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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: What’s the most unfilmmable book you can think of, and who could film it?

Sci Fi Wire posted an intriguing piece this week about “7 ‘unfilmable’ sci-fi books — and the filmmakers who could adapt them”:

Watchmen, The Lord of the Rings: These are books that were commonly thought to be impossible to adapt to the big screen. That is, until a filmmaker such as Zack Snyder or Peter Jackson found the keys to unlock them.

Whatever you may think of the final results, the fact is that Snyder and Jackson succeeded in translating the books to film. And that got us thinking about other great works of SF literature that are supposedly unfilmable—and how they might be successfully adapted, and by whom.

It’s a heady list. The following novels have captured the imaginations of generations of readers, but have so far been given a wide berth by filmmakers. We examine what makes these greats hard to shoot, and who out there in the dream factory actually has the kind of (dare we say it?) Snyder-ian vision to get the job done.

If you’re a fan of SF, the whole piece is worth a read. But even if you’re not, this question is worth considering:

What’s the most unfilmmable book you can think of, and who could film it?

It doesn’t have to be science fiction, of course. And you don’t even have to be serious here: Have some fun.

My answer: The New York City phone book. We movie fans often talk about how willing we’d be to see our favorite actors read the phone book, so how about it? Martin Scorsese would direct, of course. Or Woody Allen.

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me.)

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  • Rob

    Catherynne Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales. Director: Terry Gilliam.

  • Michael

    Alan Moore’s “Promethea”. Director: David Cronenberg.

    He managed to film “The Naked Lunch”, so this should be a piece of cake for him.

  • MaSch

    I don’t think the director would be crucial in the movie adaption of the phone book, it all lies with the cast.

    What about “Finnegan’s Wake”? A book that is unreadable (it says so in the introduction to the Penguin Edition!) very probably should be unfilmable, too.

  • MaSch

    Damn, forgot the director. David Lynch would be an adequate choice, I think.

  • I can think of a few books that, if adapted into film, would be unwatchable. But that’s not the issue at hand, is it?

    My list:
    The Koran. I feel sorry for any actor that agrees to play Muhammad.

    The Screwtape Letters – only because any attempt to make a film would mean lots of voice-over and views of people reading and writing letters.

    Tian Shu – I just learned of this today. http://idlethink.wordpress.com/2009/05/05/bookporn-41-books-from-heaven-books-from-earth/

  • Any of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books. No idea who could take it on and make it work but I hope they do so within my lifetime. And David Tennant has to play Hamlet when they film Something Rotten.

  • The one that jumped into my head when I read the QotD here was already included on Sci Fi Wire’s article: Hyperion. And they ARE filming it.

    I’m afraid.

    The Necronomicon would be difficult. First there’s that whole pesky problem with it not actually existing, and even if it did, the writer adapting a screenplay would likely go mad before finishing. Then they’d have to get ANOTHER writer to do his version, HE’D go mad…

  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    Russell Hoban’s Kleinzeit; a series of incredibly funny and completely internalized comic situations revolving around a man and a nurse’s conversations with a sentient hospital. (Yes.) Thankfully Charlie Kaufman is a director now; he might be able to manage this. God knows I can’t think of anyone else who could.

  • perhaps “Riddley Walker” by Hoban. aside from the language, just conveying the story of the “shining little man” and the “atom” and all the interior development of the main character would be enough to drive a director into OCD mode. therefore, i nominate Peter Jackson to direct. if he declines, then Michael Mann — it would at least be a very *stylish* adaptation. Charlie Kaufman to write the screenplay, of course.

  • Victor Plenty

    Can’t do just one. Here are five. Not necessarily the top five, but I’d love to see any of these in a good movie adaptation.

    5. Startide Rising by David Brin. Actually I would pay to see all six books in this series if they are ever filmed (and done well), but if I had to pick just one, this would be it. James Cameron might be able to do it.

    4. Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks might be adapted successfully by Alfonso Cuaron.

    3. Neal Stephenson’s “Baroque Cycle” trilogy. Possibly a good one for Ridley Scott.

    2. Mother of Demons by Eric Flint. I don’t really know who could make this work properly, because it needs to portray genuine humanity in alien characters with bizarrely nonterrestrial physiology. Maybe Guillermo del Toro could do it.

    1. Blood Music by Greg Bear is probably the most unfilmable book on my list, but I’d like to see J.J. Abrams try it.

  • Emrys

    Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

    I would choose to direct, and I am being serious, Parker and Stone. Provided you could get them to pay attention long enough.

  • t6

    Michael, I see your Necronomicon and raise you a King in Yellow.

    Not only does the play not exist…but if you did try to film it you would go insane and be destroyed by Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Who would film it? That is a toughie. I might think Lynch would be a perfect choice after seeing Inland Empire…but I might go with Werner Herzog…he seems to be already insane and therefore might be immune from the effects of the book.

    On the other hand…maybe McG should direct.

