What’s “unfilmable” now?

Posted by · 9:33 am · July 21st, 2009

Cover of William Gibson's NeuromancerIn the wake of “Watchmen,” adapted from a notoriously dense piece of popular culture and a nut some think Zack Snyder and company finally cracked this year, Scott Thill at WIRED Magazine is asking what else is out there that’s also “unfilmable.”  I personally think the idea of something being “unfilmable” is bullshit.  Perhaps as far as faithful adaptation goes, maybe, but cinema is a medium with nearly limitless possibilities, so if you can’t dive in and creatively bridge the gap, you have no business trying to do so in the first place.  That’s my view, anyway.

The WIRED list includes a number of the usual suspects, two of them being graphic novels that I would hesitate to consider all that difficult when it comes to adapting this stuff (Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman”).  Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” tops the user generated rankings, perplexingly.  It’s a sci-fi heavy collective, though, so maybe fanboys are just protecting their own.

One of the choices, which gets some dedicated copy, is a challenge I’d love to see some intrepid filmmaker take on — William Gibson’s cyberpunk-birthing “Neuromancer.”

Here is what Thill had to say on that:

With a hacker antihero in Case, and a supporting cast made up of unhinged cyborgs and desperate gangsters, Gibson’s award-winning page-turner rebooted not just speculative fiction, but sci-fi cinema as we know it. He’s even rebooted himself: His not-great 1995 adaptation of Johnny Mnemonic, starring a clumsy Keanu Reeves, was upgraded into a mirrored money-machine called The Matrix. And yeah, that ended clumsily as well, but it all points out the obvious.

William Gibson is due. He’s so due.

We need to live in a century where William Gibson helps turn Neuromancer into a better film than the three made by two Wachowski brothers hypnotized by the meatspace merge. That century is now, actually: Neuromancer has been on Seven Arts Pictures’ front burner for around a year now, and looks set to roll with Torque director Joseph Kahn in the hot seat.

Of course, I’m as terrified as you are by that last bit.  What about you?  What volumes do you consider to be “unfilmable” and why?

→ 31 Comments Tags: , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

31 responses so far

  • 1 7-21-2009 at 9:41 am

    Conrado said...

    I think a pretty unfilmable novel is “One Hundred Years of Sultiude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, everyone’s always saying his novels are unfilmabel and Mike Newell prooved that when he adapted “Love in the Time of Cholera”.

  • 2 7-21-2009 at 10:03 am

    AmericanRequiem said...

    not graphic novels but two of my all time favorite works I think would be near impossible to translate. That would be George Orwells 1984 and JD Salingers Catcher in the Rye. If someone did justice to these books they would sweep the oscars

  • 3 7-21-2009 at 10:04 am

    Conrado said...

    Yeah, Catcher in the Rye would be a pretty great movie

  • 4 7-21-2009 at 10:10 am

    Joel said...

    Another one, Brave New World.

  • 5 7-21-2009 at 10:16 am

    aaron said...

    Mark danielewski’s house of leaves and roberto bolano’s 2666 are the two off the top of my head. Maybe easton ellis’ glamorama and dick’s valis as well, although *i* would love a shot at adapting valis.

  • 6 7-21-2009 at 10:39 am

    Anthony said...

    The Catcher in the Rye is nearly impossible to make a decent film out of. If it was attempted it would, with 99% certainty, be an absolute abortion.

    Is it filmable? Sure, it’s possible. But, is there even a slight chance of it being made into a good film? I’d say no.

    Having said that, I agree that if it was somehow cracked, it would sweep the Oscars. The novel is a towering achievement. Masterpiece may be a word that is thrown around a lot, but in this case, it’s fitting.

  • 7 7-21-2009 at 10:57 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    If Soderbergh and David Gordon Green couldn’t get A Confederacy of Dunces off the ground with the amazing cast they assembled then there doesn’t seem to be much hope for that brilliant property.

  • 8 7-21-2009 at 11:04 am

    T.S. said...

    I’ll agree with your general consensus, Kris, that anything can be filmed, and that claiming otherwise is general bullshit. I’ll also strongly echo Anthony’s sentiment that anything’s possible, but: “Is there even a slight chance of it being made into a good film?”

    The problem with Watchmen, as far as I was concerned, is not that it was “unfilmable.” It was, in fact, quite filmable because they used the graphic novel as essentially the most elaborately drawn and written storyboard ever created.

    Synder et al. managed to imbue with nothing new; it was like a case of a bad biopic where the writer and director simply give an amped up A&E Biography with a multi-million dollar budget, the ability to smudge the facts where they see fit, and no interest in saying something close to new. (I’ve not seen the director’s cut, so who knows, maybe there’s something else there.)

    Everything above could be filmed (some have been filmed, actually); but the conundrum is how to make it *more* than just a filmed book/graphic novel — how do you make it feel new. That makes the problem not one of textual obstacles, but one of talent.

  • 9 7-21-2009 at 11:44 am

    Mike_M said...

    A while ago I remember hearing that Terrence Malick was going to try and take a stab at Rye, but not sure the rights are out there, I though all Salinger’s were unavailable since an adaptation in the late 40s or early 50s…

    How about A Confederacy of Dunces or The Satanic Verses on this list?

  • 10 7-21-2009 at 11:51 am

    red_wine said...

    Watchmen was a very sad missed opportunity. Snyder had brought 300 to life but that was a one-line story, infact he had to pad it out. But Watchmen finally exposed his lack of imagination.

    The pieces were there, a budget which any of the respected directors could never dream of, that too for a full-on R rated film, the latest technology at his disposal, and he turned out THAT movie. Its truly a disaster of adaption. Kris, have you tried the Watchmen Motion Comics? They almost play like the animated version of the story and are truly spectacular, doing full justice to the novel.

