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

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
October 26, 2012 12:31 PM
12 Comments
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5 Still On The Way

"Winter's Tale"
One of the most praised novels of the 1980s (it received multiple votes in a New York Times poll to find the best novel of the last 25 years in 2006), Mark Helprin's bold, ambitious "Winter's Tale" seems, on the surface, to be a risky choice for any director, let alone a first-timer. After all, its story, which centers on Peter Lake, a thief on the run from a criminal gang who falls in love with a dying woman, includes the apocalypse, rainbow bridges, resurrection, reincarnation and a flying, time-travelling white horse. We're sure that it's thwarted plenty of others since its publication. But over the last year or so, Akiva Goldsman got rolling on his long-in-the-offing adaptation of the novel, which is now shooting with Warner Bros. set to release in 2013. It's a passion-project for the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "A Beautiful Mind," who's been working on the project since 2009, and for the longest time it seemed that it wouldn't happen, but Goldsman managed to bring in A-list collaborators Russell Crowe and Will Smith to play small roles (villainous gang leader Pearly Soames and a judge, respectively), with Colin Farrell and "Downton Abbey" star Jessica Brown-Findlay taking the lead roles with Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Eva Marie Saint, Matt Bomer and more also on board. It's the kind of thing that could either be transcendent or a disaster, and with the man behind screenplays for "Batman & Robin" and "The Da Vinci Code" in charge (helming for the first time, no less), we'd lean towards the latter in theory. But actually, Goldsman's done some great work in recent years on TV series "Fringe," which shares some thematic links to "Winter's Tale," so it's possible we could turn out to be pleasantly surprised by this one.

"At the Mountains of Madness"
Although he's one of the most influential and important horror writers in history, the work of H.P. Lovecraft hasn't made much impact on the movies. There have been a few fairly loose adaptations -- "Re-Animator" is probably the best known, but none have really caught the imagination of the moviegoing public. However, Guillermo del Toro looked poised to change that, with an adaptation of one of Lovecraft's best known novels, "At the Mountains of Madness." Detailing an Antarctic expedition that uncovers a huge alien city built by ancient, evil Elder Things, it's a bleak and gory tale on a huge canvas. Del Toro's been working on the film for some time, originally setting it up at Warner Bros., who ultimately failed to pull the trigger on the film, concerned about the cost. But after the success of "Pan's Labyrinth" and bailing on "The Hobbit," del Toro got his project going again at Universal, planning to make a $150 million, 3D version, with James Cameron producing and Tom Cruise looking likely to play the lead role. But suddenly, after a string of other ambitious flops, Universal got cold feet, telling del Toro that they wouldn't greenlight the film at the required budget without a guarantee that he'd cut it down to a PG-13 rating. A heartbroken del Toro moved on to "Pacific Rim," with the hope of returning to 'Madness' one day, but the outlook has become bleaker over time, with the director suggesting that the premise of "Prometheus" might have marked "a long pause -if not the demise- of ATMOM." As of the summer, del Toro hadn't seen the film, but let's all hope that Scott's botched sci-fi epic hasn't put him off.

"Ender's Game"
Violent, epic science-fiction has been all the rage of late, but violent, epic science-fiction starring a cast of children? That's a harder sell, and the principle reason why it's taken a few decades for "Ender's Game," the seminal work by sci-fi writer/homophone/climate change denier Orson Scott Card to reach the screen. Set in a future where Earth is at war with a bug-like alien race known as the Formics, a group of children, including the titular Ender, are sent into orbit to train to be soldiers of the future. Card always resisted overtures from Hollywood, but embarked on a screenplay in the late 1990s after founding his own production company, and the film was set up at Warner Bros. in 2003 with future "Game of Thrones" writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss set to rewrite the screenplay and Wolfgang Petersen directing. But for various reasons, not least the difficulties of assembling a cast of children and putting them into combat, that version stalled. But in the last few years, it's finally reared up again -- Card set up a new script with Odd Lot Entertainment, with "Star Trek" writers Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman producing, and "Wolverine" helmer Gavin Hood writing and directing. An impressive cast has been assembled -- "Hugo' star Asa Butterfield in the title role, with Abigail Breslin and Hailee Steinfeld among the younglings, and Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis as their tutors. Filming wrapped earlier this year with a release scheduled for next November. The bankruptcy of effects company Digital Domain has caused some issues in post-production, but we should be finding out whether Hood and co. have pulled off a difficult job around this time next year.

"The Sandman"
Along with Alan Moore and Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman was responsible for the creative rebirth of comic books in the 1980s, and his epic "The Sandman" is, along with "Watchmen" and "Maus," one of a handful of genuine masterpieces in the medium, a Greek tragedy of staggering scope and invention. In theory centering on Dream, one of the Endless who represent abstract concepts (also including Death, Despair, Delirium, et al.) as he escapes a half-century of captivity and goes about rebuilding his realm, its 7-year run was as much about the nature of storytelling as anything else, with issues ranging from Shakespeare's England to a parallel world where a teenager is elected president. Given its success, filmmakers were always going to come calling, and after "Pulp Fiction," that film's co-writer Roger Avary was hired to direct a film at Warner Bros. with "Aladdin" (and future "Pirates of the Caribbean") writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio writing a script. And they did a solid job, combining the first two graphic novels into a narrative that was faithful, and yet its own beast, and Avary started talking about things like Jan Svankmeyer as influences. But hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters ("Wild Wild West") balked, fired everyone and commissioned his own script from William Farmer, who would later go on to fuck up "Jonah Hex" too. That draft leaked, causing fury on the Internet, and even Gaiman weighed in to call it "...not only the worst 'Sandman' script I've ever seen, but quite easily the worst script I've ever read." The project flatlined. Such is the scope of the tale that even a trilogy of films wouldn't necessarily do it justice; an HBO miniseries might be more viable, but likely too expensive. Nevertheless, "Supernatural" creator Eric Kripke was hired by Warner Bros. Television to develop a small-screen version, although Kripke said the following year that the project was on hold again. We suspect we'll see a version of "The Sandman" on screen one day -- perhaps Gaiman's new "Sandman: Year Zero" series will see a spike in interest -- but it'll take someone with real passion for the project to get it done.

"Paradise Lost"
An epic, ten-thousand-line poem from the 17th century about war in heaven, the creation of the world, and the fall of man, generally deemed to be one of the most important and brilliant pieces of art ever created? Yeah, that's definitely a good choice to turn into an mega-budgeted action movie. And yet Alex Proyas' mooted film version of "Paradise Lost" got within a few weeks of going before cameras before Warner Bros. came to their senses. Obviously, John Milton's poem is full of drama, from the three-day war between God's angels and the forces of Lucifer, to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. But it still seemed to be a stretch for writer Stuart Hazeldine and director Alex Proyas ("Dark City," "I Robot") to turn it into a mega-blockbuster. Set to include heavy mo-cap elements, with wu-shu fight scenes (as one potential star Benjamin Walker told us), and backing from Warners and Legendary Pictures, the film would have starred Bradley Cooper as Lucifer, with Walker as the archangel Michael, Djimon Housou as Abdiel, Casey Affleck as Gabriel, Camilla Belle and Diego Boneta as Eve and Adam, Callan McAuliffe as Uriel, Dominic Purcell as Moloch and Sam Reid as Raphael, it's was only weeks away from shooting last December when Legendary put the Australian shoot on hold, citing script issues and budgetary problems. The shoot date was delayed to June 2012, but this February, the film was cancelled altogether. Could it be resurrected one day? Perhaps, though likely not with Proyas and this cast on board. For now, "Paradise Lost" will remain unfilmable...

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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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