Spinning 'Cloud Atlas': 5 Unfilmable Novels That Became Movies & 5 More On The Way

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by Oliver Lyttelton
October 26, 2012 12:31 PM
12 Comments
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While it was a worldwide success and displays some bold and ambitious storytelling that could look amazing on screen, it always seemed that there was little chance of David Mitchell's best-seller "Cloud Atlas" ever making it to screens. Indeed, Mitchell himself told the New Yorker recently, "As I was writing 'Cloud Atlas,' I thought, 'It's a shame this is unfilmable.' "

But never underestimate the ambitions of filmmakers, because today sees the release of the movie version of "Cloud Atlas," a multi-year, big-budget labor of love from the three filmmakers: Andy and Lana Wachowski ("The Matrix") and Tom Tykwer ("Perfume"). Featuring an all-star cast of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Bae Doona, Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant, the film's been wildly divisive among critics, some praising it as one of the best films of the year, some, including ourselves, calling it an ambitious failure, or worse.

But whatever you think of it, Tykwer and the Wachowskis seem to have demonstrated once again that there's no such thing as "unfilmable." And to celebrate that, as we did with the release of David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis" a few months back, we've put together another five so-called "unfilmable" novels that made it to the screen, and five more that either nearly did or are still on the way. Read on below, and let us know any unfilmable favorites of your own you'd like to see on screen in the comments section.

5 That Were Made

"Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story" (2006)
Of all the unadaptable works of fiction that actually have made it to the screen, Laurence Sterne's novel "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman," published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767, might have been the toughest nut to crack. Ostensibly the biography of a fairly ordinary man, the titular Tristram, who sets out to narrate his own life from birth, the pleasures of the novel comes from the way that Shandy constantly procrastinates and gets sidetracked, to the extent that he's not even born until Volume III. It can be a frustrating (but rewarding) read, but the digressions are such that no one had ever really thought to turn it into a film. Until Michael Winterbottom, Steve Coogan and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, the team behind the great "24 Hour Party People," decided to have a go. Their version, "A Cock And Bull Story" (or in the U.S. "Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story") is a meta-fictional delight that sees Coogan, as himself, taking the lead in more traditional adaptation of the novel, directed by Winterbottom surrogate Mark (Jeremy Northam). Mixing scenes from the film-within-the-film, and behind the scenes shenanigans featuring a who's-who of British talent like Roger Allam, Naomie Harris, Gillian Anderson, Dylan Moran and, best of all, Rob Brydon (whose part grows as production on the fictional movie continues, setting up a rivalry that would continue to bear great fruit in "The Trip"), it's a loose, shaggy-dog of a movie, which is exactly how it should be. Though Winterbottom and co. barely scratch the surface of the novel, it's as true in spirit as you could ever ask for, despite -- or more accurately, because of -- its inventions and in-jokes.

"The NeverEnding Story" (1984)

As one Lionel Hutz once told one Homer Simpson, "Mr. Simpson, this is the most blatant case of false advertising since 'The NeverEnding Story.' " Obviously a film could never hope to accurately live up to that title, but even then, Wolfgang Petersen's well-loved 1984 fantasy takes plenty of liberties with its philosophically minded source material, so much so that the original author sued (unsuccessfully) to stop production and took his name off the film. Michael Ende wrote "Die unendliche Geschichte" in 1979, the story of an overweight, bullied boy who finds his way to the magical world of Fantastica, where he joins with a strange collection of characters to battle the oncoming Nothing, caused by human lies. Inspired by the anthroposophical movement, which talks about a comprehensible spiritual world attaniable through the development of imagination, inspiration and independent thinking, it's pretty heady stuff for a novel ostensibly for children. And that, along with the fantasy elements, including shapeshifting characters and will o'wisps, led most to believe that it could never be filmed. But the book's success at home and abroad (it was translated into English in 1983) saw it picked up by German producers Bernd Eichinger and Dieter Geissler, who set it up as the most expensive ever European production up to that point. Ende was initially behind the adaptation, but when his approved director was fired, and script changes were made that simplified the second half of the film into a more traditional fantasy narrative, Ende tried to sue to stop the release. His bid failed, although he successfully took his name off the opening credits of the film. When released in 1984, the film took $100 million worldwide from a $20 million budget, and became one of the more successful home video releases of the VHS era, inspiring two sequels that Ende was presumably equally unhappy with. The writer passed away in 1995, but in 2009, it was announced that Warner Bros., Kennedy/Marshall and Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way company were teaming for a reboot that aimed to capture more of the novel's 'nuances.' But producer Kathleen Kennedy told us last year that "It's not meant to be," with rights issues causing difficulties.

"Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" (2006)

Movies can do sight well. Movies can do sound well. What the medium has traditionally not been particularly good at capturing, bar a few experiments with scratch 'n' sniff and Smell-O-Vision, is scent. Which for a novel like Patrick Suskind's "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," that evolves around a young French man born without body scent but an acute sense of smell, who becomes a serial killer in the search for the perfect odor, is somewhat problematic as poetic description of scent works well on the page, but is hard to capture on screen. Suskind himself seemed to believe that was the case, as despite the book becoming a world-wide smash, he refused to sell the rights to anyone but Stanley Kubrick or Milos Forman, who never expressed an interest. Eventually, his producer friend Bernd Eichinger (who, yes, had also been responsible for "The NeverEnding Story") managed to convince him, and writer Andrew Birkin ("The Name Of The Rose") began an adaptation, with Tom Tykwer -- who would go on to make "Cloud Atlas" -- hired to direct after getting the thumbs up from Suskind. At the time, one of most expensive German movies ever made, Tykwer assembled an impressive cast, with Ben Whishaw in his first lead role, and Alan Rickman and Dustin Hoffman in support, and he certainly produced a handsome-looking film. It's a surprisingly faithful adaptation, all told, but Tykwer never finds a way round the problems that were inherent all along -- that he had a quiet and unlikable protagonist, and that there was no effective way to make a film about scent work on screen (although a limited 15-piece perfume collection inspired by the film, ringing in at about $700, was released alongside the picture). An admirable stab, but not an entirely successful one.

"The Lord of the Rings" (2001-2003)

Despite being one (or indeed three) of the most successful fantasy novels of all time, it seemed for decades that J.R.R. Tolkien's epic "The Lord of the Rings" would never reach the screen -- the giant armies, fantasy creatures and sheer length all seemed to suggest it wasn't possible. Not that it stopped people from trying. In 1957, a few years after the release of the novel, Forrest J. Ackerman, creator of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, paired with Morton Grady Zimmerman and Al Brodax to pitch Tolkien on a three-hour film adaptation of the books. The writer was initially excited, but disliked their script, and the project was scrapped early on. A decade later, a 12-minute cartoon film from artist Gene Deitch was screened, but nothing more came of it, and United Artists picked up the rights in 1969. The intention was for The Beatles to star in the film, with Paul as Frodo, Ringo as Sam, George as Gandalf, and John Lennon as Gollum, and Stanley Kubrick was briefly courted to direct, but the director couldn't be convinced, and Tolkien eventually nixed the idea of the band starring. Soon after, John Boorman ("Point Blank") was hired to work on a script, which departed from the source material a fair bit (a sex scene between Frodo and Galadriel?), but it was ultimately a change in studio management that saw that take doomed, though Boorman would later successfully reuse some of the themes in his "Excalibur." Middle-Earth finally made it to screen in animated form, with a Rankin/Bass take on "The Hobbit" in 1977 preceding Ralph Bakshi's 1978 "The Lord of the Rings" the first of a two-part take. The film did reasonably well, but not well enough, and United Artists decided not to proceed with the second film (the story was completed with Rankin/Bass's little-seen 1980 "The Return of the King"). The next few decades saw little progress, until long-time Tolkien fan Peter Jackson became convinced that CGI technology would make the film possible, and managed to set up an adaptation at Miramax. When his remake of "King Kong" fell apart in 1997, Jackson moved ahead with the project, writing a two-part screenplay which would have had a total budget of $75 million. But when Miramax realized the film would likely have cost double that, Bob Weinstein suggested making a single two-hour version, or not doing it at all. Jackson managed to convince New Line to step in (with studio head Bob Shaye declaring it should be three films, not two), and the rest, as you might have noticed, is history...

"Lolita" (1962) & "Lolita" (1997)

One of the undisputed masterpieces of 20th century literature, when it was first brought to screen by Stanley Kubrick in 1962, it carried the tagline: "How did they ever make a film of Lolita?" The answer being, for the most part, that they probably shouldn't have, either then or in the 1997 Adrian Lyne-directed remake, because neither quite crack either the brilliance of Vladimir Nabokov's prose, or the shocking nature of the subject matter. Published in 1955, and promptly the center of a storm of controversy and outrage, the novel sees Humbert Humbert narrate the tale of his infatuation, and ultimate sexual affair, with the titular 12-year-old girl. Astonishingly written, with one of the great sustained narrative voices in fiction, the subject matter understandably made many shy away, but ultimately the success of "Spartacus" saw Kubrick land the job, with Nabokov himself writing a script (most of which was abandoned, though Nabokov retains credit). It's not a terrible attempt -- Kubrick retains the playful nature of the writer's prose, and he's as faitfhful as he can be, but he's crippled by the censorship restrictions of the time, and by a somewhat dodgy performance of 14-year-old star Sue Lyons. Kubrick would later say that, if he'd known how much the censorship would interfere, he "probably wouldn't have made the film," while Nabokov said in an interview that the film may turn out as, "The swerves of a scenic drive perceived by the horizontal passenger of an ambulance." 35 years later, Adrian Lyne, director of "Fatal Attraction" and "9 1/2 Weeks" who in theory had much more freedom, set out to make a more faithful version, only to find American distributors shying away -- the film eventually aired on Showtime. Which turned about to be an appropriate home for it. Lyne gets good performances from stars Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain (even if she's wildly unconvincing as a 14-year-old), but Lyne misses much of the point of the book, turning it into a sincere and somewhat trashy potboiler.
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12 Comments

