Braving the wilds of nonlinear narratives, stream-of-consciousness storytelling, interwoven short stories and other forms of experimental fiction has always been a daunting task, suitable only for filmmakers whose affection for the source material trumps their distaste for pain, frustration, and failure. Lately the basecamp at the foot of these cinematic Everests has been crowded with ambitious auteurs determined to conquer these literary impressionistic masterpieces by wrestling them into the three-act structure. We’re talking about the kind of books that make literary adaptation an extreme sport.
“Mysteries of Lisbon,” which opens in U.S. theaters this weekend, is based on Camilo Castelo Branco’s eponymous, sprawling, nineteenth-century Portuguese tale with multiple narrators and a digressive plot about an orphan’s relationship with an aristocrat. But Chilean-born filmmaker Raoul Ruiz (who was profiled by A.O. Scott in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine) managed to distill Branco’s florid elliptical prose into a relatively lean four-and-a-half-hour epic that’s been given a heroes’ welcome by critics and moviegoers worldwide.
Ruiz is far from the only intrepid filmmaker daring to adapt works previously believed to be unfilmable. Among the most closely watched projects is the long-gestating adaptation of Flann O’Brien‘s At-Swim-Two-Birds by Irish character actor-turned-auteur, Brendan Gleeson (“Gangs of New York“). As the heavily hyphenated title suggests, O’Brien’s 1939 novel strays far from the conventions of grammar and structure throughout its first-person account of an Irish novelist’s battles with his protagonist (also a writer) and the various mutinous characters throughout the novel-within-a-novel. The meta aspect of the book’s overlapping stories within stories is essential to the work and bound to pose the biggest challenge to first-time auteur, Gleeson, who confirmed recently that Michael Fassbender has joined his starry cast of Celts, including Gabriel Byrne, Colin Farrell, and Cillian Murphy. Gleeson discovered that the key to creating a coherent script out of the stories-within-stories was to create three visually distinct worlds to delineate each separate narrative layer. “It’ll be a bit like “The Wizard of Oz” in the sense that the real world will inhabit the imaginary world,” Gleeson explained here. “It’s complex, but in the end, it’s just about a kid in college who stays too long in bed. And doesn’t really know where to put himself in the world and finds that his imagination kind of takes him away.”
Translating David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to the big screen may be most vexing of all these projects. In fact, the task of teasing a coherent narrative out of the book’s six disparate stories’ has proven to be such a bear, the project has required the the talent and brain-power of three writer-directors — Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) and Andy and Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix”). It’s hard to imagine how anyone could find a way to connect Mitchell’s sextet of disparate yarns, ranging from a composer eking out a meager existence in mid-twentieth-century Belgium to the moral quandaries of a California political journalist covering Governor Ronald Reagan to the adventures of a trepidatious nineteenth-century explorer. But judging by the project’s high-wattage cast including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, and Hugo Weaving, it seems that the Tykwer-Wachowski triumvirate may have cracked the code to Cloud Atlas.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether this rush to tackle tough material will continue to expand to the far extremes of inaccessible literature. So what’s the ultimate test of a filmmaker’s mettle? From where we sit, it would be a tall order to ask anyone to deliver a faithful adaptation of James Joyce‘s Finnegan’s Wake or Ulysses. What works of classic literature do you think would be the ultimate filmmaking challenge?