10 Adaptations That Prove Some Books Are Unfilmable

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Some books just don’t seem possible to adapt to the silver screen. Maybe they’re too graphic, maybe their scope is too big, maybe the writing style just wouldn’t work off the page. We hesitate to say there’s such a thing as a truly unfilmable book, because some books that once had that label were made into incredibly successful movies like The Lord of the Rings, The Life of Pi and Catch-22. However, the following adaptations proved that some stories are better left on the page.

10. Cosmopolis

In the past, David Cronenberg has been able to do the seemingly impossible and adapt difficult novels like Naked Lunch and Crash. However, he met his match in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. The novel is about a 28-year-old billionaire asset manager who’s traveling across downtown to get a haircut in his decked out limousine and… that’s pretty much it. Yes, things happen along the way, but the story is an allegory. And DeLillo is deliberately vague about things as simple as what the main character looks like, saying he is impossible to describe.

While the small cast and minimal set requirements would be beneficial for a director, the story is purposely dry and shallow. When it was made into a movie it came across as relentlessly cold and snarky. Roger Ebert, who had read and admired the book, said that this was the best adaptation of the novel that could have been done, but also said, “You couldn’t pay me to see it again.”

9. Midnight’s Children

Salman Rushdie is a beloved (and loathed) bestselling author, and his second novel, 1981’s Booker Award winning Midnight’s Children, is one of his best. There have been a few attempts to bring it to the big screen, but it wasn’t until Rushdie himself worked on the adaptation that the movie was released in 2012.

Midnight’s Children is about an Indian boy named Saleem Sinai who was born at midnight on August 15, 1947, the exact moment India gained independence from Britain. As he grows up, he learns that he, and anyone born within the first hour of independence, has telepathic powers. While there’s a rich storyline, there are many problems they had to overcome to make it into a film. The book is over 650 pages long, and a lot of communication is done telepathically. There are also many historical events that need to be covered, and the book is more of an allegory that would be hard to capture with a slimmed down version of the story.

Amazingly, Rushdie and director Deepa Mehta compressed the book into a 130-page script. But the story didn’t translate well to film — critics thought they tried to put too much material into the movie and made it a hard-to-watch mess.

8. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men 

David Foster Wallace is one of the most unfilmable authors of all time. His books are usually very long with copious footnotes, and they’re also generally a bunch of anecdotes and character sketches instead of straightforward stories. That’s probably why only one adaptation has been attempted — Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, a collection of short stories published in 1999. The movie was The Office’s John Krasinski’s debut as a director and screenwriter, and he also played one of the titular men.

Adapting a Wallace novel is an incredibly ambitious project for anyone to take on, let alone a first time writer and director. By most accounts, Krasinski failed. Some said that he tried to stick too closely to Wallace’s writing and failed to capture the spirit of the book. Others called it muddled and uneven. Some went as far as to say that the film did a disservice to Wallace, who had killed himself almost a year prior to the film’s theatrical release.

7. Breakfast of Champions

Kurt Vonnegut is one of the most influential authors of the 20th century, and since so many artists love him one would think there would be a lot of movies based off his work. However, Vonnegut’s stories have been notoriously hard to adapt, mostly because his books are dark, dry and told through Vonnegut’s unique and absurd voice. The absurdity just doesn’t translate to film well.

Case in point is Breakfast of Champions, a surreal book about an unhinged man named Dwayne Hoover that owns a car dealership and fast food restaurant. He becomes obsessed with the writings of a little known sci-fi writer named Kilgore Trout, because he thinks Trout’s writing is prophetic. The 1999 adaptation, starring Bruce Willis, was called “unwatchable.” It was just too loud and obnoxious, without any of Vonnegut’s biting satire. It simply failed to capture the essential soul that made the story work.

6. He’s Just Not That Into You

He’s Just Not That Into You, a 2004 self-help book, is based on a quote from Sex and the City explaining why guys don’t call or respond after initially seeming interested. Even for a self-help book it’s a fairly thin premise, considering all the scenarios are explained by the title. Nevertheless, the book was a bestseller, which led to the movie rights being purchased. In order to act out possible scenarios where guys just aren’t that into certain women, an ensemble cast of nine main characters struggling to find the right person was formed. The main character, Gigi, struggles the most with misinterpreting guys when she really needs to learn that those guys just aren’t into her.

The film came across as a Sex and the City clone, and was seen as demeaning to women thanks to stereotypical female characters that were needy and clueless. In other words, it was about what you’d expect from a cash-grab adaptation of a self-help dating book.

5. Love in the Time of Cholera

Based on the critically acclaimed 1985 novel by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera follows the lives of two different characters. As youths, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall in love, but Fermina chooses to marry a rich man. Florentino is devastated but never falls out of love. Instead, he has 622 affairs, and then when Fermina’s husband dies 50 years later, he swoops in again to rekindle their romance.

