By: James Smith
Some books feel like they were written specifically so that they could be turned into movies: books like The Count of Monte Cristo, The Godfather, or, more recently, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games read like cinematic storylines committed to paper. With the release of ambitious adaptations of Cloud Atlas and Anna Karenina, we’ve been thinking about a different group of books: great works of literature that seem for one reason or another unfilmable. Here’s our list -- some of which have been attempted, some not:
Moby-Dick The Great American Novel of all the Great American Novels, Moby-Dick’s primal and simply storyline -- a man wants to kill a whale -- has confounded efforts at adaptation since 1926, when Warner Brothers produced a silent adaptation called The Sea Beast. The difficulty, though, arises from how deceptive that storyline is: great swathes of the novel have Melville detailing the technology and practices of the 19th-century whaling industry or reflecting on the brutal shipboard life of long whaling voyages. Turned into a two-hour movie, even with Gregory Peck as Ahab, it basically becomes a horror story.
Dune This one is the head-scratcher of the list, because transparently you’d think Dune would make a great movie: it’s an epic sci-fi story with compelling characters and a built-in mythology, which is basically Hollywood’s bread and butter. But, somehow, no one has managed to do it well. David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation featured Sting in a ribbed bodysuit, but was mysteriously devoid of awe and emotion, and earned the rare distinction of being awarded just one star from the notoriously easy to please Roger Ebert. Then, in 2000, the Sci-Fi Channel turned it into a clunky, mostly incoherent miniseries. Meanwhile, science fiction and literature fans across the globe waited for a satisfying adaptation.
Gravity’s Rainbow Is Thomas Pynchon’s masterpiece the least filmable work of prose in the canon? Rainbow, a postmodern frenzy of wild images, scientific musings, and fevered dreams, is ostensibly the story of American soldier Tyrone Slothrop, the locations of whose sexual conquests are found to strangely mirror the locations of where German bombs fall on London during the Blitz. The book, though, is by itself notoriously difficult to read, mixing indelibly memorable episodes (a dream sequence of an adenoid destroying London, for instance) with pages and pages of impenetrable prose. Though the story is difficult enough to begin with, perhaps the greatest obstacle to its adaptation is that, to make a movie of it, someone would have to read it first.
The Odyssey Foundational text of Western literature? Check. Epic story involving gods, monsters, sex, and lots and lots of armored Greeks? Check. Pathetic record of film adaptation? Definite check. Homer has really not been treated well in Hollywood, as both this poem and The Iliad have between them only resulted in one film of note, 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? But that movie’s bizarre (even if successful) updating of the story to 1937 Mississippi makes it feel more like an "inspired by" than a real adaptation, and, for a movie about Odysseus, it’s disappointingly bloodless. Where are the togas?
War and Peace The issue with War and Peace isn’t so much its tone or its plot structure so much as the fact that it’s so insurmountably big. Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus is famous for being one of the longest books in the Western canon (supposedly, the seventh-longest), and its scale takes it from Moscow high society to the battlefields of Austerlitz and Borodino to long-winded meditations on the nature of history and man’s place in the cosmos. A 1956 film version starred Henry Fonda as Pierre and Audrey Hepburn as Natasha, but not even a 208-minute run time could translate the original novel’s scope.
[Pic via Flickr - Casey Fleser]