As 2012 comes to an end and the awards season gets into full swing, attention will be placed on the year's "unfilmable" novels brought to the big screen and whether or not they succeeded. When a novel is deemed unfilmable, it's often because either they heavily employ conceits only a book can properly convey (i.e. stream of consciousness), they delve so deep into the imagination that it seems impossible to bring it to life, or the subject matter seems unable to feasibly make the jump into a world where the MPAA has the final say. So we decided to examine why novels adapted for this year and beyond were previously considered unfilmable and how well bringing them to life worked out.
'Cloud Atlas' (2012)
Why it seems unfilmable: Comprised of nested stories and a gigantic cast of characters from different places and eras, it would require an unfathomable budget and inventive restructuring. Plus, David Mitchell's third and wildly popular novel is partly about the importance of our own stories passed from lifetime to lifetime, through our collective unconscious and eternal relationship to each other throughout time, as demonstrated through these words.
Did it work? The reaction to "Cloud Atlas" has been as mixed as it gets. Audiences and critics either loved or hated the adaptation, rarely hanging out somewhere in the middle, but we lean towards yes. The film eliminates the structure problem by intertwining the six stories, a conceit that some find confusing, but actually keeps the pace and allows for greater exploration of the themes and connections between the stories. The character problem was dealt with by casting a primary ensemble of 13 in multiple roles, which adds to the message of our timeless connectivity, and the journals, letters, manuscripts and more that connect each generation are cleverly kept intact. Directors Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer also tweaked the message of the book to focus more on what they got out of the novel and wanted to explore, which is another example of a great way to adapt a work; rather than being steadfastly true to the page, a filmmaker can alter it just enough to make it his/her own story and message.
Why it seems unfilmable: The entire meaning and impact of the graphic novel is very specifically enhanced by the medium of comic book ("Fearful Symmetry," anyone?) and it is the shining beacon of proof that comics are indeed art. There's also the backstory; author Alan Moore hates adaptations of his work, so an attempt to bring his graphic novels to life is a terrifying feat for any director. There's also the little matter of special effects, like creating a giant blue man who can manipulate time and space at will.
Did it work? Despite the fact that Zack Snyder's movie is practically a frame-by-frame recreation of the novel, the adaptation left a lot to be desired, even among those who loved it at its release. Although modern-day special effects made Dr. Manhattan possible, the brilliance of the book simply didn't translate to the screen as well as we hoped. Certain elements that didn't make the move, like the bulk of the supplemental material, were later added as a separate Blu-ray and even included in an extended edition, but they make an already long movie overstay its welcome. A bold, daring attempt, but if anything, simply further evidence that "Watchmen," arguably a perfect comic, may truly be unfilmable.
'Life of Pi' (2012)
Why it seems unfilmable: Most of the book takes place on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. With a tiger. And three other animals for a period of time. There's also an island that is alive. There's also a horrific shipwreck. It's also mostly about faith and philosophy and existentialism and hope and a boy's intellectual journey with these ideas. While trapped on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with a tiger.
Did it work? Boy, did it. Ang Lee has been passionate about adapting "Life of Pi" for years but never felt like the medium of film was quite ready for it, until 3-D came around. Using the first ever underwater 3-D camera and employing the best CGI out there to bring a tiger to life that's so realistic looking, you'll find yourself wondering how they got a wild beast to act so damn well, "Life of Pi" is a visual spectacle to behold. On top of that, Ang Lee's knack for human stories and capturing the inner workings of our souls helps make sure that none of the underlying meaning is lost in translation, even if a certain degree of intimacy had to be sacrificed along the way. The film adaptation also removes certain things from the book that perhaps wouldn't have read on the big screen and slightly alters the ending to help narrative flow, resulting in a great example of how a (mostly) faithful adaptation can succeed when the right mind is behind it.
'On the Road' (2012)
Why it seems unfilmable: The free-flowing narrative is as aimless as it is enthralling, the definitive depiction of the Beat Generation as we know it. But making that a compelling two-hour film is a whole other story.
Did it work? Sort of. The film captures the meandering anti-narrative of the book rather precisely, but it doesn't always manage to make sense or grab your attention the way the book managed to do, even at its most disjointed. Filled with encouraged ad-libbing and never stopping to explain time or place, the film sometimes feels like you're on your very own jazz- and drug-fueled road trip, for better or worse. Some may argue this means Walter Salles's take was the perfect adaptation, while others will insist that part of adapting a book to screen is making it work for that medium and that simply mimicking the loose structure that worked so well in the novel counts as a failure.
'Lord of the Rings' (2001 - 2003)
Why it seems unfilmable: The series is three volumes, roughly 1200 pages, that are dense with language and hundreds of creatures, races, animals, and characters that for a long time we could only dream of.
