Like a red rag to a bull, the term “unfilmable novel” elicits about the same reaction for filmmakers as it does for Chief Wiggum in “The Simpsons” when he tells Ralph not to go into “the forbidden closet of mystery.” Some of the greatest works of literature have been deemed, correctly or not, as unfilmable, and yet writers, directors, producers and stars keep trying, either developing such projects for years with no success, or very occasionally getting the films financed, usually with mixed success.
The latest such example is “Cosmopolis,” which sees David Cronenberg take on Don DeLillo‘s novel set mostly inside a limousine carrying a twentysomething billionaire through a traffic jam of Biblical proportions. But that’s just the veneer. Inside is an epic journey of awareness, self-discovery and self-destruction that’s part treatise of the abstraction of value, the worth of the self and how we’re all inextricably tied to some level of consequence, credit and weight. It’s heady, insular and claustrophobic stuff, layered on with a laquer of artifice. It’s also brave, bold, abstruse and challenging, and as such, the film has had mixed reactions (with our review on the more positive side of things), as movies based on “unfilmable novels” so often do, and a similar response is likely to greet “Cloud Atlas” later in the year. So to mark the release of both (“Cloud Atlas” premieres in a few short weeks at TIFF), we’ve assembled a little potted history of the translation of difficult novels from the page to screen — five that made it to theaters (some successfully, some less so), and five more that are still in the works, and may yet see the inside of the multiplex. Got your own favorite translation of an “unfilmable novel?” Or a book that you’d love to see someone crack? Let us know in the comments section below.
Five That Were Made, For Better Or Worse
While no one has ever been as foolhardy as to attempt an adaptation of “Finnegan’s Wake,” a book that’s not so much unfilmable as unreadable, a few stabs at James Joyce‘s other epic, “Ulysses,” have been made. 2003’s “Bloom,” which stars Stephen Rea, is the most recent, but better known is the 1967 take by Joseph Strick, which retained the original title, and tried to be as faithful as possible to the novel, to the extent that almost every line of dialogue was lifted from the page. Following Leopold Bloom (Milo O’Shea) as he wanders the streets of Dublin one day, encountering student Stephen Dedalus (Maurice Roëves) along the way, it’s a bold attempt but ultimately an unsuccessful one. Strick mostly settles for recreating the novel’s events rather than spirit, failing to find a cinematic equivalent for Joyce’s prose, and relying too much on voiceover. The casting is a little inconsistent too, and while O’Shea (who’d later play a key role in Sidney Lumet‘s “The Trial“) is excellent, Roëves is disappointing. All that said, it’s a fairly decent attempt, and there are plenty of pleasures to be found, not least the beautiful black & white cinematography by Wolfgang Suschitzky (“Get Carter“). Like the book, the film was incredibly controversial at the time, in particular because it was one of the first to use the word “fuck” — it was banned in Ireland until 2000, and until the 1990s, audiences in New Zealand had to be segregated by gender in order to watch the film.
Given the fragmented, time-jumping structure of Joseph Heller‘s legendary satire “Catch-22,” it was always going to be a difficult task to adapt it to film, but there must have been a certain amount of confidence that if anyone could do it, it would be the director/writer team of Mike Nichols and Buck Henry, who were just coming off the enormous success of their first pairing, 1967’s “The Graduate.” But despite a hefty $17 million budget, and a two-year production process, Nichols didn’t quite pull it off, even if, like many of these films, it’s an admirable attempt. The duo excised storylines and characters in order to focus more closely on hero Captain John Yossarian (Alan Arkin), who attempts to be declared insane in order to be sent home from WWII, only to be caught in air force bureaucracy. But stripped of Heller’s prose, the film feels episodic and uneven, with a broad, farcical opening that’s less subtle than the source material, followed by a more somber second half, and the filmmakers can never quite get a handle on the plotting, with the movie working better as a companion piece to Heller’s work than as a stand-alone adaptation. As such, the film wasn’t well received by critics and audiences at the time, partly because its thunder had been stolen by Robert Altman‘s bolder, more cohesive “M*A*S*H” the same year. That said, the film has aged better than you’d think; individual scenes are terrific, and the cast, especially Arkin, are uniformly excellent. And it’s perhaps Nichols’ most atypical, experimental piece of work, one that, on the must-listen DVD commentary with Steven Soderbergh, seems to shock the filmmaker a little.
