Unfilmable Novels

Jeff VanderMeer • May 28th, 2008 @ 7:20 am • Writing Tips

I love this list of unfilmable novels.

What would you add to it?

I also think this brings up a serious point: more novels should be unfilmable. Because this speaks to what about the form cannot be replicated in other art forms. When I was writing Shriek, one thing I had foremost in my head was to create something that couldn’t be filmed (well, except for little excerpts of it…). I’ve been thinking a lot about the influence of movies and television on novels. Some of it has been good–different ways of editing scenes, or jumping from one scene to another, just to name some simple ones–but in other ways it has been extremely bad. The immutable and yet completely fluid thing about novels that differentiates them from practically every other art form is that the reader creates the images and scenes from the information given to him or her by the writer. Each version of the novel is slightly different in each person’s head. There is some of this effect in film, but not that much. Novels, to me, seem much more open to interpretation as a result.

Jeff

Originally posted on my old blog, with 11 Comments:
At 7:37 AM, Matt Peckham said…
Since Hollywood reliably proves, year after year, that nothing is “unfilmable,” (i.e. “sacred”) I’d call it my “Please, At All Costs, Don’t” list. Quick before-I-must-dash top of my head’ers:

– Anything by Mark Danielewski (‘cept maybe The Fifty Year Sword).
– Anything by Gene Wolfe.
– Anything by Pavic, e.g. Dictionary of the Khazars.
– Kris Saknussemm’s Zanesville.

Oh geez, I guess I’m with Kelly “short form” Link here–my bookshelves are lined with either collections of shorter works or “conventional enough” novels I could at least conceive of a proper studio doing them justice, e.g. M. John Harrison’s Light, Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead, Jonathan Carroll’s White Apples, etc. All the really abstruse stuff like Barth and Borges is short

22 Responses to “Unfilmable Novels”

  1. Paul Jessup says:

    I love the idea of the novel as being unfilmable as part of it’s nature and definition- that modern novels need to prove that they are something other than film without pictures, or something. Books need to exist in their own unfilmable state, need to relish in their own separate qualia.

    BTW- I’ve got an pre-order on the Wyrm Publishing version of Shriek. Can’t wait until I get it. I’m waiting to get that copy to read it. I just finished Pale Fire- I take it you were inspired by this? If so, you should maybe read Douglas Copeland’s The Gum Thief- it’s got a similiar idea (writer writing, other characters criticize the writing) but done in a very pop-culture minded way. I know he was also inspired by Pale Fire- one of the characters in the book (a writer that’s writing a novel inside of the novel- there is a lot of meta-trickery and refractiveness like this in the book) mentions that he is inspired by Nabakov.

  2. Seth Merlo says:

    I think Screenhead have an excellent list there. Pynchon, Murakami and ‘Ulysses’ all came to mind before I’d even clicked the link, so I can’t really think of anything more to add.

    Re: your point about short stories – what about all the films that have been adapted from short SF fiction? Like Minority Report, Paycheck, A.I., etc? It seems Hollywood is just as interested in short fiction so long as the execs can grasp and pilfer the central idea. That’s not to say any of those movies aren’t without their faults …

  3. Felix Gilman says:

    Adam Thorpe’s Still — an 800 page novel about a washed-up director making a final film, to be shown only to friends and family at a millennium party and then destroyed, which will be entirely scrolling text accompanied by four or five still images — the conceit is that the whole huge madly digressive novel is actually the text we would be reading on-screen if we were watching the movie, and the big sad joke here is that this is of course impossible.

    Literally unfilmable. (I cannot recommend the book highly enough).

    Why couldn’t you film Gravity’s Rainbow? Stripped down to its essentials (Slothrop, in the Zone, looking for the S-Gerat, going mad) I think there’s a compelling movie there.

  4. Felix Gilman says:

    If you were going to film A Void, what element of cinematic vocabulary would you leave out? Sound is too big. Lighting?

  5. Robert Devereux says:

    I saw that list last year and was disappointed by it. Some of the so-called unfilmable films have been adapted, which challenges the premise that they are unfilmable. Metamorphosis was adapted at least five times. I don’t know if any were good adaptations. The same holds true for Don Quixote. It’s been completed multiple times, and it’s been attempted a few more times. My comment on a Nighthade forum at the time was “I think a lot of books can be turned into films, provided they are adapted with imagination. One man’s lack of imagination (and lack of research into what has been made) doesn’t make these books unfilmable.”

    Just because I can’t see how a book could be adapted doesn’t mean somebody else can’t come up with an idea that will work. Pavic would be unfilmable to me, but perhaps a DVD of short films and an innovative menu system could create something interesting.

  6. Sovay says:

    What would you add to it?

    Anything by Greer Gilman. The language.

  7. Corey Redekop says:

    Hmm, good list. I would say any else by Vonnegut, except Mother Night was such a good film that it gave me hope for other adaptations.

    Robert Coover’s “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.” Good luck with that one.

  8. Bryan Russell says:

    That’s an interesting list, though perhaps it should be titled “Great books that I would like to see as movies but would be difficult to film.” I’ll second the selection of Mark Z. Danielewski as being hard to film, but should say that this sort of choice really applies to most of the post-modernists. Pynchon was already mentioned, but lots of stuff by writers like John Barth, Donald Barthelme, William Gass, William Gaddiss and David Foster Wallace could easily be included. Wallace’s Infinite Jest would be a challenge (though I would love to see a talented attempt), as would Gass’s The Tunnel. The strange intertextuality and self-referentiality is part of what defines a lot of this stuff, and this is the sort of thing that is rather difficult to convert into some filmic form. I mean, the way language and story tears itself apart is rather a main point in a lot of this writing. Deconstructing langauge and narrative will be difficult on film, but impossible…? Who can say. “Adaptation” was a very interesting film with a lot of post-modern tendencies. It would be interesting to see what could be done with some of these writers.