Did it work? Thanks to Peter Jackson's epic vision and the smarts to wait until technology caught up to his imagination, the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is widely regarded as one of the best film series of all time. There may be some questionable CGI in one scene of "Return of the King" (here's looking at you, Legolas on the Oliphant), but for the most part, the effects are perfect, Gollum in particular. Although some diehard fans feel as though the books themes get somewhat muddled in exchange for squeezing in as much plot as possible, there is no denying that the power and influence of these films matches that of the novel, and they will go down in history as a massive win.
'American Psycho' (2000)
Why it seems unfilmable: Written through a hallucinogenic haze, fragmented, psychotic and disturbing, filled with incredibly graphic violence and sex, it was considered unfilmable because of both content and style.
Did it work? Yes, due a lot in part to bringing the comedy out to help cut through the horrific subject matter, taking the violence down a notch by making references to many of the murders but not showing them, removing some of the more disturbing sexual scenarios and removing some of Bateman's more controversial prejudices like homophobia and racism. Even toned down this much, the film still barely got away with an R rating and maintains all of the horror of the novel. A great example of how pushing the limits all the way to the edge in film reads just as intense as pushing the limits all the way to the edge in a book, even though those boundaries are wildly different. The film captures the essence of the book, which ultimately is what matters most.
'Game of Thrones' (2011 - present)
Why it seems unfilmable: HBO isn't television, you guys! Okay, it's sort of television. Whatever, it counts. Point is, the sprawling story that takes place over an epic amount of time, even longer if you count the massive backstory, combined with graphic sex, an enormous cast of characters, a whole new language, hundreds of set pieces, massive battles and a character-by-character third person POV-based structure, struck the filmic world as a story too grand to make it off the page. Basically, it's the impossible fantasy of "Lord of the Rings" meets the boundary-pushing sex and violence of "American Psycho" (okay fine, "Game of Thrones" isn't that messed up, but you get the point).
Did it work? Absolutely. Choosing to go with HBO, where a season could cover each book, or even half a book, was a brilliant move, and although a television budget is significantly smaller than a film budget, producers make it work. Plus, the Blu-ray releases and HBO Go allows for audiences to experience the backstory while watching the episodes. Naughty, bloody, gorgeous and just as addicting as the series, "Game of Thrones" is one of the best eff yous to the "unfilmable novel" claim of all time.
'Johnny Got His Gun' (1971)
Why it seems unfilmable: The entire book is a stream of consciousness that takes place inside the mind of a man who, after being seriously injured in the war, has lost his arms, limbs, eyes, ears, teeth and tongue. He's totally unable to move or communicate, despite being fully conscious with not an ounce less intelligence as he had before. If there were ever a truly unfilmable novel in existence, you'd think it would be this. And yet, in 1971, Dalton Trumbo brought his own work to the screen.
Did it work? What do you know, it actually did. The film was even nominated for the 1971 Palme d'Or at Cannes, and won the Grand Prix Special de Jury and FIPRESCI Prize. Most of its critical success was no doubt due to the fact that it was adapted by the book's author for the screen. The film is divided up between Joe's memories, which are rendered in clear, vivid color, his fantasies in intense saturated color, and the black and white hospital scenes. The narrative is primarily a stream of consciousness voiceover. Known as one of the most harrowing anti-war films of all time, "Johnny Got His Gun" is proof that the right combination of passion and talent can bring any unfilmable novel to life.
'The Orchid Thief' (2002)
Why it seems unfilmable: It's a non-fiction book based on Susan Orlean's investigation of a group in Florida poaching a rare kind of orchid. Low on action and high on self-reflection and people obsessed with orchids, nothing about the book makes you think it would possibly be an enticing movie.
Did it work? The fact that "The Orchid Thief" is so difficult to adapt is precisely the reason why the brilliant film "Adaptation" exists. The main characters in the movie are writer Charlie Kaufman and his fictional twin brother Donald (Nicolas Cage), author Orlean (Meryl Streep), and orchid thief himself John Laroche (Chris Cooper). In "Adaptation," the Kaufman brothers attempt to adapt the "The Orchid Thief" as its events play out at the same time, with a healthy dose of invented elements thrown in to the mix as well. The film was nominated for adapted screenplay at the Oscars (it lost to "The Pianist") and won a slew of other awards. Take that, "unfilmable"!
'Where The Wild Things Are' (2009)
Why it seems unfilmable: It's a 48-page children's book, mostly made up of giant wild creatures and a tiny boy having a romp on a mysterious island
Did it work? Not only did it work, it was easily one of the best pictures of its year. Director Spike Jonze took the seed of Maurice Sendak's picture book and created a beautiful, heartbreaking portrayal of childhood and the way children deal with their emotions. The giant creatures were created from a mix of practical and CGI that manages to affix the audience with the childlike wonder we all read the book with. The film succeeds on every level and demonstrates the power of inspiration meets inventiveness.
See also: "Tristram Shandy," "Cosmopolis," "Naked Lunch," "Lolita," "Catch-22."