With 412 pages of plot from Frank Herbert‘s source material to get through, it’s no surprise that David Lynch had some difficulty marshalling the novel into a manageable, understandable two-hour film. Audiences found ”Dune” incomprehensible, grotesque and overly involved (all criticisms that have been laid at Lynch’s subsequent work, except, you know, in a good way), and stayed away in droves. In retrospect, it’s easy to think he was a poor choice from the beginning, but at the the time Lynch had only two features behind him, “Eraserhead” — which showed an appropriately off-kilter, retro sci-fi sensibility — and “The Elephant Man,” displaying that he could do classic, crowdpleasing fare too. On paper, he seemed the perfect candidate to take on the beloved Frank Herbert epic (though one wonders how amazing Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s aborted attempt might have been). And despite the clunkiness of the dialogue, the redundancies of those horrible voiceovers, the cheese ‘n’ hamminess of some of the acting, and about a million other problems, in those rare moments when “Dune” succeeds, it’s actually dazzling. The steampunk design of the House Atreides interiors, the ornate, intricately detailed sets (all 80 of them), the improbable but oddly great anachronism of Toto’s ’80s guitars meeting Brian Eno’s glimmery drones on the soundtrack: all these elements are truly visionary, and if you can get a handle on the narrative, the epic sweep of the filmmaker’s ambition actually serves the Messiah origin story rather well. But Lynch did not have control over the final cut (the studio added exposition-y voiceover and ruthlessly excised subplots and entire characters to reduce the running time), and since he largely refuses to talk about the notoriously troubled process of making the film, we’ll probably never know just how much better, or worse, his longer version might have been.
“Naked Lunch” (1991)
Cronenberg’s adaptation of Beat writer William Burroughs‘ “Naked Lunch” is arguably the best of the five films on this list. In the works since 1981, the director realized that a faithful, authentic adaptation would be banned around the world and cost hundred of millions to make, so he had to find a different way of exploring Burroughs’ work. In the process, he gave free rein to his own fascination with the grotesque and his knack for finding the funny in it all, exploring that deeply fucked-up world by combining the text with major events from Burroughs’ own life and pieces from other works of his, including “Exterminator!,” “Queer,” and “Letters to Allen Ginsberg.” Protagonist Bill Lee (the Burroughs surrogate, played by Peter Weller) is an exterminator who gets high on bug powder, to which his wife (Judy Davis) is also addicted. Together Davis and Weller both deliver droll performances, until the notorious true-to-Burroughs William Tell scene is replayed, and Bill is plunged into the hallucinogenic world of the Interzone, with bizarre-noir adventures springing forth. Clark Nova, the infamous typewriter bug who talks out of a butthole, is one of the film’s best devices, addressing both the latent homosexuality of his protagonist and the catharsis of the creative process in one foul, fell swoop, and the collaboration between Ornette Coleman and Howard Shore creates an eccentric noir score that keeps the crazy pulp vibe going. Shame, then, that it never comes together into anything resembling coherence; Cronenberg has never been an easy filmmaker to dive into, but this is near impenetrable. As a grandly ambitious failure, however, it is still somewhat admirable, serving as a case of the director aiming high and falling short, but leaving some fascinating artifacts in the debris.