  • PaulW

    There is no such thing as an unfilmmable book. If Hollywood thinks they can scam money off of it by having the crazed fannish readers rush to the theaters to see it, they’ll do so. The question should be “would the movie do the book justice?”

    Dune is a prime example. Perhaps the most epic sci-fi novel (by itself, not even considering the sequels), when filmed in 1984 it was a disaster, poorly acted, literally wooden production. Most of it had to do with cramming 1 million pages into under 2.5 hrs of movie time. The miniseries actually did a better job, because it had room to play. And… Some of the fault of Dune was David Lynch was the wrong director for the job: on the right project (his post-modern noir stuff for example) Lynch is a genius, but for Dune his vision was incompatible.

    So the trick is getting the right kind of project set for the book(s) and the right director for the job… and even then you have to realize your bias for a particular director might be blinding you to the fact that no, Michael Bay should be nowhere near working any movie version of Asimov’s Foundation…

    That said, Asimov’s Foundation is completely unfilmmable AS A FILM. If they planned on it being a miniseries, using the first three novels (hell, the only novels they should use: everything from Foundation’s Edge onwards was a disaster IMHO), that would be more feasible, and spread out over 3-4 nights that would be awesome. The director I’d most trust with that project would be Russell Davies.

    Other unfilmmable books that I’ve read would include:
    1) Crying of Lot 49 – Pynchon. The psychedelic aspect is one thing; that the novel reflects 60s culture too closely is another. The plot (a secret war between ancient mail delivery systems) requires updating for the Internet age, a tricky proposition. Someone like Oliver Stone would salivate over this, but he’s too damn ham-fisted. Martin Campbell (two very good Bond films, the Zorro films, the Edge of Darkness miniseries) might be the best director for the job.
    2) Left Hand of Darkness – Le Guin. The gender politics of that novel makes it near-unmarketable to mainstream Hollywood: it’d have to be an indie project. Maybe Canadian. Cronenberg, maybe?
    3) Phantastes – George MacDonald. Ironic in that MacDonald inspired the likes of CS Lewis and Tolkien, very few outside of hardcore fantasy readers would recognize him. The unfilmmable aspect of this novel is that no one would rush to the theaters to see it, because they won’t know the book or the author. Unless you got Neil Gaiman to write the screenplay…
    4) Anything based on the real-life adventures of Norton I, Emperor of the United States. Again, gotta get Neil to write the screenplay…!

  • Anne-Kari

    How much would I love a really fantastic adaptation of Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy? And there’s no way that’s ever going to happen.

  • Doa766

    I think “his dark materials” trilogy would make a great movie trilogy but it needs a lot of adaptation and control

    for example I’m a big fan of terry gilliam and tim burton but they’re not right for it, obviously Chris weisz wasn’t right for it considering his misguided first chapter (white washed and confusingly plotted)

    peter jackson could make it great but it would be too obvious choice, the guy who directed “let the right one in” should be able to pull it off based on his great screenplay for that movie

    the “Temerarie” series is brilliant but pretty much unfilmable but james cameron could probably turned it into something really worth watching

    a real adaptation of “I am legend” is also needed, I would gibe that one to guillermo del toro

  • Tito

    I would love to see what Guillermo del Toro could do with an adaptation of Clive Barker’s Imajica.

  • bats :[

    Doa766, Peter Jackson has optioned the rights for the Temerarie series, but considering everything on his plate, who knows when and if that will actually be realized?

  • JT

    “Lolita”. The two films were very poor. My pick: Terrence Malick.

  • mortadella

    I’ll say “The Illuminatus! Trilogy” by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.

    Who COULD direct it? No one, I think. Terry Gilliam maybe…but only after the best weekend bender of his life.

    Anything by Kurt Vonnegut presents problems. The only successful adaptation of one of his books, in my estimation, is “Mother Night” with Nick Nolte.

    Actually, after I saw
    “Frank Herbert’s Dune,” the three-part miniseries written and directed by John Harrison….I came to respect Lynch’s version much more…which I’ve always believed had a magnetic, spell-like quality. Harrison’s version, I thought, was truly wooden.

  • Most of Greg Egan’s novels about posthuman societies living in virtual environments.

    DIASPORA for example.


    Or Peter Watt’s terrific novel BLINDSIGHT.


    I’d love to see someone try though.

    Or how about some James Morrow. I’d love to see God put on trial for crimes against humanity like in BLAMELESS IN ABADDON. In this case I think its not intrinsically unfilmable. Its unfilmable because Hollywood would never touch it.

  • Just about any of Lovecraft’s best stories.


    Which, last I heard, Del Toro may be attempting at some point.

    If anyone could successfully adapt Lovecraft I think it would be him.

  • Bluejay

    Animation might make some of these projects feasible. I can see Miyazaki adapting Catherynne Valente’s “The Orphan’s Tales,” or the Cowboy Bebop team taking on Gaiman’s “Sandman.”

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