There used to be a great many novels that were deemed 'unfilmable'. But as technology has progressed and directors have become bolder, those impossible giants have fallen. We've had Lord of the Rings, The Life of Pi and Watchmen, to name a few, all of which were considered impossible (whether or not you liked them is a different matter).
However, there remain books that persistently refused to be adapted. Some due to authors who cling to the film rights with stubborn hands, and some that have escaped adaptation for no clear reason but bad luck and general Hollywood dithering. Will we ever see any of these books reach the big screen?
The Dark Tower
The first film was supposed to come out earlier this year, but you might want to drop out of the queue as it still hasn’t even started shooting. There’s an awful lot to squeeze in to any translation of King’s series about a gunslinger in a strange magical world hunting for a mysterious tower. Universal announced in 2010 that it would make Stephen King’s book series into a trilogy of films and two seasons of a bridging TV show, fixing May 17, 2013 as the release date for the first film. The studio dropped it the following year after disagreements with Ron Howard, who was producing. Warner Bros and HBO sniffed around it last year but that went nowhere. Howard said as recently as last month that he is still determined that it will happen but that he will not discuss timelines until there’s something definite to report.
A Confederacy of Dunces
Getting this book on to the screen has been so fraught with disaster that Steven Soderbergh, the man who came closest to launching it, called it “cursed”. The difficulty isn’t surprising as it’s quite an odd book. It centres on Ignatius J. Reilly, a bumptious 30-year-old who thinks himself above everyone else and lives at home with his mother in New Orleans. He’s a classic comic creation but the plotting is hardly linear. Harold Ramis tried to turn it into a film in the early 80s, with John Belushi planned as Reilly. John Candy, Chris Farley and Divine (for John Waters) were all considered as possible Ignatiuses (Ignatii?). All died before anything progressed. Soderbergh wrote a version with Scott Kramer that was to be directed by David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) with Will Ferrell in the lead. Collapsed. The last attempt was by James Bobin (The Muppets) who wanted Zach Galifianakis as his Reilly. Yet again, the film couldn’t secure financing.
The oldest of all the books on this list, published in 1605, and perhaps the most famously resistant to adaptation. The tale of Don Quixote, a man who has come to believe all stories of heroism are real and imagines every mundane event in his life to be a fantastical adventure, it seems a natural fit for film. Walt Disney began work on an animated version, though probably the most famous attempt was by Terry Gilliam who actually got the film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, in front of cameras in 2008, only for a series of calamities to shut it down. On the plus side, the disaster was recorded in the excellent documentary Lost In La Mancha. Gilliam has since been trying to resurrect his dream project but now has surprising competition from a possible Disney (live-action) effort produced by Johnny Depp, who was supposed to star in Gilliam’s original version.
Neil Gaiman’s collected Sandman comics total some 2,000 pages, so you can understand the difficulty in squishing it into a single film. It’s the story of Dream, lord of the dream, who is kidnapped for 70 years and finds his realm much changed on his return (that’s just the beginning of the vast story). Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, writers of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, tried to adapt it in the 90s, with Roger Avary (The Rules of Attraction) in line to direct. When that team left the project there were further scripts written, at least one of which Gaiman called “quite easily the worst script I’ve ever read”. An adaptation for TV was explored but again came to nothing. Gaiman has always been supportive of a screen version of his work, collaborating with a number of the attempted adaptations, but says he would rather see no film rather than a bad one.
The Catcher In The Rye
One of those books that was amazing if you read it in your teens but seems a bit inconsequential if you read it past your mid-twenties, it’s the story of Holden Caulfield, a boy on the edge of being a man and unsure of how he feels about that unavoidable leap. While he was alive, Salinger was resistant to any attempts to adapt his work. There were offers from studios at the time of the book's release, 1951, and Jerry Lewis was very keen to adapt it. As was Billy Wilder. Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio all gave it a shot. Salinger said no to them all. Offers from Harvey Weinstein and Steven Spielberg were not even passed on by Salinger’s agents, such was his refusal to entertain any adaptation. A letter released after Salinger's death said he was resigned to the idea a film would one day happen, and that his children might wish to sell the rights since he could not leave them much money, but it’s still no closer to being a reality. Perhaps no bad thing as the vast majority of the story is told through inner monologue that wouldn’t translate easily to screen.
The Secret History
Donna Tartt’s first novel was a huge hit, a dark tale of six close college friends and the circumstances that led to one of them being murdered. It seemed ripe for film conversion, with modern themes, classical tragedy and lots of meaty parts. Alan J. Pakula (All The President’s Men) optioned it and asked Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne to write the screenplay. That version failed to take off and Pakula died in 1998. All was quiet on the Secret History front for years until Gwyneth Paltrow and her brother Jake made a deal to develop it with Miramax, but that too was scuppered, this time when Gwyneth and Jake’s father, Bruce, passed away and their attentions went elsewhere. The rights have reverted to Tartt who has so far refused to sell them.
At The Mountains Of Madness
Lovecraft and his nightmarish visions have been a major influence for filmmakers, serving as a touchstone for films like Evil Dead and The Thing, but actually adapting his work has proved tougher, partly due to the size of his imagination. Guillermo Del Toro, a dedicated Lovecraft fan, has nursed a version of At The Mountains of Madness since 2006. Tom Cruise was at one point set to star and James Cameron committed to produce, but the cost of the story has always been an issue. The story tells of an expedition to Antarctica, where ancient lifeforms are discovered and horror is unleashed. Del Toro said earlier this year that he would give it one more shot before throwing in the towel.
(Header from At The Mountains of Madness, published by SelfMadeHero)