In theory, a graphic novel should be easier to adapt than a prose novel — it’s a visual medium, after all, so you could argue that half the work’s been done for you. But more than any other major classic of the form, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons‘ “Watchmen” does things that can only be done in comics, and proved highly resistant to cinematic adaptation, particularly given an expansive scope, difficult structure and 400+ dense pages to get through. It eluded filmmakers like Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass before the success of “300” saw Zack Snyder get enough cachet to follow it through. Unfortunately, that it’s faithful in story and look (most of the shots are cribbed from the comic) is the nicest thing you can say about the director’s take on Moore’s deconstruction of the superhero genre, which follows a reunited group of costumed vigilantes as they try to work out who killed one of their number. The film marches beat-by-beat through the story, but without most of the more interesting tangents, and robbed of the soul; it’s slick and attractive, but also garish, overly violent, and frequently misjudged. Some of the casting (Billy Crudup, Jeffrey Dean Morgan) works nicely, but some (Malin Akerman) doesn’t pay off. It’s probably no coincidence that the film’s best sequence — the thrilling, innovative credit scene — is also where it departs most from the source material. This is a case when the adaptation was hampered by too little imagination, rather than too much.5 That Still Might Get Made
“A Confederacy Of Dunces”
It took eleven years for “A Confederacy of Dunces” to reach bookshelves. Depressed by its rejection by publishers, author John Kennedy Toole killed himself in 1969, and it wasn’t until 1980 that the efforts of his mother Thelma paid off, and it was finally published, winning Toole a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1981. But it’s now taken even longer — 30 years, in fact — for the book to make it to movie screens, and there’s no guarantee that the latest incarnation of the project will have any more success. Following slobbish, grossly overweight antihero Ignatius J. Reilly as he sets out to find employment, the book swiftly got the attention of Hollywood, with a post-“Caddyshack” Harold Ramis hired to write and direct a version that would have starred John Belushi and Richard Pryor back in 1982. Belushi’s death put paid to the project, and over the years, other ill-fated overweight comics like John Candy and Chris Farley were also attached to the role, with John Waters and Stephen Fry among the talents involved behind the scenes. The closest the film came to production was a version in the early 2000s, co-written by Steven Sodebergh, and set to be directed by David Gordon Green, with Will Ferrell in the lead role, and Lily Tomlin, Mos Def, Rosie Perez and Jesse Eisenberg reading other parts at the performance of the script at the Nantucket Film Festival. But sadly, Paramount never pulled the trigger. Only a few months ago, it was announced that “The Muppets” director James Bobin was planning an adaptation, with Zach Galifianakis as Ignatius, but only time will tell if it gets further than previous incarnations.
Given that Alan Rudolph‘s “Breakfast Of Champions” is one of the very worst screen versions of “unfilmable” novels (although that said, both “Mother Night” and “Slaughterhouse-Five” have much to recommend them), it’s no wonder that it’s been tricky to get “Cat’s Cradle” made. The story of the 1963 book revolves around ice-nine, a fictional substance that’s an alternative version of water, that’s solid at room temperature. The children of its inventor take it to the Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, one of the poorest places in the world, under the thrall of a strange religion and a powerful despot, and the book climaxes with all the water on the planet being transformed into ice-nine, killing all life on Earth. Given its meld of apocalyptic sci-fi, satirical skewering of religion, and imaginary anthropological study, it was always going to be a tricky adaptation, but a decade or so ago, Leonardo DiCaprio (whose father, underground comic artist George DiCaprio, had long dreamed of making Vonnegut’s book into a film) optioned the property through his Appian Way banner, and hired “Donnie Darko” writer/director Richard Kelly, whose particular interests seem to meld nicely with “Cat’s Cradle,” to write a script. Kelly banged one out in eight days, later saying in an interview “I’ve taken significant liberties with the novel. I think I’ve done a very faithful interpretation. I tried to capture the essence of the novel. It’s a fairly radical adaptation. I’ve suggested to everyone involved that they call the film ‘Ice 9′ instead of ‘Cat’s Cradle,’ just to not raise the ire and the wrath of the Kurt Vonnegut Society. Just to let people know it’s more of an inspiration, it’s probably more ‘inspired by’ the novel.” Darren Aronofsky was rumored to direct at one point, but it seems that Kelly’s script didn’t win approval, because in 2005, James V. Hart (“Hook,” “Contact“) was hired to pen the script along with his son Jake. However, it’s yet to move forward.