    And I love Murakami. Some of his stuff would be a challenge, but I think many of his stories could be really brilliant films if done well, including his masterpiece The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World would be fun, and After Dark could be really cool.

    Other difficult books/writers for film… hmmm. Victor Pelevin would be a challenge. His Life of Insects would be challenging in the same way as Kafka’s Metamorphosis (what with insectoid transformations) and his Helmet of Horror would be tough, as it’s sort of re-writing the myth of theseus through internet chat (of weirdly kidnapped people transplanted to a maze… and on top of that much of what the book is about is abstract thought-concept stuff). A bitch, I’m guessing, to translate to film. Nicholson Baker comes to mind as well. Vox is entirely made up of dialogue taken from a phone conversation, and The Mezzanine mostly occurs in the head of a character taking an escalator up to the mezzanine level of a building.

    There are other books I wonder about, too. What would E.R. Eddison’s The Worm of Ouroboros be like without his delusional and mad prose to carry it? Giant be-jewelled demons conversing of the world… Odd, I’m guessing. And Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast? It’s odd style and lack of forward drive… though it would be interesting to see someone like Tim Burton take a crack at it. Maybe Clay-mation? And who’s the guy who wrote the book without the letter ‘e’? OULIPO stuff seems like it would lose its point a bit as a film. And someone like Italo Calvino would be hard to translate to film as well, though if he were it might be pretty neat and trippy. Cosmicomics as a movie… I might pay to see that. I was thinking even William Faulkner might be tricky. Say, The Sound and the Fury, or As I Lay Dying. For one of the world’s great writers, I can’t really ever recall seeing any adaptations of his work. Are there filmic versions of any of his stories? I’d be curious to know.

  9. Larry says:

    Some of Flannery O’Connor’s stories might fit. Borges and Wolfe I agree wouldn’t. Delany’s Dhalgren. Joyce, obviously. Boccaccio. This is a depressingly short list.

  10. Seth Merlo says:

    I was just thinking that even something like Le Guin’s ‘Left Hand of Darkness’ would be difficult. The plot is fine; it has enough forward drive and plenty of intrigue and tension, but casting it and getting the androgyny and feminist themes right without being cheesy or coming across as purely homosexual (which they aren’t) would be extremely difficult.

  11. Gary Couzens says:

    There are a few Faulkner adaptations around. Probably the best known is The Story of Temple Drake from 1933, a version of Sanctuary which was notorious in its day and is one of the films credited with bringing on the enforcement of the Production Code the following year.

    Sanctuary was refilmed in 1961 under its original title, and there are films of The Sound and the Fury (1959) and The Reivers (1969). As I Lay Dying hasn’t itself been filmed, but a novel heavily influenced by it has – Graham Swift’s Last Orders – very well.

    Gormenghast was made into a TV serial by the BBC but it didn’t really work.

  12. John Coulthart says:

    I don’t mind Strick’s film of Ulysses; of course it can’t be successful but it’s interesting for a Joyce fan to see them struggle with the attempt. Also odd because of anachronisms such as cars going down the road. Strick’s film of Portrait of the Artist was better although it still dilutes the book considerably. Mary Ellen Bute made a film based on Finnegans Wake in 1966 which I’ve never seen but always wondered about.

    The BBC filmed an adaptation of Gormenghast in 2000. Some of it works, other parts don’t; on the whole it was rather too lightweight. Christopher Lee made a good Flay, I thought.

  13. Serendipity Wednesday « That, Which says:

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  14. Bryan Russell says:

    Thanks Gary and John,

    I may just have to try and dig up that Gormenghast by the BBC. And maybe try and find the films of Sanctuary and The Sound and the Fury. I wonder how well they work?

    Thanks again.

  15. jeff vandermeer says:

    more tomorrow, lots of cool stuff mentioned here, but paul it is ada not pale fire that contains a narrative gambit similar to that in shriek, one also used in richard grant’s underrated novel views from the oldest house (sic?)

  16. Jami JoAnne Russell says:

    As much as I’d like to see a faithful adaptation – I think the young adult series Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators would be hard to film. Not just because Hitchcock himself is dead, but because Hollywood would never cast Jupiter Jones right – he’s suppose to be an overweight genius. They’d probably cast Justin Timberlake.

  17. Oliver Kotowski says:

    Nobody mentioned William Burroughs, esp. “Nova Express”? I think this is the most unfilmabel novel I’ve read so far.

    Oliver

  18. Hannu Blommila says:

    Mark Z. Danielewski’s “Only Revolutions” would be pretty unfilmable. But then again, maybe David Lynch could do it. He has, after all a pretty impressive track record of making truly odd, but utterly compelling movies. “Inland Empire” kicked ass!

  19. Bryan Russell says:

    I was thinking of William Burroughs too, what with Naked Lunch and it’s mad tangle of I’m-not-sure-what. Except it actually was made into a movie… though I haven’t seen it. Though I’ve heard it seemingly has little to do with the book, which would make sense since the book didn’t have much to do with itself either. Considering the manner of its composition, though, that seems only natural.

  20. Books that are unfilmable « The Rabbit I Pulled Out Of My Hat says:

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  22. Joseph Heaney says:

    The next best thing to the unfilmable novel is the novel that gets filmed, but in the process becomes something entirely different. Strugatski’s Roadside Picnic and Tarkovsky’s Stalker come to mind. Bother masterpieces, but in many ways fundamentally different.

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