Click to viewHollywood has taken everything, from your childhood toys to the novels that haunted your dreams, and turned them into splashy vehicles for young Scientologists to gallop through. Are there any books that Hollywood absolutely can't turn into movies? Or shouldn't?
Standing here, in the middle of San Diego Comic Con, it's easy to feel as though the movie industry is a huge maw — sucking up every stray thought or tingle of creativity that anyone has ever had, and mashing them all into new reasons for Brad Pitt to grimace. Hollywood feels all-consuming, when you're surrounded by hype for upcoming comic-book and disaster movies.
I was actually going to do a list of "gloriously unfilmable books," but then I Googled to make sure io9 hadn't already done that post. We hadn't, but SciFiWire, Screenhead and hard-SF writer Mike Brotherton all have. And after I'd already started writing this post, Wired Magazine did one too. (And io9 contributor Jeff VanderMeer and the CrazyMonk blog have great comments on the Screenhead post.) The unfilmable novels include some literary giants, like Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace and Haruki Murakami, some masterpieces of thought-provoking science fiction, including Ursula K. Le Guin, William Gibson, and Connie Willis, and some giant epics, like Gene Wolfe's Book Of The New Sun and Dan Simmons' Hyperion. I would add at least some of Iain Banks' Culture novels, some Joanna Russ, and a lot of Rudy Rucker's work.
(Incidentally, the movie of William Gibson's Neuromancer? Still definitely happening, according to inside sources I've talked to recently.)
So instead of doing a list of unfilmable novels, let's discuss the whole idea of a book being "unfilmable." First of all, is it true that there are "unfilmable" books (as opposed to books that shouldn't be filmed?). And what makes a book unfilmable? And finally, what do these supposedly unfilmable books tell us about the process of translating a book to film?
Jeff VanderMeer makes a really fascinating point in his response to the Screenhead post. He writes:
I also think this brings up a serious point: more novels should be unfilmable. Because this speaks to what about the form cannot be replicated in other art forms. When I was writing Shriek, one thing I had foremost in my head was to create something that couldn't be filmed (well, except for little excerpts of it...).
Yes, there are unfilmable books.
So is there such a thing as an unfilmable book? I'd say the answer to that is a resounding "Yes." Sure, people used to say Lord Of The Rings and Watchmen were unfilmable, and they were proved wrong. But those two examples don't disprove the existence of the unfilmable book, as a species. Some books are too abstract, too complex, too idea-driven, or too non-mainstream to become a Hollywood movie, or any kind of movie for that matter.
Take Rudy Rucker's Postsingular and its sequel, Hylozoic. They're fresh in my mind because I just read Hylozoic recently, and there's so much in those novels that you could never possibly convert into a series of sounds and visual images. You have the nano-machines, the "nants," devouring the entire world and porting everybody to a virtual Earth simulation called "Vearth." And after the nants are turned back, you have a kind of global awakening via a network of Orphids, machines which turn every object fully interactive. And soon, everybody on Earth is quasi-telepathic and able to spy on each other via the OrphidNet. And people can expand their consciousness by connecting to a kind of group mind called the Big Pig. Oh, and they create plastic self-aware robots called Shoons, and contact giants from another plane of existence (the Hibrane) who show them how to "unroll the Lazy Eight" dimension. I feel like I'm barely scraping the surface here, and any Hollywood scriptwriter would need a week in a sensory deprivation tank after trying to turn this into a screenplay.
We went to a reading and booksigning for Jacqueline Carey a while back, and she mentioned, with obvious glee, that her magnificent "Kushiel" books couldn't be made into movies. Partly, that's because of their huge scope and complexity — but mostly, it's because of the subject matter. Especially in the first three books, the main character is a sacred prostitute who can turn pain into pleasure (I'm oversimplifying a bit), and sex work and S/M are woven into the story so deeply, you can't remove them without the whole thing falling apart. Not to mention, the fact that her story takes place in alternate France that worships the bastard son of Jesus Christ, who teaches that you should "love as thou wilt," including S/M as well as homosexuality. There are many ways to make a terrible movie of Kushiel's Dart, but no way to make a good one — at least within Hollywood.
Some books just aren't visual enough to make good movies — take Le Guin's The Dispossessed. You could, I suppose, make a somewhat lifeless film about a physicist from an anarchist planet who travels to a capitalist one. But it would be missing everything that makes The Dispossessed brilliant, from its exploration of the limits and virtues of Annares' utopia, to its dead-on depiction of academic politics, to the investigation of physics and philosophy that lie at the core of the development of "simultenaeity physics." How do you make a compelling movie about someone coming up with a new way to think about space/time?