One of the seminal works of the golden era of cyberpunk, Neal Stephenson‘s 1992 novel “Snow Crash” is also one of the more prescient science-fiction novels of the last twenty years. Tackling the writer’s usual interests of language, cryptography, religion, computer science and more across an action-packed plotline that sees sword-wielding pizza delivery guy Hiro Protagonist teaming up with skateboarding courier Y.T. (yeah, it’s very 1990s) to investigate a virtual-reality virus that affects both the real and computer worlds, it’s a book positively overflowing with ideas and themes, so much so that many have argued that it could never work on screen. Vincenzo Natali, who himself has a tough job ahead of him directing “Neuromancer,” said in an interview “that book is so tonally all over the place… I think you would be hard pressed to do that in a two-hour movie.” An attempt was made in the mid 1990s, with Jeffrey Nachmanoff (“The Day After Tomorrow“) writing a script for “Demolition Man” director Marco Brambilla that never went anywhere. But more recently it got a new lease on life with “Attack The Block” director Joe Cornish setting up an adaptation at Paramount. It won’t be his next film — comic book “Rust” will come first — but he’s certainly talented enough to crack it, although it remains to be seen if the studio are bold enough to give him the giant budget that would surely be required to do it properly.
Cormac McCarthy has been increasingly popular on screen in recent years. 2001’s “All The Pretty Horses” had a troubled production and mostly disappeared, but the one-two punch of “No Country For Old Men” and “The Road” have seen the novelist become quite the hot property, sparking off a bidding war for his first original screenplay, “The Counselor,” eventually won by Ridley Scott. But that’s not the first brush with McCarthy that Scott’s had. The filmmaker was attached for some years to an adaptation of “Blood Meridian,” perhaps McCarthy’s most acclaimed novel. Following a teenage runaway who falls in with a group of scalp-hunters, led by the enormous, hairless Judge Holden, its spare prose, epic story and Western setting have attracted many filmmakers over the years, but its brutal, pervasive violence — even more so than in the author’s other books — seems to have stopped it from making it to the screen so far. Scott was on the project for many years, but never fully committed to it, and a few years back was replaced by “Little Children” director Todd Field, but he too couldn’t get the film over the start line. After that point, McCarthy fan James Franco came on board, convincing producer Scott Rudin, who holds the rights, to let him shoot twenty minutes of test footage with “Lost” actor Mark Pellegrino as the Judge, and Scott Glenn, Luke Perry and Franco’s brother Dave in other roles. But it was put on hold, and Franco fell out with Rudin, so it looks like it won’t happen in that incarnation, although Franco shot another McCarthy project, “Child Of God,” earlier this year. With directors including Michael Haneke and John Hillcoat also expressing interest over the years, this is sure to stay on the radar, but it’s not going to be an easy film to get greenlit.
“As I Lay Dying”
Not unlike “Ulysses,” William Faulkner uses a stream-of-consciousness style in a novel that’s often ranked among the greatest achievements of 20th century literature. But in many ways, it’s an even harder nut to crack. Following the death and burial of Addie Bundren in Jefferson, Mississippi, but through the voices of 15 different characters, “As I Lay Dying” is a sprawling tale that risks, in translation to the screen, losing the essence of Faulkner in favor of a more traditional narrative. But James Franco, having given up for the moment on “Blood Meridian,” is giving it the college try. The actor set up an adaptation with Fox Searchlight a few years back, and seems to have eventually won the approval of the Faulkner estate. The polymath revealed last year that he’s planning on changing things up a little while still staying faithful in spirit to the novel, saying “I don’t believe it’ll feel the same if you divide it as rigidly as the book, like titles that say ‘Cash’ and then you’re with Cash. You can slip into the characters’ heads and give them their inner voice for a while, but it has to be more fluid because movies just work differently than books. Movies, in some ways because they deal in images, are more concrete. I want to be loyal to the book — my approach is to always be loyal in a lot of ways — but in order to be loyal I will have to change some things for the movie.” The actor announced he would start shooting in the summer of 2011, having already test-shot the entire 160-page script, and said he’d assembled a cast including Michael Shannon, Paul Dano, Richard Jenkins and Joaquin Phoenix. But the actor decided to trim the script down, and production on “Oz The Great And Powerful” held things up further. But it looks like things are finally getting underway: last week, it was announced that Franco would be holding a casting call this past Wednesday in Jackson, Mississippi. There’s been no official announcement about production yet, but it sounds like one will be coming very soon.
Clearly this is just a taste of “unfilmable novels” that have already hit the screen and more that are in development. Sound off on your choices below.