One of the best parts of science fiction and fantasy books is that they let our minds go to places where reality can’t follow. Recently creators have taken an interest in visually showing us these impossible places, and we love it. Here are 10 books that we think can’t be put on film, but we’re hoping that someone will prove us wrong.
1) The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin
This book removes something so basic that we take it for granted: gender. The people on the planet of Gethen have no day-to-day gender. They go through phases during which they develop sexual organs and a sexual appetite, but they can impregnate a partner during one session, be impregnated the next, and not have any gender in between. Genly Ai is acting as an ambassador to Gethen from a federation of planets, and hopes that Gethen will join the fold.
Filming this means that not only do we need actors who have no visible gender, despite having many different body types, we need creators who can make a story in which the very concept of fixed gender is something that doesn’t even register as part of their experience. They will need to not only convince themselves of the absence of gender, but the audience as well, which probably means that high-profile actors probably shouldn’t be cast. A weird, high-concept fantasy world about interplanetary diplomacy with no stars to headline it? Impossible. But potentially amazing.
2) The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan
This one is a personal favorite, and it got me back into the broadsword-swinging, mage-battling, riding-through-mystical-realms-on-a-mighty-steed genre after a long, sour absence. The book balances the brutality of this kind of fantasy book with an unsentimental sadness, and has a fantastic speech at the end that I still mutter to myself when I want to psych myself up. It’s not the fact that the hero, Ringil Eskiath, is gay that makes it unfilmable. It’s not the fact that he’s cast out of his homeland for his sexuality, and it’s not the love scenes. The reason I doubt this book will ever be filmed is the reason I love it. This book is just one long exquisitely satisfying break-up story. It’s both too personal and too epic to fit any one mode of being.
3) Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Cary and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
Now these are the books that won’t get filmed because of all the love scenes. In Kushiel’s Dart, Phèdre nó Delaunay is a courtesan who experiences pain as pleasure. She wanders through her world, getting into various compromising positions but at the same time discovering and dismantling plots against her homeland. In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Yeine Darr is called in to be a possible heir for a throne that is coveted by two other, far more bloodthirsty heirs. The people at the palace, both heirs and not, have enslaved gods—and who should Yeine fall for but Nahadoth, the god of night? He sometimes sprouts extra limbs.
Both books seem like winners—possible blockbusters, even. They both have a sprawling fantasy world, arguably run by the wrong people. They both have independent-minded heroines who will change everything. And they both have the weird sex! Each one of those components has been shown to be a hell of a bankable concept, but all of them together is gilding the lily. Which is a shame, because with the current grimness, the grittiness, the realism, the ultra-seriousness of genre movies, we could all use a gilded lily.
4) World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
Some people will think this is cheating, because it was a movie, and we all saw the ads, and Brad Pitt was in it. But that wasn’t even remotely a filmed version of World War Z, and we all still want one. And the fact that after years of effort many dedicated people failed that thoroughly to make the film in any way resemble the book indicates that this is possibly an unfilmable story. But we still hope someone tries.
5) The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks
Why is this unfilmable? Oh, take your pick of reasons. First, it would require a major budget to film a world in which computers are benevolent and are shown to be much smarter and better at running society than people—which is a concept that every big-budget movie ever made has refuted. Then it has a prickly, fussy, discontented hero who’s most rankled by the fact that his permissive, utopian society will forgive him for cheating at a game. He gets blackmailed into heading out to a capitalist elitist hellhole of a society (which looks a lot more like ours than the utopian one) and plays a game—a game that this society has created, which determines everyone’s place in society. It’s no surprise that the game is rigged.
Now let’s get to the game. In the book, the game is described in terms of what it represents, rather than how it actually works. This can happen, because a book can take place inside a character’s head (or at least inside the reader’s head). A film would have to find a way to convey, visually, with moves, how the game works and who is winning. This is tough enough in movies about chess; it’s impossible for a movie about a game so complicated that a gaming genius would take multiple years to learn the rules.