    Stream Of consciousness novels are deemed unfilmable though some people did have success off late with The Hours most notably. Don Quixote can be called unfilmable but Gilliam has his heart set on it. Both John Huston and David Lean tried to write screenplays for Nostromo but died before completing. I wonder if anybody has the balls to film Ulysses or In Search Of Lost Time or Karamazov or something like that. Somebody did try to make a full 8 hr adaptation of War & Peace and it ended up being the most expensive film in history(700 million dollars adjusted for inflation). Though I think Mendes will fuck up Middlemarch and Deepa Mehta is seriously over-reaching when she thinks she can direct Midnight’s Children, 1 of the most celebrated books in Britain.

  • 11 7-21-2009 at 12:41 pm

    Mr. Milich said...

    My cat licking himself is pretty much unfilmable…

  • 12 7-21-2009 at 12:43 pm

    j said...

    Middlemarch was boring, and I would watch a film version if they cut everything besides the Dorothea storyline. There, that’d make it much easier to adapt.

    Hundred Years of Solitude has a good first half, a quite boring second half. Squish the second half at the end, and I’d be satisfied.

    I think part of Proust was adapted before. I don’t see a good reason to adapt it, though. The writing is the point, not the dialogue and action, which is what I find important in films.

    I tried watching War&Peace and ended up ffw’d all the non-Audrey Hepburn scenes; her scenes were good.

    Catcher in the Rye is overrated emo-ness; 1984 is overrated depressing allegory-ness. I prefer Animal Farm.

  • 13 7-21-2009 at 12:51 pm

    Michael W. said...

    I also don’t really buy this unfilmable thing. The same thing was said about The English Patient.

    But a novel I think that would be difficult to adapt would be James Elroys American Tabloid. I would really like to see it being done though. Daniel Day-Lewis would win his third Oscar for playing Howard Hughes! :D

  • 14 7-21-2009 at 1:16 pm

    Mark Kratina said...

    I have always wanted to see a film adaptation of Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again,” but I, too, have heard it qualifies for the “unfilmable” association.

  • 15 7-21-2009 at 1:27 pm

    Mike said...

    If Naked Lunch can be made into a good movie. Everything can.

  • 16 7-21-2009 at 1:56 pm

    R.J. said...

    I think it’s bull as well. It’s all in the execution and I’m not one of those purists who believes that every part of a book/novel/graphic novel etc. has to be included in the film adaptation. However, I do believe that certain written works simply lend themselves better to the medium of film while there are others that I would have a hard time imagining being made into a movie. Last time I checked, there were two adaptations of “Paradise Lost” in the works…that should be interesting if either of them ever get made.

  • 17 7-21-2009 at 1:57 pm

    voland said...

    I’d like to see a good version of Bulgakovs “Master and Margarita”, which holds up with the novels deepness and magic realism.

  • 18 7-21-2009 at 2:12 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Polanski apparently was keen to film “The Master and Margarita” a while back, but the plans never came to fruition. Shame.

  • 19 7-21-2009 at 3:03 pm

    BurmaShave said...

    THE HOURS is a piece of shit, so on the list it stays.

  • 20 7-21-2009 at 4:54 pm

    A.J said...

    I’ll throw Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” into the unfilmable mix. I think it was Redford that tried to adapt it a while back but that never happened.

  • 21 7-21-2009 at 5:26 pm

    Troy said...

    If Soderbergh and David Gordon Green couldn’t get A Confederacy of Dunces off the ground with the amazing cast they assembled then there doesn’t seem to be much hope for that brilliant property.”

    The cast they assembled was horrible. If Ferrell is set to play Ignatius, I’d rather the film just not be made.

    I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is “unfilmable”, though I highly doubt it.

  • 22 7-21-2009 at 7:50 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Please. “The Hours” is one of this decade’s greatest films.

  • 23 7-21-2009 at 7:52 pm

    R.J. said...

    I agree with you, Speaking English.

  • 24 7-21-2009 at 8:07 pm

    Cameron said...

    Screwtape Letters, anyone? I’d say that’s pretty unfilmable

  • 25 7-21-2009 at 9:06 pm

    Kyle said...

    The Dark Tower sounds pretty tough to film, and apparently the Star Trek guys are going to try it? hmmm

  • 26 7-21-2009 at 9:40 pm

    Andrew L. said...

    Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

  • 27 7-21-2009 at 10:03 pm

    R.J. said...

    I’d also love to see an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon”.

  • 28 7-21-2009 at 10:34 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    You can’t film a person’s thoughts. Voice-over and recreation of images going on inside someone isn’t the same as reading a person’s thoughts and filling it in with your own imagination. Some things in art and the world are un-cinematic – hence un-filmable in a useful to the audience and forward pushing the narrative way.

  • 29 7-21-2009 at 10:39 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    • “If Naked Lunch can be made into a good movie. Everything can.”

    I own Naked Lunch, and even I don’t think it’s a good movie. It’s a beautiful failure.

  • 30 7-22-2009 at 7:02 am

    Eunice said...

    I agree with Speaking English and R.J. “The Hours” is one of the decade’s greatest films.

  • 31 7-22-2009 at 4:29 pm

    Film-Otaku said...

    It’s rather difficult to picture how they would make films out of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series or Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Maybe as TV miniseries instead, or a regular series like what they’re doing with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire?

    Lovecraft’s stories have also proven rather difficult to translate into movies (the black-and-white silent film based on “The Call of Cthulhu” was great but wasn’t made for wide release). I’d love to see an interpretation of “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” probably the closest he has come to a fantasy story, but that’s another challenging one to make a film out of.