What books are, in your opinion, unfilmable?

Some books seem like a natural fit for a movie adaptation. Chuck Palahniuk’s Snuff is not one of those books. A kind of thriller set in the porn world, Snuff follows an aging porn star’s quest to break the world record for onscreen fornication — with 600 men. Most of the characters are naked for the majority of the book, and the final orgy sequence makes Caligula look like, well, something much less disturbing than Caligula. But according to Chuck Palahniuk’s official website, the Snuff movie is happening. Personally, I’m a little bit intrigued to see just what, exactly, director Fabien Martorell can do with such a gonzo premise. The news got me thinking: Are there any other books that you just don’t think would work as movies? And why?

When I think of unfilmable books, my mind always goes to Gerald’s Game. It’s one of the few Stephen King books to never even come close to being adapted. The reason: The book takes place entirely in one room, with the lead female character handcuffed naked to a bed. It’s a thrilling, freaky read, and I guess you could argue that it’s not that much different from 127 Hours or Buried, but it’s hard to imagine any actress willingly signing up to be so exposed for the complete running time of a movie. On the violence end of the spectrum, I can’t imagine anyone actually making a movie out of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. It’s one of my favorite books, but it’s simultaneously overstuffed with events and kind of plotless, and the violence is so horrifically graphic that it almost seems like a felony to try and film it. (But good luck, James Franco!)

I asked some other kids in the PopWatch gang for their personal picks for utterly unfilmable books. Hillary Busis picks City of Glass by Paul Auster: “It starts out as a straightforward story about a writer who, on a whim, decides to impersonate a detective after someone mistakes him for a private eye, then gets progressively weirder and more experimental until it stops telling a linear story altogether.” Jeff Labrecque chimes in with Atlas Shrugged and “Don DeLillo’s best works.” Stephan Lee picks Flann O’Brien’s gonzo The Third Policeman and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. (But good look, James Franco!) Samantha Harmon says, “Haruki Murakami books would be tough to make into film, but more so because of the plot and not sexual content.”

I asked Professor Annie Q. Barrett for her opinion, and after much deliberation, she responded:  “Books are stupid!”

PopWatchers, are there any other books you just can’t even conceive as movies? Anyone want to stump for a gritty futuristic reboot of Remembrance of Things Past? Is the solution for Snuff just to give everyone clothes? And wouldn’t that kind of ruin the point of Snuff?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Read more:
EW’s review of ‘Snuff’

Comments (232 total) Add your comment
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  • Josh

    The Dark Tower. It must stop.

    • Jackie

      That was the FIRST thing that came to my mind. When I read that they were making it into a movie/TV series, my first thought was ‘This has disaster written all over it!’

      • The Truth

        What articles are, in my opinion, on the garbage-list from now on?

        Anything written by Darrin Franich.

    • jay

      I always thought that, too.
      However, I think I will be unable to avoid watching just to see how it turns out

      • Carla

        …And so say all of us, jay! Ron Howard is very talented, but…I don’t know if any director/producer today is up to the challenge of The Dark Tower

    • bambam

      Jasper Fforde’s hilarious, witty, completely brilliant Thursday Next series. It’s a gas to read, but it’s about reading and literally falling into the book and the story. It’s deliberately unflimable and a whip smart gas to read. There is a chapter written in a “special font” that causes you to immediately forget what you just read. Of course, you can’t prove that he just didn’t write a chapter. Or something convoluted.

      Still, if they ever filmed it, Cate Blanchett is the only person who could play Thursday Next. She’s also probably the only actress intelligent enough to “get” it all.

      I’d LOVE LOVE LOVE it if someone could find a way to film Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. That would be so mind blowing on so many levels — it would smoke Inception, Matrix, 2001, pretty much the entire science fiction genre — IF someone could get a decent script out of that amazing book. That and at least half a billion dollars for the effects.

      • kmd

        I completely agree about the Thursday Next series. I can’t imagine how they could even begin to adapt it. It’s just such a dense little universe and there is no way that anyone could play Acheron Hades – except, maybe Cate Blanchett… I digress.

      • Crystal

        AND The Stand! Unless it’s a trilogy of films (aka a miniseries), it won’t work. And I agree Gerald’s Game wouldn’t seem like it would work . . . but then again there would be a lot of good vivid flashbacks to film.

