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5 "Unfilmable" Novels That Became Movies & 5 More That Are On The Way

by Oliver Lyttelton
August 17, 2012 11:59 AM
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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.

"Cat's Cradle"
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.

"Snow Crash"
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.

"Blood Meridian”
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.

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  • Gary | August 24, 2012 6:32 PMReply

    Fred Schepisi's adaptation of Nobel laureate Patrick White's novel "The Eye of The Storm." US release set for Sept 2012.

  • Cubeb | August 21, 2012 12:44 PMReply

    It's "cachet," by the way, not "cache." Sorry, pet peeve.

  • Virginia Downs | August 21, 2012 10:45 AMReply

    Changó, the Biggest Badass

  • Albert Cox | August 20, 2012 6:19 PMReply

    The Bible.

  • Mr Wednesday | August 18, 2012 7:02 AMReply

    No mention of Cloud Atlas or Lord Of The Rings? Do the movies have to have missed the mark or failed in some way to make it to this list?

  • DG | August 18, 2012 1:51 AMReply

    Wittgenstein's Mistress

  • Leo Farah | August 17, 2012 9:50 PMReply

    To call Naked Lunch a "grandly ambitious failure" is a grandly pedestrian failure of the writer OLIVER LYTTELTON's intellectual abilities.

  • Stevo the Magnificent | August 17, 2012 9:35 PMReply

    I understand that opinion is sharply divided on 'Watchmen', but I honestly believe it to be one of the best comic-book movie adaptations to date, and is one of the boldest and most daring big studio films since 'Fight Club'. Zack Snyder deserves a lot of credit for not only filming the supposedly "unfilmable" graphic novel, for capturing the important essentials of the story in a remarkably tight 162-minute film, but to do it in such a coherent and dynamic manner... say what you want, 'Watchmen' is one of the best big-budget movies of recent years, period.

  • Cubeb | August 21, 2012 12:43 PM


  • Stephen | August 17, 2012 8:23 PMReply

    So sick of Franco and his meddling, dilettante-ish way.

  • Mateus Denardin | August 17, 2012 5:00 PMReply

    "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" is a great film.

  • AZ | August 17, 2012 1:41 PMReply

    should not have been made - "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"
    about to shoot that shouldn't - "Winter's Tale"
    no way no how - "Infinte Jest"

  • DG | August 17, 2012 1:26 PMReply

    I want to see a Gravity's Rainbow movie! Blood Meridian could be amazing with the right director, the prose has a very cinematic quality to it. Hanaecke is an interesting choice but I think would hold back to much to do it right. As I Lay Dying could be amazing too if that really is the cast Franco uses, but somehow I imagine it won't be

  • Ratzkywatzky | August 17, 2012 1:10 PMReply

    Finnegans Wake was filmed by Mary Ellen Bute as Passages from Finnegans Wake, and it's a very entertaining film--far better than Strick's dull adaptation's of Ulysses and Portrait.

  • JD | August 17, 2012 1:08 PMReply

    There's a William Monahan adaptation of Blood Meridian that's superb. Just film that script--that's all it'd take to bring the book to screen.

  • GrazingMace | June 17, 2014 2:32 PM

    I might be the umpteenth person to ask you this, and, unless you're an insider, how did you get a hold of it? is this available anywhere?

  • vincent | August 17, 2012 1:06 PMReply

    NAKED LUNCH .......................................................................................................................

  • WRT | August 17, 2012 12:38 PMReply

    Aparrently Brad Pitt's production company offered Mark Danielewski $10 million for the rights to House of Leaves, but he turned them down -- and has turned down all offers on the film rights. I think that's a book that would make a great movie in the hands of someone who really gets it. The problem would be the studio. You'd need to shoot both Johnny and the house's narratives (the latter as Navidson himself did, probably, just reproducing The Navidson Record)

  • TRM | August 17, 2012 2:38 PM

    Even in the RIGHT hands, there is no way they could properly capture that book on film.

  • rotch | August 17, 2012 12:37 PMReply

    Philip Kaufman did a pretty good job with the unfilmable The Unbearable Lightness of Being

  • Chris | August 17, 2012 12:33 PMReply

    Yes, I was going to say Tristram Shandy, but someone beat me to it.

    Another good example: Under the Volcano.

  • cosmo vitelli | August 17, 2012 3:13 PM

    Under the Volcano is too button-downed. John Huston's ego outstripped his understanding of tone sometimes, and this is probably the best example. No faulting Albert Finney, he was just stuck in a world that needed more frightening surrealism.

  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman | August 17, 2012 12:25 PMReply

    The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

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