What Makes an Unfilmable Novel?
And why unfilmable novels are often the best novels around
Recently my friend and general literary mensch Jason Diamond asked me a few questions about “unfilmable novels” for his excellent piece on the new White Noise adaptation at GQ. I haven’t seen White Noise yet, but his questions got me thinking about what actually makes a novel unfilmable. And that seems like a fun topic to write about as I wait for the horrors of 2022 to end and the terrors or 2023 to commence.
My first instinct, which I said to Diamond, is that “unfilmable novels” historically fall into two categories. The first are logistically unfilmable novels. Books whose stories are so complex or that exist on such grand scales that it wouldn’t be financially feasible to film them or else it would be impossible to cram their story into a 2-hour runtime. This used to be the main kind of “unfilmable novel” people talked about, and famous examples include SFF classics like Dune, Lord of the Rings, and A Song of Ice and Fire (aka the Game of Thrones books).
As that list indicates, this category has been conquered. Advances in CGI graphics combined with our age of multi-part films, expanding TV budgets, and “cinematic universes” means there really aren’t any novels that can’t be filmed because of the cost and scope… well, at least if studio execs think there is a big enough fan base to milk.
The remaining, and more interesting, category of “unfilmable novels” consists of books that are artistically unfilmable. Works whose power is so bound to the pleasures and possibilities of the page—which are different, not better or worse, than the pleasures and possibilities of the screen—that they couldn’t be adapted without losing most of their DNA.
Two Caveats to Get Out of the Way
To get the necessary caveats out of the way: First, all novels can technically be adapted. Someone can take a small aspect of a book and expand it to a feature film while jettisoning the rest. Or someone can buy the IP rights and reuse a title, even if that film bears almost no relation to the source material at all. A funny example of that is the 90s film originally titled Stephen King’s Lawnmower Man, which started as an entirely unrelated screenplay and only used King’s name and title for marketing. (King successfully sued to have his name removed.)
When we talk about “unfilmable novels” we’re obviously talking about whether the book’s essence can be translated to film not just if someone can technically call something an adaptation.
The second caveat is that all adaptations lose some of their essence. No adaptation can carry over every bit of the pleasures of a Jane Austin or Toni Morrison or (insert whoever you want) novel. Reading a book is always a different experience than watching even the most faithful adaptation.
Still, certain writers, certain styles, and certain genres are easier to adapt to film than others in a way that retains their DNA or essence or whatever you want to call it. Some books simply don’t have much going on in the style department and their pleasures are in the plot and characters, which is easy to translate. Other books have great pleasures in their prose, yet there are film analogues that produce a similar effect.
Hardboiled detective fiction is very prose based, with so much of the gritty world and cynical vibe conjured by the punchy and metaphor-filled sentences of authors like Hammett and Chandler. You can carry over some of that through dialogue of course, but not most of it. Yet film noir does a fantastic job of providing a similar vibe with it’s used of contrasted black and white and moody atmospheres. Indeed, these days “hardboiled” and “noir” are synonyms.
What Types of Books Can’t Be Translated to Screen?
Not all styles can be as easily translated to the visual as hardboiled fiction. One thing prose does better than film is navigate the liminal space between the real and the imagined. Fabulism, magical realism, and certain styles of horror play with this line letting the magical’s existence in the fictional world be questionable. But the visual is literal. The magical in film tends to feel either literally real (to the story) or pure fantasy (dreams, hallucinations, etc.). Perhaps this is my preference though. Films like Big Fish that try to blur this line never work for me, although some people love them.
To bring it back to White Noise, the style of maximalist postmodernism—or “hysterical realism” as James Wood coined it—associated with Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Zadie Smith, and David Foster Wallace seems tricky to adapt to film. Wikipedia sums up hysterical realism as “typified by a strong contrast between elaborately absurd prose, plotting, or characterization, on the one hand, and careful, detailed investigations of real, specific social phenomena on the other” which maybe indicates the difficult tonal balance you have to achieve. These books are often less character-driven than film tends to want to be. And there’s also just something obviously difficult about translating dense, reference-filled prose into film.
Even harder to adapt are authors whose stories might be straight-forward but whose sentences are so bizarre and unique and wrapped up in the syntax of prose that a movie version would be… well I don’t even know what it would be. How do you even start adapting a Diane Williams or Garielle Lutz and retain any of their essences?
And is there any way to film a deeply interior novel in which little happens outside of a character’s thoughts? An extreme example is Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, whose action consists of a man riding an escalator. Everything that really makes up the novel takes place in the character’s mind.
None of this is to say one can’t make a good movie from books by these authors. Like Diamond, I quite liked the Inherent Vice adaptation. But I’m not sure it feels like Pynchon. Vladimir Nabokov is another deeply stylistic writer whose books do not feel like they could be adapted to film in a way that keeps their DNA. Kubrick’s Lolita might be a good movie, but it’s tonally and even genre-wise a completely different work.
Nabokov brings me to another category of unfilmable books, those that are structurally rather than stylistically impossible to film. With Nabokov I’m thinking of Pale Fire, a novel that unspools in endnote annotations to a poem. How could you put that structure on the screen? At best you’d have to make a film analogue, like a fake documentary where a film critic is analyzing a short film frame by frame? Basically you’d be making a different work loosely inspired by Nabokov rather than a real adaptation.
Or take Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. This novel is a second-person POV story in which you, the reader, are the protagonist. That seems impossible to translate to film unless were talking some kind of VR game-film. Then the book itself is about novels, with the “you” character trying to track down chapters of a novel and getting mixed up in questions of story, translation, and text.
Calvino was a member of the Oulipo group, whose works use different textual constraints that almost all seem unfilmable. The most famous is Perec’s A Void, a novel written without the letter “e” ever used. How do you film that? A movie without, I dunno, the color green? Interesting, but a different exercise. The last Oulipo book I read was Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, a love story with two protagonists whose genders are never mentioned. Instead, they are referred to in the French original by the gendered nouns of different body parts and objects. A linguistic conceit that doesn’t translate to the visual. The most extreme version of a structurally unfilmable novel I can think of is Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice, which takes the form of the Chilean version of the SAT. It unspools entirely in multiple choice questions and other standardized test forms with no real through-line of character or plot.
Those are a few ways a novel might be fundamentally unfilmable. And writing all this makes me think about how these novels are often my favorite novels. Stories that feel so inherently tied to the medium they use—to the page, the sentence, the physical book—that they could never be adapted to any other medium without their DNA unspooling completely.
Perhaps this is a goal to reach for. To fully inhabit the artform you are working in so entirely that the work is inseparable from the form. Isn’t that the best way to write? Certainly prose fiction isn’t the place to go if you want the best chance at fame or riches. So why not strive to make your works do what only books can do?
Anyway, long live the unfilmable novel. Let’s all try to write them. And happy end to 2022 everyone. I’ll see you on the other side of the arbitrary division of time.
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Thank you for writing this. Diane Williams sprung to my mind immediately and was warmed to see her mentioned. Although I think trying to adapt one of her stories could be a fruitful adventure in erotics.
I was also struck by your analysis of Calvino, because I actually made a VR project many many years ago based on one of Calvino's chapters in Invisible cities.
I’m curious about what the opposite of an unfilmable novel might be, and if there are any great novels superseded by their adaptations...