Saturday, January 20, 2007


Via this discussion at Jeff VanderMeer's blog, I came across this entertaining list of "unfilmable novels". The list includes One Hundred Years of Solitude, Ulysses, Beckett, Proust, Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, etc. There are well over a hundred comments, with readers chiming in with their own pet nomination for unfilmable novel. I've had discussions like this before, and I always feel like people are talking about different things when they say a book "can't be made into a movie". Often people are simply worried that their favorite novel will be sullied by some hack screenwriter's attempt to force it into 90 minutes or two hours. Or they think that it's just too much, they could never "get it right". Something like The Lord of the Rings was thought unfilmable, I suppose, because of the sheer scale, along with the problem of special effects. In the event, of course, those obstacles were overcome, and yet, to hear some Rings enthusiasts (e.g., my brother, who has not only read the trilogy countless times, but has read The Silmarillion at least four times, which is just wrong) tell it, the movies succeeded on the level of spectacle, but missed the point--the essential theme--of the books (by, for example, leaving out the scouring of the Shire). Perhaps. But that's another thing readers worry about, the undermining of theme to please some imagined desires of a mass audience. Obviously, there's no rule that says this must necessarily happen, so it's not really relevant to the question of "unfilmability".

What, then, are we talking about when we say a book is "unfilmable"? I think that visual imagery (special effects) does not qualify; that's only a question of filmmakers' (and effects makers) imagination and ingenuity (which is not to say that any given reader would approve of a given filmmaker's interpretation). Similarly hugeness of scale: a novel's length might make it unlikely to be filmed, but that's not the same thing as "unfilmable". I think what we mean, in principle, by "unfilmable" is that we think that a film version would not be able to be the same as the book, would be unable to provide the same aesthetic experience, or even approximate the experience of the book. In some respects, I think readers need to get over this: movies are not the same as books. It seems silly to write it, but somehow necessary. Movies should be treated as independent of their source material.

Well, ok, we approach the movie as its own thing. Great. But I think the question of the filmability of certain written works is still of interest.

Jan at Jahsonic has attempted to define the characteristics of a novel that might make it unfilmable. He came up with two: plotlessness and philosophical introspection. And in an earlier post "on the nature of the 20th century reading experience", he described a kind of reading experience in which the book "is
so good that it provides a unique experience that cannot be duplicated in any other medium". In both posts he offers Martin Amis' Time's Arrow as a perfect example of this. It's an interesting selection. Certainly reading Time's Arrow (in which the story is told in reverse order) can be a disorienting experience. I recall having to adjust myself to the normal flow of the day after having been immersed in the book. And of course Amis has a distinctive prose style. But the story, surely a movie could be made of the story, including its reverse order? In the wake of Christopher Nolan's Memento? It seems to me that it could be, but that's not to say that the experience of reading the novel would be replicated. It would be a different experience, if possibly still disorienting. Here, of course, we end up reducing novels to their content--where's the story underneath all this literary gunk, anyway?

Looking at it this way, I think there are novels that can't be reduced so simply to their content (even so, I object to the reduction elsewhere), which are therefore effectively unfilmable. As mentioned above, Jan suggests plotlessness and philosophical introspection. Neither of these strike me as anathema to film.

In the comment thread to one of the Jahsonic posts, Harry Tuttle mentions Georges Perec’s La Disparition (which famously was written without the letter 'e'). And here I think we get to the crux of the problem. Experimental fiction. Formally inventive fiction. I'm thinking of the recent work of David Markson (what would be the point of a movie of This Is Not A Novel?). Or Gilbert Sorrentino. Or, imagine the "stories" in Stanley Elkin's novels without his wondrously inventive prose. Unthinkable. These narratives must be read. I think these books and many others highlight what is finally unfilmable about even more conventional novels. If too often novels are reduced to what they're "about", formally experimental novels draw our attention to how they are made, to how they achieve their effects, which might remind us to think more about how the others are made. I think that any book or story or whatever can be the source material for a film, but that which is literary about a novel--that which makes it a novel--cannot be transmitted to film, because reading is the whole point.

In the course of writing this post, I noticed that Steve at This Space has touched on this today, too. He says, in response to Jahsonic's question, What makes a novel unfilmable?:
"Being a novel" would be my first suggestion. A novel should be a novel because it cannot be anything else. The hype generated by an adaptation as an adaptation indicates a lack of faith in its original form, most obviously a lack in the original's cultural authority, but also the residual lack inherent to all art. A question borne on this lack is the one that excites me, drives my entire interest in writing: what cannot be written?
I like that: "a novel should be a novel because it cannot be anything else". Of course, the rest of this paragraph suggests much else to think about, many other potential posts (the kinds of writing we often find at Steve's blog). But, not wanting to be any more long-winded here than I already am, I'll end on this note.

1 comment:

Reel Fanatic said...

Great stuff .. one novel which I hope no crazy directors tries to transform would be John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces .. very funny book, but way too nonlinear to work as a movie, methinks