of the Ancient One -- and the words “Let me help you.” He stares at it, turns the page, turns back...and finds a cigarette ad. If he wasn't so drunk, perhaps he'd ponder this longer...but, as it is, Stephen just nods out; begins to dream:
Again we see the nine year old Stephen flying out above the rooftops in his old neighborhood. But this time, the flying is INTERCUT with what's going on back in Little Stephen's bedroom; as a great SHADOWY FIGURE stands over the bed, screaming, whipping the hell out of Stephen with a belt. As we continue to INTERCUT, we spend more and more time with the beating, less with the flying...until we STAY in the bedroom, as the shadowy figure -- now clearly revealed as Stephen's father, GEORGE -- brings the belt down again and again and again and we...
CUT TO: Three A.M. Stephen awakens in the chair, up out of the nightmare. Staggers to the bathroom. Vomits. Staggers out. And Victoria's there. He looks at her, can't say anything. Just cries. And she takes him in her arms and holds him there.
DISSOLVE TO: Later. They're in bed. Stephen talks to Vicky, for the first time, about his childhood. About his father. "'Sweet man,' you'd think if you met him. And he was...sometimes. I can remember those moments. A child learns to treasure them. When Daddy's loving. Kind. When he cares." (We SEE Stephen's memories: the innocent, loving days with Dad.) But Daddy drank. And the more he drank, the more angry, the more abusive he became. (We see George on a drunken rampage through Stephen's childhood apartment; tossing over furniture, while his mother, LENA, stands, helplessly watching.) His father would beat him, regularly. (We see Little Stephen under the belt again.) His mother, the classic co-dependent, couldn't do anything to stop it. She was trapped in her own terror. "How horrible," Victoria says. "Not really," Stephen says with a...strange smile. "You see, after a while, I wasn't there for the beatings." "What do you mean?" "You're gonna think I'm crazy." "I'm the one who believes in the Cosmic Santa Claus, remember?"
And so he tells her that when his father would beat him, he'd just...leave his body. Fly out of the house. Soar through the neighborhood. (These memories have come back as a result of the dreams...but he doesn't remember the incident with the Ancient One and the demon.) "Once I even flew out to Brooklyn...did a tour of Coney Island... (we see this: Little Stephen sweeping, soaring around the ferris wheel) ...God, I must sound like a lunatic." "No, no," says an excited Vicky. "You were in your astral body. It happens sometimes with abused children. The horror of their situation actually forces them out of their physical forms. Baron Mordo's written extensively about -- " But Mordo's name pushes the wrong button in Stephen. "Mordo's an ass," he says, walking into the living room, fixing himself a drink (he's always had an inborn resistance to Mordo; a dislike and distrust...despite the fact that he's never so much as read a word of his books). "And so am I. A psychiatrist would say I couldn't stand the pain so I drifted off into some psychotic fantasy..." She doesn't push it. "The point is," says Stephen; "that I did everything I could to get away from him. Moved out when I was sixteen. Worked like an animal to get myself through med school. I made a man out of myself -- not some twisted...thing like he was. A man. And now -- " "Now," says Victoria, "you're becoming the very thing you worked so hard to get away from." Stephen stands there, holding the drink, and we...
DISSOLVE TO: a Long Island Hospital. The next morning. Inside, we find Stephen, looking like hell, standing over the bed of his father. George has sunk into a coma...unblinking, unmoving. Stephen stares at the old man: a thousand conflicting emotions pass across his face. Then, a VOICE calls from behind him: his mother, Lena. "We're going to lose him," Lena says, breaking down. "We're going to lose Daddy." "It'll be the best thing that ever happened in your life." Mom, Queen of Denial, slaps Stephen. "He was a good
father!" Stephen, walking away: "You go on believing that."
CUT TO: The next day: Stephen, in the operating room at N.Y.U, in the middle of a delicate operation. He asks the nurse for an instrument, turns -- and it's the Ancient One standing there: "Let me help you," he says. Stephen freezes, blinks -- but the old man's still there. "What is it?" Stephen says; "what do you want from me?" "Doctor," says the nurse (the Ancient One, of course, is gone); "I just want to hand you this scalpel..." Stephen's disoriented, confused; asks another doctor to take over. Turns...
...and there's Doctor Ditko at the door, looking in through the glass.
Stephen walks out to face him: "Stan, I don't want to hear it. I'm just feeling a little under the weather today." Stan: "Stephen, I -- " "I know what you're going to say: I have a drinking problem. But I don't. Sure, sometimes -- " "Stephen -- " "Look, Stan, if you'll just give me a little time, I'll show you that -- " But Stan takes Stephen by the shoulders: "Stephen, your mother called. It's your father. He died."
CUT TO: a rainy day in a Long Island cemetery. We see George Strange's coffin being lowered into the ground. Various friends and relatives are there. Stephen's mother is in tears. But Stephen isn't there. OVER THIS we HEAR the phone conversation between Stephen and his mother, as Lena begs him to come -- "Please, he was your father...he loved you. How can you be so heartless?" But Stephen refuses. "Put him in the ground and forget him. Let him rot. Let him burn in Hell." "Stephen!" He hangs up.
CUT TO: Stephen, drunk again -- but this time he's really over the edge. Staggers into the apartment, comes on to Victoria...who's disgusted with him, rejects his advances. Rejects him: "This is it, Stephen. Either you get yourself some help -- or you get the hell out!" He flips -- begins turning the place inside out, knocking over furniture, screaming. We INTERCUT with those MEMORY-SHOTS of George, rampaging through Stephen's childhood apartment, while Lena looks helplessly on. Victoria can't take it. "Never mind. You stay...you stay and destroy yourself!" And she's gone. Now Stephen's really lost it. In his rage and pain and confusion, he roars -- and puts his hand through a window. Horrified by what he's done, he drops to his knees. We go CLOSE on his bloody hand, sliced down to the bone, and then...
CUT TO: The Long Island cemetery. A FIGURE stands over George Strange's grave, BACK TO THE CAMERA. We HEAR a slight HUM, see a sudden FLASH OF LIGHT around the figure, then...
CUT TO: N.Y.U. hospital. Stephen's in bed, after micro-surgery. Hand wrapped tighter than a mummy's. Dr. Ditko is there and the prognosis is good: Stephen won't regain full use of the hand, there'll be stiffness in the fingers...but, considering how deep it was cut -- "That's good news? Stan -- I'm ruined! My hands are my life!" Ditko tries to bolster Stephen by telling him that his knowledge of surgery is what makes him so valuable. There's alot he can do with that knowledge without being in the operating room. But Stephen won't hear it. Tells Ditko to get out.
Alone, a broken man, he lays in bed, dead-eyed, staring at the ceiling.