      • Kathy Y.

        Thank you for giving Jasper Fford a much-deserved mention, the most creative author I have read in years.

    • Color Me Impressed

      Speaking of King: It. That film is so incredibly awful and does not embody the true spirit of that book at all! It could truly never be made into a film that does it justice. Not only would the film have to be 6 hours long, but there are some things that just cannot be seen, only imagined, and some things that while they sound good on paper, look ridiculous on a screen. It has all of this.

    • pfunkatl2

      I didn’t think they would EVER make a CREDIBLE Lord of the Rings adaptation either…let ALONE a MASTERPIECE

      • The Truth

        You’re a pathetic BlTCH. Grab your shine box and get on your knees.

    • Robert Singleton

      Have to remember what Stephen King said about film adaptations of his books: Even a bad adaptation can’t do a thing to diminish the original novel. The book will still be there, even after the movie. If you consider a book unfilmable, don’t go see the movie.

  • Sara

    House of Leaves.

    • gustiq

      that’s the first book that came to my mind, too! =]

      • Chris

        Same.

    • NedPepper

      You stole mine! ;) But, yeah, it’ll never happen.

    • bambam

      That’s another good one. Somebody could actually get a linear story out of it, weaving the various plots back and forth. I love the book but once you get past the strange and brilliant wordsmithing and construction of the narrative, the actual central mystery, though incredibly creepy, I think would be too subtle for a movie. It wouldn’t fit in science fiction or horror genres. But it seriously creeped me out for weeks when I finished reading it and untangled all the narratives and realized that the house is just plain evil and has been for centuries.

    • lizardy

      let darren aronofsky try his hand at it–or perhaps the director of eternal sunshine of the spotless mind…

    • Brian E

      WINNER! Half the fun of the book is physically reading it. That’s rare. The turning, twisting, inverting, mirroring etc of the text is part of its sheer brilliance.

    • Stacy

      I 100% agree. Great book, nigh impossible to film.

  • Jenny

    The Wheel of Time series. The books are way too long, way too complicated, and have way too many characters.

    • majamababe

      Agree – just can seem to get through book #4.

      • Jason

        Made it through book 4, but came to a dead halt half way through book 5. There was only so much of the same thing over and over I could take.

      • Allison

        Yeah, I stopped somewhere around book 4 or 5 when I couldn’t remember who any of the characters were anymore.

    • Marni

      I agree, but I would be foaming at the mouth if they decided to make it into a mini-series or TV show.

      • Mr. Underhill

        Agreed! These are good tales but they just go on and on. I got as far as book 7.

  • Mike

    Something like The Corrections – it’d be easy enough to have the characters and have them do their thing, but the heart of the book is their internal thought process which is unfilmable.

    • Jen

      I think that’s the case with a lot of great books. Angle of Repose, for example.

  • Marie

    Rhett Butler’s People. Okay so it is film-able, but no one can ever be as amazing as Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, not even the amazing Timothy Dalton.

  • gustiq

    Blood Meridian is being made into a film (unfortunately):

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0983189/

    • Crystal

      That’s what the references and links to James Franco were referring to . . .

  • Marten

    None if time, talent, and budget aren’t factors. There’s really nothing you CAN’T film, just a lot of books that WON’T be filmed because the idea of a movie running longer then 2 and a half hours is so anti the status quo. Saying that you really couldn’t do Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, or Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, or the full Le Morte D’Arthur, or the full Don Quioxte, of the full Count of Monte Cristo. Then there are books that are so in the heads of the characters that even though you CAN make the movie it takes so much out of the book you probably shouldn’t do it, but Hollywood does those all the time. It’s also hilarious that a lot of your unfilmable films are being made into movies like Blood Meridian and As I Lay Dying.

    • Casey

      Well, true, but whether they do it right is a whole different story. Like As I Lay Dying? I really don’t see that working out. Not only does the narrator constantly change, but there’s a lot of internal dialogue that’s pretty damn confusing.

