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Books Formerly Considered Unfilmable

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Written by Shawn Bourdo

With the release of Life of Pi, I’m reminded again of the fate of the unfilmable novel.  There are many reasons that a book or story shows up on this list – it could be one that’s too long and detailed to be contained in a single film, too many characters to cast, too nonlinear to make a mainstream film, or just too fantastical and thus to expensive to adapt.  Yet, the siren call always seems to go out to directors and studios.  They want to do what others have not done or have been told can’t be done.  It often ends up being the successful producer or the established director that can push through what they’ll call their “dream project”. 

A movie like Life Of Pi would have been impossible to make ten years ago.  But CGI has taken away the impediments for many directors to adapt their pet books.  I’m ranking these on the difficulty level of the source material.  The success of the adaptation is up for debate, but I’ll add my opinion.  I’m also basing these on stories and novels, so a movie like The Avengers doesn’t qualify (although I never thought I’d see such a capable adaptation of that group of heroes in my lifetime).  

10.  American Psycho (2000)  The hardest thing for most adaptations is when the source material contains mainly first-person narration as Bret Easton Ellis used here. This film eschewed the voiceover and let the action do the talking. The result – most of the misogyny is removed and the horror aspects of the novel are turned even more into a social commentary on the 1980s.

9.  Crash (1997)  When I read excerpts from this J.G. Ballard book in the mid-’80s, I never imagined a way that it could be brought to the big screen. Director David Cronenberg didn’t shy away from either the violence of the car accidents or the sexuality.  I don’t think the casting helped the case here.  James Spader and Holly Hunter look confused for most of the film, not turned on.

8. Catch-22 (1970)  On the surface, the Joseph Heller book would seem to be ripe for adaptation. That is until you actually read it.  Most people find it hard to even describe the plot in less than 10 minutes – not a good sign if you’re trying to sell a movie.  It’s dark and introspective and many of the concepts are philosophical not physically demonstrative.  The movie did not know how to approach that and ended up being too comedic when it need a more serious tone and not funny enough to be comedic when it was trying to be.

7.  Where The Wild Things Are (2009) So many adaptations seem unfilmable because they are too long.  I never imagined that this slight children’s book would make a full-length feature.  Spike Jonze did the best thing that he could do – find the heart of the message and expand on that.  It works well.  The lack of CGI actually helps in this case; the low tech effects are striking and help capture the feel of the book.

6. V For Vendetta (2005)  Alan Moore is one of the top writers in comic books of all-time.  His works come across as cinema friendly until you see people actually try to adapt them.  The problem is usually rooted in the subtext of his work.  The stories are about one thing but there’s always a story running under that surface.  It’s a dark political story here that has a story of our battle with machines and how it encourages fascism under the core rebellion story.  The film generally ignores any subtext and feels oddly thin when just telling the political story.  The heart of his stories are deeper than that.

5.  A Scanner Darkly (2006)  I debated exactly which Philip K. Dick book to include here.  Science-fiction adaptations are hard enough for a regular genre title but Philip K. Dick novels and stories are too often deceivingly SF.  They are human dramas told in a science-fiction universe.  There are always questions of humanity and what core things define us as humans.  These are difficult ideas to illustrate without feeling like characters are lecturing.  This one differs slightly in that it questions what we view as reality.  There are multiple shifts through the book that are illustrated by director Richard Linklater with a unique animation style.  I would normally call animation a cheat to adapting a novel because of the ability to overcome the lack of effects.  But here it works to bring home the main theme of the book – something that is often lost when just trying to capture the story of a novel.

4.  Dune (1982)  Poor Frank Herbert.  All that universe building through the book becomes footnotes through most of the David Lynch film.  Taken out of context of the novel and the film suffers from “big book” syndrome.  Viewers spend more time trying to figure out who is who and what the universe is all about than they do following the plot.  Later adapted as a Sci-Fi channel miniseries, it still feels like it needed a wider berth.  I hope in my lifetime to see a network go for a season-long adaptation.  There’s just too much here that needs time for reflection.

3.  Naked Lunch (1991)  The book almost borders on unreadable.  There are themes running through the book but it isn’t one that sells itself in the duration of an elevator ride.  It’s a long-form Beat poem and drug hallucination.  It’s a book that becomes lucid only in snippets.  David Cronenberg is not a director to shy away from difficult material and took this challenge to heart. The way he wraps the story around biographical elements of William S. Burroughs’ life is now the only way I can imagine it being done.  Maybe not the best film on this list, not by a mile, but easily the most clever approach to adapting a difficult source.

2.  The Lord Of The Rings (2001-2003)  I’m going to cheat and include all three books and movies in this spot.  I never would have believed I’d see a director try to adapt these books into single films.  I certainly never thought they’d be among my favorite fantasy films of all-time.  There’s just too many characters, too many worlds, and too vast of a story to be told.  Tolkien did Peter Jackson a favor by making the core story very focused and making many characters interchangeable.  Much like the Harry Potter films (not on here because the adaptations seemed straight forward), I think we will live to see a day when they are remade into two films per book. You can already see that the current vogue of turning books into multiple films (Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games and The Hobbit) would have served this franchise well ten years ago.

1.  Watchmen (2009)  It’s hard to think of an adaptation of a book that I’ve held as the pinnacle of the Graphic Novel format.  It’s the book that for years has been used to “convince” people that comics are serious business.  It appeals to intellectuals and just plain comic geeks.  If you can write a book or teach a semester long class on a book, does it seem like it is a story that can be told in 150 minutes?  I don’t know if the movie made sense to people who hadn’t read the Alan Moore comic book.  You just can’t divorce yourself from your own knowledge of backstory and interior monologue.  Are the clues there or does the informed viewer find them because they know what to look for?  I don’t fault Zack Snyder’s adaptation other than it delays what will ultimately have to be a 8-10 hour series to fully develop the story.

Some books are totally filmable.  I wouldn’t put The Hunger Games on this list because other than an issue with some first-person point of view storytelling, the book was easily imaginable as an adaptation.  I think we’ve reached a point where very little is unfilmable because of budget or effects, the only impediment being length of story (you wouldn’t want Game of Thrones in two-hour increments for each book).  We have a number of films to judge against their source material in the near future – Life Of Pi, Anna Karenina and The Great Gatsby each come with unique obstacles. I’m curious to see how a director attacks the problem of a lack of consistent narrative story in Kerouac’s On The Road.  

There are a few on my list off my library shelves that I still can’t imagine on the silver screen. Among them is Catcher In The Rye, a book with a built-in audience but hard to imagine finding a plot to hold onto.  In the graphic novel category, Y: The Last Man is a good complete story that would require much more than a single sitting to let the characters come to life.  In novel form, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is intriguing but films from a dog’s point of view are few and far between. The ultimate request would be for an adaptation of Sandman but Neil Gaiman’s books have seemed untouchable in the past.  I don’t feel like we are limited by portrayal of the Dream world anymore but each story is so dense, I can’t see it happening except as a series of mini-series.

Directors will continue to accept the challenge to make films of books they love. It’s a testament to the continuing power of the written word.   How can directors recreate the theater of the mind? They can’t if you don’t follow my one mantra – read the book first.

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