  • JD | March 30, 2014 3:47 PMReply

    Love Cloud Atlas.

  • Melissa | March 30, 2014 3:24 PMReply

    I really loved Cloud Atlas. It is a shame that that film was not very well received and took such a financial beating. I thought it was beautiful, albeit a little longer (almost 3 hours) than I generally like a movie to be. They could have done some more editting without harming the multiple story lines. Even so, I am very fond of that movie and purchased the DVD for our video library.

  • DG | October 26, 2012 11:03 PMReply

    I like James Franco but his As I Lay Dying will not be a good movie

  • DG | October 26, 2012 11:02 PMReply

    Also my nominee for an unfilmable is Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson. You could film it but not in a recognizable way

  • DG | October 26, 2012 11:00 PMReply

    Kubrick's Lolita has some things going for it but the reason it ultimately fails is because of the script, and how much of the book is left out (Humbert's murder attempt fantasy on Mrs. Haze for starters) and how much is changed (the weird scene between Humberto and Quilty at the Motel doesn't happen anything like that in the book, a change I think took place to give Peter Sellers a chance to do some energetic rambling). The craziest part of this of course is that Nabokov wrote the script! I just can't help but wonder how much of the changes were his idea and how much was studio input. I know that he wrote and burned several drafts of the book before his wife ultimately rescued what we have today, I wonder if maybe the script felt like a chance to take another crack at the story so he just reinterpreted it yet again?

  • tgbhy | October 26, 2012 4:14 PMReply

    Ender's Game is unfilmable? The thing literally reads like a screenplay. Schematic, generic, with easy characterizations and token characters -- what about this doesn't scream adaptable? There's nothing about it that's particularly literary. Just a story. I'm surprised it wasn't made sooner

  • Wang | October 26, 2012 2:26 PMReply

    James Franco finished filming ‘As I Lay Dying’ earlier this month—I can’t imagine how they’ve managed to turn THAT into a movie. “My mother is a fish” indeed.

    Just read something about the ’50s version of The Sound and the Fury that made it sound like an awful, awful movie, more fake Tennessee Williams than Faulkner: http://www.oxfordamerican.org/articles/2012/oct/18/essay-faulkner-film/

  • El Hanso | October 26, 2012 2:24 PMReply

    No book is unfilmable. People just need to get rid of the idea that a film could ever be the same experience like a book. Or the other way around. There are even films based on "Ulysses" or Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" (at least some chapters) and those books are even more impossible than any of the five films/books listed here. And as an adaptation they basically fail, probably had to fail, but if stripped from their connection with the source material the films might at least have some interesting ideas.

  • bapi | October 26, 2012 1:36 PMReply

    The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay?

  • blauriche | October 26, 2012 12:47 PMReply

    Having read NEVERENDING STORY in the original German, I actually feel like the film was relatively faithful to the book. I mean it's basically the first half of the book minus a few episodes. For me, the book read a lot like THE WIZARD OF OZ in that it's the story of a journey with all these little episodes that tickle the imagination. It's weird to learn that Ende sued over the film because my experience reading the book was mostly one of being surprised at how similar it was to the movie.

  • blauriche | October 26, 2012 1:08 PM

    It's probably too obvious a choice but for me I think of THE ORCHID THIEF, which is basically a magazine article interspersed with lengthy encyclopedia like entries... I adore what they came up with. I thought the Kubrick adaptation of LOLITA was okay, but I feel like DEATH IN VENICE is a great example of a book that isn't ever adapted very well into film, since it always ends up too literal and you never really get a sense of how dramatic it is that this guy is basically conspiring to doom all these people to death by keeping the whole cholera epidemic on the downlow.

  • Drew | October 26, 2012 12:40 PMReply

    I'd add to the "unfilmable books that were made into movies" -- Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s "Slaughterhouse Five," which everybody reads in college at one point or another. I thought George Roy Hill did a super job getting that tough one to the screen -- wish it was re-released.

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