Watchmen and Lord Of The Rings, by contrast, are both action/adventure stories. They were already woven into the fabric of tons of other superhero and fantasy movies long before they came to the silver screen. Turning them into movies required a deft touch, to be sure, but there was nothing in either work that was antithetical to the needs of the movie form. (Except, possibly, Watchmen's giant alien squid.)
And novels that are even more unfilmable than the ones mentioned above also exist. Some of them aren't particularly great as books either — there are novels that are so dreadful, so dull, or so pointlessly offensive that you'd go mad trying to adapt them. I've read many of these books, so I know.
I should add a caveat: even if a book really is unfilmable, you can always make a movie with the same title and one or two character names, with nothing else in common with the original. If you include works loosely inspired by a book, then yes, anything is "filmable."
Are there books that can be filmed, but shouldn't?
As to whether a science fiction novel shouldn't be turned into a film, that's slightly more of a value judgment than the question of whether it can. Many people — myself included — argued that Watchmen shouldn't be a movie. In my case, I was groping towards the theory that a movie that was faithful to the graphic novel would be both too dark and too dull. I wrote:
I don't really doubt that we'll end up with a note-for-note mimicking of the graphic novel, transplanted to the screen. But will it be worth watching?... The Watchmen movie won't be able to duplicate the things that were awesome and juicy about the original graphic novel. And in its attempt to grasp at something that can't be captured, it may wind up being kind of boring.
Looking back at what I wrote, I'm not sure I made the case conclusively — I focused too much, in that essay, on discussing the things that Watchmen does that are unique to the graphic novel form, and discounted the possibility that the movie could do similar things in a different way. I didn't talk enough about the story itself, and the things about it that could, or could not, make for a good movie.
And then, a year ago today, I saw a bunch of footage and talked to Zack Snyder, and came around to the idea that his movie could work — it could be about the history of superhero movies, in the same way the graphic novel was about the history of comics. On the other hand, the actual movie that resulted really was a bit lifeless, as I'd originally feared — especially in the final act.
You'll find no shortage of novelists who feel their books shouldn't be movies, that too much would have to be sacrificed to the crudeness of the movie form.
But actually, thinking about it some more, I think it's a lot harder to argue that something shouldn't be filmed than that it can't be. If you're going to argue that it's possible to make a movie of your favorite book, but too much would be lost in the adaptation, you're shouldering the burden of proof. You have to identify just what elements would be lost — and make a stab at understanding how a work gets ported from "book" to "movie."
What does the process of adapting a novel to films tell us about movies and books?
Much of what Alan Moore said, in arguing that Watchmen shouldn't become a movie, is true of all printed works. You read a book at your own pace, with the ability to flip back and forth as you notice connections between things that happened in the previous chapter and things that are happening now. You do much more of the work of imagining the world in your head — even if there are illustrations. The book is frozen; the reader moves. It's the opposite of a film, in a sense.
I think people who believe that any novel that's brave, or complicated, or emotionally rich, will automatically make for an unfulfilling movie are slightly selling the medium of film short. You can do a lot in visual shorthand in movies, and there's a lot more scope to convey information in a way that will go over the heads of some viewers but resonate with others. Any film worth its photons works on multiple levels, for different audiences. A decent actor can convey a whole chapter's worth of backstory with a meaningful look.
Maybe, when adapting a book to a movie, there's something like T.S. Elliott's "objective correlative": you can put in visual cues, props and hints that stand in for complicated ideas and emotions inside a book.
My favorite book-to-film projects include Adaptation, which takes Susan Orlean's introspective work of journalism The Orchid Thief and turns it into a bizarre pomo story of two screenwriter brothers struggling with an inscrutable story. And then there's American Splendor, the film which adapts Harvey Pekar's autobiographical comics the only way you could: with a mixture of documentary and reenactment, with the two crossing over in a surreal fashion.
Of course, both of those movies experiment with the movie format to try and do justice to a quirky, unusual book. It's hard to imagine a science fiction movie doing something similar, unless it was a low-budget indie like Primer or Moon. Certainly, the kind of big-budget movie that a book like, say, Neuromancer demands is not going to support much in the way of stylistic experimentation. But maybe there are other ways of doing what those films do — bringing in some of the metatextual quirks of the books by adding a narrative voice-over, say, or a Verhoeven-esque set of fake commercials.
But really, that brings us to the biggest problem with adapting movies to books — big-budget Hollywood film genres are much more restrictive than book genres, at least right now. You have superhero films, disaster films, space-horror films and the occasional space opera. But that can always change — it was only a decade ago that you could count the number of satisfying superhero films on one hand, and now it's the "it" genre.
So maybe instead of hoping that your favorite book never becomes a movie, you should hope it does — and in the process of being filmed, it expands, just a bit, the circumference of Hollywood's narrow sphere of possibility. After all, it never hurts to be optimistic.