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They’re Adapting: Why is “Unfilmable” Such a Dirty Word?

The word “unfilmable” is thrown around a lot these days. Mostly quite unfairly, but sometimes somewhat justly. It’s typically used as a go to word when somebody is genuinely terrified of what an adaptation of a certain work may look like, but don’t want to concede that the thought of what Hollywood will do to a clever and insightful idea chills them to the very bone (this is the system which turned down a chance to make Fahrenheit 451 because they couldn’t sell it to thirteen year olds). However, the word itself simply suggests that there are some ideas, stories, narratives, presentations, whatever that simply can’t be transitioned from one format to another – here, of course, the other is always cinema or television. So, is it ever fair to describe something is “unfilmable” and is there any shame in the idea?

Lost in Adaptation...

I don’t necessarily know. What brings the thought into my head is The Road, the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name. When I read The Road, I was moved. It was a wonderful allegory, told in sparse and pragmatic language, with no use for grammatical functions as simple as inverted commas, for example. It was a light book, one that a person could – if they were willing to be worn down to an emotional nub – finish in a single sitting. It was beautiful, perfect, complete. I needed nothing more after reading it.

And yet, I could not resist the film when it was released. I even greatly anticipated it. And I found it… okay. It was overlong and more than a little plodding. It captured some aspects of the work perfectly (such as the aesthetic of the end of the world), however it also lost a great deal in the translation from book to screen. Long passages of internal narration about the importance of the boy which held a magical lyrical quality on the page became pretentious waffle when converted to monologue and juxtaposed against the grey environment. The movie is a fine piece of cinema, and one which everyone involved deserves credit for bringing to the screen as faithfully as they did, but it is essentially just a well-told, more introspective apocalypse movie, like a more contemplative 28 Days Later or a more considered A Boy And His Dog. It felt like a charcoal sketch of the soul of the book, an object of interest of itself, yet still nothing except a spectre of a greater work.

So, with Hollywood’s main source of big screen projects that aren’t sequels of already successful movies, are there some that Hollywood simply shouldn’t touch? I’ll concede that there’s another side of that coin. A lot of people would have argued, for example, that The Lord of the Rings wasn’t a work that could be adapted, but Peter Jackson managed  to do so wonderfully – far better than he did in adapting a work already captured in celluloid in King Kong. When we talk about things like this, our minds tend to dwell on the failures – the examples of “unfilmable” works which didn’t work, rather than those that did.

Of course, the number of films which fall on either side of that line vary depending on the criteria you use. So if you label successes as films which “were perfectly okay”, for example, you will end up with more positive examples than you would if you looked for works which “shed new light on the source material”. It also depends on how emotionally invested you are in the source material. I could care less about the dozen-or-so Stephen King adaptations we get on film and television every year – I like some of his work and admire his role in redefining American horror, but he’s not the author of anything close to my heart. On the other hand, the discussions over the filming of The Catcher in the Rye are generating much more of this sort of discussion.

The death of author J.D. Salinger has opened up discussion on a film adaptation of the novel again, which Salinger was vehemently against while he was alive:

In a 1957 letter purportedly written by Salinger, he replied to one such producer — a Mr. Herbert — by saying he felt “Catcher” would make a poor film because “for me, the weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice.” For that reason and others, Salinger went on, “Holden Caulfield himself, in my undoubtedly super-biased opinion, is essentially unactable.”

The novel is labeled as a “coming of age” experience by several close friends of mine – like To Kill a Mocking Bird was for me. As such, the notion that Hollywood has been waiting in the wings to work its magic isn’t particularly comforting. Though The Guardian seems to be making the best of it and praying for Terrence Malick.

Oooh, meta...

I’ll be honest. I don’t see anything wrong with the concession that some things work better in a particular medium – and this doesn’t have anything to do with those adapting it. I’d argue that Watchmen, as faithful as it was to the letter of Alan Moore’s iconic novel, shouldn’t have been made. This works both ways, though – I think The Shawshank Redemption and The Mist worked better as films than they did as novellas. The trick is, of course, deducing what is “unfilmable”. What does or doesn’t work in a given medium. I think it has be something more than “the studio system will screw with the narrative and alter the story” – in such cases a good adaption is possible, just highly unlikely. I think “unfilmable” must means that something essential in the object will be lost simply by the act of transferring it. As such, I imagine there are far fewer examples than most would concede, but I would argue that they are out there.

Again, this comes with a concession. Just because a book or play is “unfilmable” doesn’t mean it can’t be ripe for some form of cinematic treatment. My favourite example of this is David Cronenberg’s The Naked Lunch, adapted from the works of W.S. Borroughs. The film bears little or no resemblance to the books which formed its basis (which, in his interview with Cronenberg, Dave Fanning insisted were “really unfilmable”). There are several allusions in the tale (most noticeably the death of the exterminator’s wife, which has a resonance with Borrough’s own story), but it mostly stands on its own two feet. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to refer to the film as a “companion piece” rather than an adaptation, but it is a solid film which remains relatively true to the spirit of its source material. Adaptation, a movie charting the difficulty of a writer bringing The Orchid Thief to the big screen, is also a similar example. If your Hollywood study gives you a lemon of an adaptation, make lemonade.

With Hollywood scouring everywhere for ideas and concepts to bring to the screen – between video game adaptations and eighties action films – it seems that it will be digging deeper and deeper into the pool. That means more obscure works will provide the basis for these films, but it also means we are more likely to discover the true meaning of “unfilmable”.

8 Responses

  1. Excellent.

    Someone is adapting On The Road with Kristen Stewart for some reason, so obviously, some things aren’t unfilmable, they’re just really misconceived. Or something.

  2. As you suggest, Hollywood is re-defining the term ‘unfilmable’. Either that or they’re ignoring it altogether. It’s funny, Peter Jackson filmed LOTR, well. Then stumbles over The lovely Bones. Maybe there’s a lesson there. ‘Stick to the source material as closely as possible and nobody gets hurt!’ The same thing happened with that other Alice Sebold novel, My Sister’s Keeper, which could have much been better than it was, but Hollywood flaked in the final act. Lost in Translation I guess.

  3. Some things are almost unfilmable but turn out to be great. Atonement, was one of them, and was great, and so was The Road mostly due to its bleak tone, but it still did well. So that term is over-used sometimes.

    • Yep, I think it’s very easy to just throw the word out there when you don’t want a film adaptation made, or you’re terrified (most often rightly so, it should be added) of what Hollywood will do to the film. I do think that there are some… concepts, to use the vaguest word possible that work in certain media better than others.

  4. I don’t think anything is “unfilmable”. It really all depends on the screenwriter’s and director’s creativity in conveying certain type of feelings and interpretations visually. When I read a book, I always picture in my head so I don’t really understand why there is even a notion of “unfilmable”. Nevertheless, I do realize that some literary material are much more difficult than others to adapt to the silver screen, given their structure, topic or length.

    • Great point, and I concede “unfilmable” is aloaded term. I do think some things might be impossibly – rather than simply difficult – to transpose across. Can’t think of any (which kinda disproves my point), but I believe they are out there.

  5. The English Patient seemed unfilmable to most and then the film came along and was a masterpiece (a word I do not use lightly)…it’s quite different from the book and yet still excellent.

    • Yep, I think that – if a work is really lucky – the big screen adaptation can work around the elements that won’t be particularly easy to transition. Of course, in most cases, movies don’t get that break (at least in my opinion).

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