By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist August 17, 2012 at 11:59AM
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.
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.