6) The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien
Come on. Let’s all admit we want this one. The completist part of ourselves demands it. Let’s put a cherry on top of the 20-hour Lords of the Ring saga sundae. Let’s watch the story of the three Jewels of Fëanor! Let’s see the War of the Last Alliance between the Númenóreans and the forces of Sauron! Let’s see who they cast as young Sauron! I’m hoping for Eddie Redmayne.
Yes, of course it’s not going to happen. The public doesn’t have the strength to get through The Silmarillion. J. R. R. Tolkien didn’t even have the strength to get through The Silmarillion; it was published four years after his death. In addition containing a semi-prequel to The Lord of the Rings, it contains completely abstract tales like the one about Ilúvatar creating the Ainur to make heavenly music before they fell and entered Arda. The public doesn’t have the stomach for that. Still, for the Hobbit-heads, this remains the impossible dream.
7) The Female Man by Joanna Russ
This weird story shows us four different worlds—one which we would recognize as our own (albeit in the 1970s), one in which World War II never happened (the world isn’t better for it), one in which a plague has wiped out all men and women live in an advanced but agrarian utopia (or is it?!), and one in which men and women are literally at war with each other. Four different versions of the same woman—Janet, Jeannine, Jael, and Joanna—hop dimensions and explore each other’s worlds, deciding whether or not the other dimension does things better.
I think this might be filmable as a period piece. Written in 1970 and published in 1975, the book is rooted it its time period, and looking at it through a lens of nostalgia, coupled with the fact that its Joanna character is a stand-in for the author, it might entice a filmmaker or tv series creator to get weird. But making it a period piece would take away from the immediate pissed-off urgency of the book, which takes a look at men and women and asks if the roles we assign to ourselves make it impossible to find common ground. And that won’t happen.
8) Deathless by Catherynne Valente
Hey, fairytales are in! Fairytale love stories are extremely in! By why do yet another re-telling of Beauty and the Beast? How about a story in which a girl has a love story with Koschei from the Russian fairytale “The Death of Koschei the Deathless.” Oh, it’s a whale of a tale that spans decades of Russian history. There are mice that are Stalinist, and she lives in a house made of skin and hair, and there’s a long, dramatic magical-realism retelling of the Siege of Leningrad.
I don’t understand—what makes it unfilmable? Oh, every single element that I just listed? Okay.
9) Jack Glass by Adam Roberts
This is a tough book to film because it’s three distinct stories all tied up into one big narrative. All three are popular. The first is the famous “locked room” mystery, in which murders are committed inside a room, or in this case an asteroid, that no one can either get to or escape from. The second is a classic murder whodunnit, in which a party of rich people and their servants gather at an estate, someone ends up dead, many people have motives, and one person has to solve the crime. (The twist, in this case, is the party have all come from space and are both flattened and baffled by the concept of gravity.) The third is the impossible murder weapon—a bullet that seems to have come from nowhere and traveled the wrong way.
There are some aspects of the stories that would be difficult to get by any ratings board. Most of these are from the locked room mystery. The asteroid in question is home to a bunch of unsupervised convicts. The unfilmable parts of that are just what you imagine.
Mostly, though, this book is unfilmable because its stories can’t be pulled apart into three films and can’t be mushed together into one. They might work as a TV series, but in the end they’re not really separate “episodes.” Like The Martian Chronicles (which has been filmed, but not well), this book is intrinsically bookish. At the same time, it’s a wonderful, visual story that would be marvelous to see on the screen.
10) Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
There are perils to being on the losing side in a land full of magic. After a battle during which the people of Tigana kill the son of a local lord, he not only wages a successful war against them, but uses a spell to erase the knowledge of their country from their minds. Except for a handful of rebels, most of the citizens believe that they’re a minor province of Corte, known as “lower Corte” to indicate not only geographical position but also a lower status than the rest of Corte.
This isn’t, on the face of things, unfilmable. There are the rebels, there’s the evil king (although he’s portrayed sympathetically as a flawed human rather than an evil dictator), and there’s the rallying concept of nationhood. At the same time, the book is a battle for the mind of the people, not a geographic region. A nation has to recognize itself as independent to be so, which brings up the political stickiness of the book. Most of us come from regions that have at some point been conquered and have come to identify and join our conquerors. It’s an inescapable part of making peace—you have to give up the fight.