The Temptation of the Unfilmable: 7 Books That Should Never Hit the Silver Screen
August 13, 2012
The news that Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card will make its way to theaters in 2013 got us thinking about books that are adaptable — and those that are not. Ender’s Game topped many “unfilmable book lists” for a number of reasons, the biggest one being that the success of the film would rest on the shoulders of actors between the ages of six and ten. No pressure, little guys. The cinematic success of Ender’s Game remains to be seen, though our fingers are crossed that it achieves a “Harry Potter in space” effect.
Considering today’s technology paired with large studio budgets, a case can be made that with the right director and actors, there is no longer such thing as an “unfilmable book.” However, though both of these elements can help a movie get made, they do not ensure a film’s success. We consider ourselves movie fanatics, though we are of the opinion that all books do not need to be adapted into films. This especially applies to books that rely heavily on stream of consciousness and less on plot to tell a story. With that said, here are seven books we hope are never accompanied with the tagline “coming soon to a theater near you.”
Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger
Salinger’s initial willingness to have his books adapted disappeared after his short story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” was poorly translated into the 1949 film, “My Foolish Heart.” From then on, J. D. Salinger wasn’t shy about expressing reservations on how his writing would translate to a movie or play, evident from this acidic 1957 letter sent to a Hollywood producer. Over the next fifty years, numerous Hollywood kingpins such as Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Elia Kazan, and Leonardo DiCaprio were denied attempts to create cinematic adaptations of Holden Caufield’s tale of teen angst. As we mourned Salinger’s death in 2010, we were relieved to find out that, according to his agent, chances in adaptation of “The Catcher in the Rye” remain slim-to-none. We’ll put that in the win column.
Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
While Southern novelist William Faulkner fared well as a screenwriter, his own body of work presented more of a challenge in the adaptations department. Faulkner’s experimental writing style was frequently characterized by stream of consciousness, which was especially prominent in two of his most celebrated works: Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury. We were surprised to learn that The Sound and the Fury, which told the story of the dysfunctional Compson family from multiple perspectives, was loosely adapted into the 1959 film starring Joanne Woodward, receiving mixed reviews. To date, a film attempt has never been made on Faulkner’s abstract 1936 novel, Absalom, Absalom! which follows the rise and fall of Southern gentleman Thomas Sutpen from three interconnected perspectives. If this movie were to be made, we would nominate David Lynch, whose mind-bending films like “Mulholland Drive,” “Lost Highway,” and “Inland Empire” exemplify his ability to jump seamlessly between time and multiple perspectives.
At the Mountains of Madness, by H. P. Lovecraft
In March, 2011, Universal Pictures pulled the plug on Guillermo del Toro’s cinematic attempt at H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, due to budget concerns ($150 million project estimate) as well as del Toro’s insistence that the film have an R rating. Lovecraft’s 1936 novella is centered around a scientific expedition to Antarctica, and the sprawling alien city across which they stumble. With a project this ambitious in scope, del Toro was correct to assess that this would be a film that requires an exorbitant budget in order to succeed. In our ideal world, del Toro and James Cameron (who was at one time attached as a producer) team up — and Cameron uses some of his “Avatar” earnings to get this project back on track.
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace’s 1996 magnum opus, Infinite Jest, is not recommended for the casual reader. Clocking in at over one thousand pages, Infinite Jest is set in a near-future satirical version of North America and touches on tennis, substance addiction and recovery programs, depression, child abuse, family relationships, advertising and popular entertainment, film theory, and Quebec separatism, among other topics. In addition to the many subjects covered, Infinite Jest boasts over one hundred characters and close to four hundred footnotes. Exhausted yet? Though we personally would not know where to start with a film adaptation, others have attempted to bring Infinite Jest to life outside the pages. Germany’s leading experimental theater company, Hebbel am Ufer, recently pulled off the unimaginable by staging a twenty-four-hour stage adaptation of Infinite Jest.
Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
Thomas Pynchon’s complex 1973 novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, contains multiple story lines centered around the development of a rocket by the Nazis near the end of World War II. We consider it unfilmable for a myriad of reasons, the main one being that there are a whopping four hundred characters introduced throughout the course of the novel. Cutting any of the characters or story threads would be like pulling out the middle block from a game of Jenga: it would all fall down.
Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce
Many readers would not describe James Joyce as an accessible writer, and Finnegans Wake is considered his most challenging book by far. Joyce’s final novel, written over the course of seventeen years, ends in the middle of a sentence and begins in the middle of the same sentence. Taking place over the course of one night, the characters of Finnegans Wake exist in a fugue state, with no real plot advancing the story. Since the novel is entirely reliant on idiosyncratic language and multilingual puns, it is entirely possible that a viewer’s head might explode upon seeing this type of complexity adapted for the screen. Some books should remain in their original formatting, and this especially applies to Finnegans Wake.
House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
Described by some as a horror story and by others as a love story, Mark Z. Danielewski’s debut novel, House of Leaves, is just about as unconventional as you can get. Characterized by the frequent usage of footnotes, different text colors, and unusual page layouts, it is intentional that the reader feel a sense of claustrophobia during their reading experience. Though there are multiple plots, the main story focuses on a young family who moves into a new house to soon discover that their home’s interior is larger than the exterior, and the knowledge of this begins to drive the inhabitants insane. Danielewski has refused to sell the movie rights, though that has not stopped fans from imagining the potential of a film. We are particularly fond of one fan’s visual take on the opening credits.
We want to hear from you. What books do you consider unfilmable and why?
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