      • Marten

        But you can still make a movie of As I Lay Dying. You can still follow the plot of the family taking their dead mother to town, and focus on each of the characters, and have a voice over of the mother. It’ll be different from the book, less focused in each characters head, but still a movie and possibly good. They did the same thing with Lolita, Slaughter House-Five, Women in Love, etc.

  • Luddite

    The Catcher in the Rye. And I’d second Atlas Shrugged.

    • Liz Lemon

      I would love to see a Catcher in the Rye movie with a Ryan Gosling-type in the lead role. I think it’s possible if Aaron Sorkin writes the screenplay and they get a really brilliant director.

    • Lex

      Agreed about Catcher. That book changes your life the way only books can. I’m not saying teen angst can’t be done well screen (Rebel Without a Cause is a great companion to reading Catcher) but Catcher is also revolutionary in its writing style and that same kind of disaffected antiheroism just can’t be translated into film.

    • KGP

      Agree 100% on Atlas Shrugged — it’s the first one that popped to mind for me. Far too intricate and dense to fit onto the big screen.

      • Robert Singleton

        “Dense” is exactly the word that occurred to me when it comes to Atlas Shrugged, but I don’t think we’re using the word in the say way.

    • L

      Catcher in the Rye shouldn’t be made into a movie because the author was so stead fastedly against it being made into a movie. It disses the cinema in practically every chapter for Chrissake!

  • Bruce

    1984

    • Marni

      I’m pretty sure that they already made it into a movie.

      • Crystal

        And the movie was terrible and boring. Not the fault of the actors or the source material, it’s just difficult to translate a book that is almost entirely inner dialogue into a movie.

      • Meg

        That’s the same situation with Enchanted April. I couldn’t believe they were making a movie based on a book that was almost all inner dialogue, yet they did and it was pretty good…just completely different from the book.

    • boocat

      1984 was already made into a film with Richard Burton and John Hurt (as Winston). It was pretty good.

  • tracy bluth

    The Stand. Mini series- okay. But as a regular film? How much are they going to cut out? Not okay. I have to agree with Snuff and The Third Policeman as well. I would’ve agreed with As I Lay Dying, but I’m quite intrigued to see how James Franco would make a film out of it. Otherwise, I’d say Ulysses, Catcher in the Rye, and Finnegans Wake (really, anything by James Joyce).
    The only adaption I’ve had no problems with was Ordinary People. I actually liked the film The Godfather better than the book. But then the third one had to give Sonny a son who never existed in the book, which bothered me.

  • Louise

    L.M. Montgomery’s “The Blue Castle.”

  • Duderonomy

    I used to think “Geek Love” would be unfilmable, but maybe CGI has gotten to the point that the freak children could be rendered realistically. Still not sure I’d want a movie to compete with my own imagining of that world, however.

    • grindy

      I agree. Geek Love is the first book that came to mind. So creepy!

      • teekay

        Yup.

  • Ben

    Isn’t there a quote from Kubrick about how no book is unfilmable?

    Anyway, I’d second (or third) Catcher in the Rye; however, I disagree on As I Lay Dying.

    • Ben

      OK, so apparently the quote is “IF IT CAN BE WRITTEN OR THOUGHT, IT CAN BE FILMED” from Kubrick. I can’t find a reliable source though.

      • Robert Singleton

        You got the quotation right. Kubrick is quoted in Quoted in Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s and Video Viewer’s Companion (1988), p. 403. (What an amazing thing a good search engine is.)

  • Zakk

    Pale Fire by Nabokov

  • Caroline

    Less Than Zero is in my opinion un-filmable. I think that Bret Easton Ellis’ writing and the cynical yet realistic outlook he takes on the 1980′s is something that is impossible to replicate with a screenplay and especially with the actors of this generation. The characters he envisions and the world which he depicts is impossible to act out in a way that does justice to his unique and direct writing style.

    While Less than Zero certainly is unfilmable, the sequel, Imperial Bedrooms I think would be possible to film. His writing style stays the same but his characters and world are, in my opinion, easier to put onto the screen. Maybe its because its more recent, but I think it is the way the story progresses. Imperial Bedrooms is written more like a screenplay or at least in a format more adaptable to screenplay than its predecessor Less than Zero.

    • Mike

      Well, they did make a film of Less Than Zero. It was rubbish, but they still made one.

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