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Picture This: Are Any Books Truly Unfilmable?
Thomas H. Sheriff , December 6th, 2019 10:12

With Denis Villeneuve's new take on Dune now just shy of a year away, the question of which stories we tell onscreen arises once more, finds Thomas H. Sheriff

Cinema did not begin by adapting literature. Adaptations always existed, but film, traditionally a “low” art, took most of its initial inspiration from other “low” arts like vaudeville and féerie plays. The widespread practice of adapting novels for the screen came only after the advent of sound films. Critic André Bazin argued that filmmakers did not turn to adaptations as they ran out of ideas, but as their medium became sufficiently equipped to continue the storytelling tradition found in the much older, “higher” art of the written word. Ironically, the phrase “that’s not cinema” used to be a snob’s seal of approval; as Scorsese muses, “there was some debate” over whether cinema was truly an art form. One of the factors leading to the acceptance of cinema by the cultural elite was its ability to successfully adapt literature, proving its sophistication as a medium.

The barriers to adapting novels have been steadily eroded throughout film history, and the scope of adaptation has concurrently increased. The first Jane Austen adaptation arrived as late as 1938, well into the sound era – for how would a filmmaker convey her romantic tête-à-têtes, so vital to her wit, without dialogue? Similarly, how would you even start on The Lord of the Rings without convincing special effects? A vinegar-and-baking-soda Mount Doom?

Now, though, film technology and language are both fairly evolved. Cinema has proven successful at communicating everything, from the vastness of space to the agony of heartbreak to the terror of beholding Shelob the giant spider demon. In terms of cinema’s ability to transpose the essence of a novel into a film, we’ve come a long way from 1-minute adaptations of Bleak House.

And yet, the idea of an unfilmable book persists. Some texts are almost mythologised for their supposed inability to withstand the move from page to screen. Don Quixote seems too episodic and scattered (which didn’t stop Terry Gilliam having a go with The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, although that film’s lukewarm reception only confirms suspicions); Paradise Lost is too poetical and metaphorical, presumably demanding the visual depiction of a heavenly war; Proust, Joyce and Woolf are too insular and experiential, Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest are too, well, everything. Despite their obvious differences from one another, on closer inspection these are all viewed as “unfilmable” for only two broad reasons – I’ll call these The Dune Problem and the Ulysses Problem.

The Dune Problem, named after the much-maligned, David Lynch-directed (and disowned) 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel, occurs when the source novel simply contains more information than can be successfully squeezed into one film. Usually in this case, when an adaptation attempt is made, the plot is condensed, the film is rushed, and the book is subsequently declared “unfilmable”. The Dune Problem has plagued attempts like Eragon, the fantasy novel once heralded as the new Lord of the Rings before being cast away in an utterly forgettable film; The Golden Compass, the Philip Pullman His Dark Materials adaptation so poor that it bankrupted New Line Cinema and, more recently, The Goldfinch, which proves that a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel can still be adapted into the laughing stock of the year (even amongst its own cast members). It remains to be seen whether the problem will afflict Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, coming next year – I’m cautiously optimistic.

But could the Dune Problem have a solution on the small screen? Gabriel García Márquez refused to his death to allow a film adaptation of his generational epic One Hundred Years of Solitude, because he did not believe it possible to tell the story under the time constraints of a feature film.But after selling the rights to Netflix earlier this year, Márquez’s son commented, “In the current golden age of series… the time could not be better.” While TV adaptations are hardly new (Colin Firth’s lake-sodden Mr Darcy would have something to say about that idea), the trend towards big-budget television realisations of popular novels is undeniable. One Hundred Years of Solitude will hope to join the growing list of commercially and critically successful small-screen adaptations - a list headed by the global smash hit Game of Thrones. The overwhelmingly positive response to the BBC/HBO His Dark Materials compared to the disastrous The Golden Compass could be seen to confirm that television is the superior medium for adapting sprawling novels.

The risk, however, is that any long, expansive project will be immediately pushed to a series – and by lazily defaulting to television, the cumulative impact of the story will be diluted through serialisation. Imagine, for instance, if The Godfather Part II was just a few episodes in a miniseries – it would lose its narrative unity. Coppola understood that it tells one unbroken story; its circular, back-and-forth structure demands it to be a single piece, no matter its 200-minute length. Similarly, one of the pleasures of The Return of the King is that by the time Sam and Frodo reach Mount Doom, we join them in their exhaustion; we, too, feel like we’re at the end of a great journey. This would not be the case if the experience was fragmented – as it will be in Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings series.

I don’t have to list a bunch of shows to prove that television is itself capable of greatness - it allows a depth and sense of immersion, experienced often over many years, that is unique to the format. But that doesn’t lend it superiority over the big screen. Filmmakers like Jackson and Coppola understand how to use the possibilities of the cinema to their advantage – telling an epic tale requires ambition and guts, not a change of format. War and Peace, Once Upon a Time in America, Malcolm X are just three examples of huge, generation-spanning stories told in rich strokes by cinema. And the ongoing rapturous response to the 209-minute The Irishman illustrates that, even in today’s television age, cinema does not deserve to be usurped.

That leaves the Ulysses Problem: when the novel is seen as fundamentally unsuited to the aesthetics of cinema. James Joyce’s (in)famous modernist tome examines the inner experiences, thoughts, and imaginings of its characters through dense, intertextual prose. Like Dune, Ulysses does have a film adaptation – Joseph Strick’s 1967 version was remarkably well-received on release, even garnering nominations for the Palme d’Or and an Oscar. But viewed today, despite some spirited editing techniques, the adaptation is flat and lifeless, with none of the authorial presence which keeps the novel so fresh. The easy conclusion to draw is that Ulysses is simply unfilmable. The intertextuality must be impossible on screen – how would you adapt a chapter written in part stream-of-consciousness, part legalese, and part Bible verses? Ulysses, like many modernist and post-modern novels, is obsessed with the nature of the written word – isn’t a version with no written words simply absurd?

Similar arguments could be made for Laurence Stern’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. A central aspect of the novel is the very act of Shandy trying and failing to write his autobiography; instead of telling much of a story, the novel loops around on its own writing. William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch is another example of “uncinematic” prose: fragmented into several vignettes of varying hallucinogenic obscenity intended to be read in any order, the novel seems inherently resistant to the rigid visual facts and prescribed linearity of cinema.

Yet both of these novels have excellent film adaptations. Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story tackles Tristram Shandy’s reflexiveness by doubling down on it: it’s a film about the making of a film of a book about the writing of a book. And David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch takes Burroughs’s metaphorical, satirical scenarios and literalises them, and in so doing sends them back to metaphor – a stroke of genius that more than justifies the film’s existence.

The Ulysses Problem arises when the aesthetic structures of a novel are essential to its existence. But any adaptation necessarily takes liberties with its source. An adaptation is always a bastardisation, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a great one; even when Robert Bresson painstakingly adapted Diary of a Country Priest page by page, he ended up with a film that was “a new aesthetic creation” and created “a new dramatic form” (Bazin, again). In fact, “unfilmable” books offer opportunities: their nonstandard aesthetics encourage filmmakers to stretch themselves; to stretch the boundaries of cinema. Some books may now seem impossible to translate into film, but lots of things seem impossible until someone does them. Taking a trip to the moon was fantasy for Méliès, but a trip to Jupiter was near-reality for Kubrick – the world moves on, and so do its films. If cinema does not seem equipped to adapt a text, then we must give it new tools – the Dune Problem is a myth, and the Ulysses Problem is an excuse. The possibilities of cinema are equal to that of literature: limitless.