When explained in blunt terms like that, it sounds like a Nicholas Sparks book with way more sex. However, what elevates the story is the writing of Márquez and his interesting perspective on love, sex and devotion. The book is more about the atmosphere and is quite erotic, two things that are hard to transfer to a movie. The non-linear plot also presented a challenge.

The two lead actors of the 2007 film (Javier Bardem and Giovanna Mezzogiorno) didn’t have the chemistry to make it seem like they loved each other for over 50 years. In aiming for mainstream appeal the film lost a lot of the story’s eroticism, and the linear plot killed the unique narration that worked so well for the book. The end result is that the movie lost the magic that made the book so well loved.

4. What to Expect When You’re Expecting

First published in 1984, What to Expect When You’re Expecting is a popular guidebook about pregnancy. The book is an informational guide written in a question and answer format, with no storyline whatsoever. That didn’t stop Lionsgate from picking up the movie rights, because that’s just what Hollywood does now.

The film is about seven couples that are expecting. The filmmakers did what a lot of movies with a thin premise do — fill the ensemble cast with likable actors. The problem is that the only thing that holds the characters and their vignettes together is the expectancy angle. The movie came across as clumsy, with one critic saying that it felt like you were flipping around channels to different mediocre sitcoms. It also wasn’t clear who the film was marketed at aside from pregnant couples too lazy to read, so the movie barely made back its budget and was panned by critics.

3. The Host

After the success of the Twilight series, it seemed like a no-brainer to adapt Stephanie Meyers’ science fiction novel The Host. But the basic premise of the novel made it unfilmable. The story is about a parasitic race of aliens called “Souls” that invade people’s bodies. One Soul, called Wanda, is having problems taking over the body of a young woman named Melanie. Throughout the book Melanie and Wanda talk and argue, so a lot of the story plays out in Melanie’s head.

Even Meyers thought the book would be impossible to adapt. But since there was money to be made, Open Road Films acquired the rights and the movie was released to dismal reviews in 2013. The film was called awkward, especially because of the duality of voices in Melanie’s head. Some critics even found the movie to be unintentionally funny.

2. Atlas Shrugged 

There have been a few attempts to bring Ayn Rand’s sprawling 1957 novel to the screen. But there are numerous obstacles, including the daunting length of the over 1000 page book and the relatively thing story — long passages are dedicated to Rand explaining her philosophical system of Objectivism.

Despite the odds against it, the book was broken up into three movies by Rand devotees. The first film, released in 2011, was a critical and commercial disaster — it cost $20 million to make, and the revenues of all three films combined failed to recoup the cost. The other two films were also unsuccessful, and had the added problem of their low-budgets clearly showing through. They failed for the very reasons people thought Atlas Shrugged was unfilmable — it was a preachy snore-fest that would have only appealed to hardcore fans of Ayn Rand. Add in some poor acting, flimsy screenwriting and slack directing and you have three terrible adaptations that should have never been attempted in the first place.

1. The Sound and the Fury

This classic William Faulkner novel is famous for being narrated by 15 different characters and using stream of consciousness writing. While there is a storyline, it isn’t the main focus of the novel — it’s considered a classic of American literature because of Faulkner’s writing style. This makes for a difficult novel to adapt, yet it’s been unsuccessfully attempted twice.

The first film, released in 1959 and starring Yul Brynner, was criticized for being shallow and deviating too much from the novel. When it was made again in 2014 it was written and directed by James Franco, who also starred. Critics felt that the project was way too ambitious for Franco, with some even comparing it to a poorly done student film. Everyone go ahead and try to hide your shock over Franco attempting something pretentious and failing.

Robert Grimminck is a Canadian crime-fiction writer. You can follow him on Facebook on Twitter, or visit his website.


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3 Comments

  1. Kurt Vonnegut Admirer on

    Wow I never knew that breakfast of champions was made into a movie, I find it odd that they used Breakfast of champions over his other more story oriented books like cats cradle or slaughterhouse 5. either way I was hoping for a movie adaptation, but I bet the movie played too safe I would love to see wes anderson make kurt vonnegut

  2. Robert Grimminck on

    Slaughterhouse-Five was made into a movie, and it was decent. Certainly not as mind blowing as the book.

    I agree Wes Anderson would do a great job with Slaughterhouse-Five. There was going to be a new adaptation that was supposed to be directed by Guillermo del Toro and adapted by Charlie Kaufman. But since that is way too awesome, it is stuck in development hell.

    • I thought slaughterhouse 5 movie adaptation was just bad it was hokey and strange but not the way it was meant to be in the book. I could see chalie kaufman doing a good job with it but Wes Anderson would make the point come across as too lite. But that’s just my opinion. Atlas Shrugged looks like something you would tune into on TBS in the early afternoon on a weekday just dry and soap opera-y if that makes any sense.

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