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The Greatest Films Based on Supposedly “Unfilmable” Novels

Written by on May 11, 2016 

High Rise

No matter what their abundance might tell you, adaptations of classic novels can be tricky. What works best in one medium and what works best in another are seldom the same thing. The two are so different, their strengths and weaknesses so unique and specific, that perhaps the old adage is true: some novels are simply unfilmable. (For example, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which, until recently, James Franco has been threatening to adapt.) There are no rules to writing literary fiction and, of course, no ratings boards to sneak sex, drugs, and violence past. Yet, every now and then, a film comes along, defying logic and common sense to transform the impossible novel into the miraculous film.

Director Ben Wheatley‘s acclaimed adaptation of J.G. Ballard‘s classic entry in the catalog of the un-filmable, High-Rise, is now available on-demand and in select theaters this week. In the film, Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a swank London high-rise apartment complex, which gradually devolves into class warfare and violent insanity as the occupants of various floors battle for control of the building. We recently spoke with Wheatley about the book’s so-called unfilmable nature, a description which he believes could be unwarranted.

“It just depends how you define unfilmable,” Wheatley says. “When you actually look at the book, it has quite a linear storyline to it, and it’s quite strong visually. The difficulty comes in the way the characters act. It doesn’t have a traditional happy ending, and the characters don’t act like traditional Hollywood movie characters do. But I think High-Rise has unfairly had this unfilmable tag just because it’s been in development for a long time. It doesn’t necessarily always mean the same thing. With High-Rise, it just means there’s not been an appetite for it up until now, not that it’s been impossible to film.”

Our review confirms High-Rise as “a masterpiece,” which inspired us to look back through the annals of cinema for the finest examples of films based on supposedly unfilmable novels. Check it out below, and suggest your own favorites in the comments.

Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze)

Adaptation

A film that defies the notion of unfilmability, Spike Jonze‘s Adaptation offers a perfect window into the difficulties screenwriters encounter when attempting to turn a great book into an equally great movie. Adapted from The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean‘s sprawling work of non-fiction by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, it employs the novel’s themes and real-life characters in an utterly unexpected fashion, spinning them into a brilliantly blurry web of fact and fiction. Instead of merely focusing on Orlean’s characters, Kaufman writes himself into the screenplay as a screenwriter confounded at the prospect of adapting this unfilmable novel. Orlean herself initially balked at the film’s premise, which relegates her story to the B-plot as Kaufman’s own downwardly spiraling life takes center stage. Orlean expanded in an interview with GQ: “They told me that everybody else had agreed and I somehow got emboldened,” Orlean said. “It was certainly scary to see the movie for the first time. It took a while for me to get over the idea that I had been insane to agree to it, but I love the movie now.”

Where The Wild Things Are

In The Child That Books Built, British author Francis Spufford described Maurice Sendak‘s Where The Wild Things Are as “one of the very few picture books to make an entirely deliberate and beautiful use of the psychoanalytic story of anger.” Indeed, that same sense of anger and adolescent frustration found its way into Spike Jonze‘s film, a painterly adaptation of Sendak’s already visually unforgettable work. It was considered unfilmable — perhaps due to its picture-book origins, in which a mere 338 words accompany Sendak’s haunting illustrations — yet Jonze and screenwriter-author Dave Eggers were inspired to craft this savage story a bit differently. Jonze’s film is a unique and often disturbing look at the loneliness and emotional growing pains of adolescence, told through the eyes of a kid with a robust imagination. It’s easy to forget that this charming children’s classic inspired a film that opens with that same kid chasing his dog down the stairs, brandishing a metal fork. If there was anything unfilmable about Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze and Eggers not only embraced these unsettling elements, but pushed them as far as they could.

American Psycho (Mary Harron)

American Psycho

Adapting Bret Easton Ellis‘ controversial novel to the screen presents more than a few problems for a hopeful screenwriter. For one, the novel’s liberal employment of graphic sex and shocking violence places any potential adaptation on the precipice of an NC-17 rating, which Mary Harron‘s film was indeed slapped with until a threesome was trimmed down. Ellis himself had initially been tasked to adapt his work, receiving notes from director David Cronenberg, who was, for a time, also attached, requesting that the book’s violence and restaurant scenes be excised from the narrative. This would have been like trying to adapt Harry Potter without including any magic or scenes at Hogwarts. Harron’s script, co-written with actress Guinevere Turner, brings the novel to hilarious life, portraying this animal in his natural environment — including much of Ellis’ violence and fancy restaurants lacking “good bathrooms to do cocaine in.” Perhaps American Psycho was deemed unfilmable because the book’s wry comedy of manners could have so easily been lost among the severed heads and endless sex scenes.

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