Is There Such A Thing As An Unadaptable Book?


The tagline for Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s most successful work is “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” Many contend that Kubrick didn’t make a movie of the book, due to the necessary changes made in order to even get a production mounted in the 60s. Not only is the subject matter controversial, to say the least, but the inherently literary tone of the novel as well as its unreliable narrator and often bleak humour are tough to nail on the big screen. Adrian Lyne’s take on the book more than 30 years later faced similar issues and the result was a different beast compared to the earlier production. Both have their critics but both also have their defenders, those who contend that a supposedly unadaptable book successfully made a transfer to the medium of film.

The term “unadaptable” (and its close cousin “unfilmable”) is one that’s thrown around a lot in book and film circles, more so nowadays as mainstream Hollywood filmmaking is met with frequent criticisms that they’ve run out of ideas. Adaptations aren’t just the norm, they’re practically the backbone of the industry, so it’s become less surprising to see film options being announced. There exists a small pool of books considered literary classics that have widely been agreed to be unadaptable, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that this is the case. Many considered Cormac McCarthy’s work impossible to adapt to film in a way that would retain the unique mood of his prose, yet the Coen Brothers knocked that one out of the park. David Cronenberg took both William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and JG Ballard’s Crash and made films that inspired and horrified in equal measure, just like the books themselves. Mary Harron translated American Psycho to the screen, distilling its bleakly satirical and graphic first person narrative into the blackest of black comedies. Spike Jonze took a children’s picture book and made it into a feature length exploration of childhood that’s also slavishly faithful to the source material. Then there’s a little known series called The Lord of the Rings.

Image from Flavorwire. Four for you, Spike Jonze!
Image from Flavorwire. Four for you, Spike Jonze!


I think that when many people say something is unadaptable, what they really mean is it’s impossible to adapt well. That’s a debatable point since criticism at its heart is subjective. Cloud Atlas, for instance, heavily divided critics between those who thought it had successfully adapted the difficult novel with its non-linear narrative and multiple genre stories and those who considered it a hot mess. The author, David Mitchell, said he loved the film and thought it did his work justice, so is his word enough to confirm that the adaptation was successful? Who gauges that success and who decides what is and isn’t filmable?

The art of filmmaking has evolved at such a speed over the decades, with the technology and special effects utilised becoming more advanced and directors able to do so much more, although certain limitations are still in place (financing, studio support and so on). The right creative mind behind the camera or on screenwriting duties can work wonders, as Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh can attest. Maybe there’s a director out there who has the skill, enthusiasm and basic understanding of the material who would make the perfect Infinite Jest movie, or perhaps a HBO series of Blood Meridian. Film might not even be the best medium for it. I saw a stage production of James Joyce’s Ulysses last year that did an excellent job of distilling a doorstopper of modernist experimental prose and weird sex into something both faithful and entertaining.

Image from Total Film. I'm sure Javier Bardem is still annoyed about this haircut.
Image from Total Film. I’m sure Javier Bardem is still annoyed about this haircut.

Everyone’s a little fearful about seeing a story they love put into the wrong hands and messed around with by someone who doesn’t quite get it (I’m looking at you, Zack Snyder) and that may be what lies at the heart of such cynicism. We’ve all seen plenty of bad adaptations (I, Robot and I Am Legend will forever haunt me on some level) but that doesn’t mean those stories are impossible to adapt. Difficult, perhaps, but that’s not limited to the inherently literary.

Many romance novels, for example, and young adult books have received the kind of shoddy treatment from Hollywood that was levelled at many of the greats and yet they’re not seen as integrally unadaptable, so is this assumption rooted in some kind of snobbery? I think it is to an extent, but there’s also the difficulty in imagining how something like the huge complexities of Thomas Pynchon would ever be condensed into a two hour watch for a mainstream audience (come on, Paul Thomas Anderson, knock it out of the park).

Whatever the case, even if there are things we see as unadaptable, Hollywood doesn’t take that view. If it’ll make money, has name recognition and the author doesn’t ban anyone from touching it then you bet someone will option it. Not even the biggest turkeys will stop the adaptations from coming so the best we can hope for is a creative team with the brains and the guts to do it justice. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll get the movie of Winter’s Tale to wipe away the memory of Akiva Goldsman’s attempt.



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