Fifteen Unfilmable Novels And The Directors Who Should Try Anyway

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
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Ah, the 'unfilmable' novel. Go back ten or fifteen years and it seems everyone had some sort of list of great novels that could never be brought to the screen. The limitations at the time were largely technical and in recent years those lists have dwindled with titles such as The Lord Of The Rings and Cloud Atlas making the move. What makes a book 'unfilmable' these days has far less to do with technical requirements than with budget, politics or sensitive subject matter which means - to our eyes, at least - the books now considered unfilmable are more interesting than they've ever been and time spent imagining who should take the leap and actually bring these words to the screen that much more entertaining.

So here are our picks: Fifteen books we love that we feel would make great films if put in the right hands and who we think those hands belong to. Dive in and let us know which book / director combos you would love to see on the big screen.

Black Hole by David Lynch

Charles Burns' Black Hole is a monster of a graphic novel, both figuratively and literally, and a true classic of the form. But the simple fact that the story revolves around high school kids fucking one another, contracting an STD that transforms them into often bizarre monsters, and then shooting one another means that this will never be made as a studio picture despite Universal commissioning a (very good) script from Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary and David Fincher expressing the desire to direct. Fincher's version would be too expensive by far and the combination of underage sex, drugs and firearms means it would likely never be able to secure an acceptable rating.

So take it out of Fincher's hands and give it to another David. Lynch's best work has always revolved around the dirty underbelly of middle America and I cannot imagine a better thematic fit. The Lynch version would likely look very little like Burns' drawings on the page but, seriously, can you imagine someone making this any more uncomfortable than Lynch would?

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100 years of solitudealan moorealdous huxleyangela carterblack holeblood meridianbrave new worldcharles burnschina mievillechuck palahniukcoen brotherscormac mccarthycryptonomicondarren aronofskydavid lynchfranz kafkagabrial garcia marquezgaspar noegone away worldguillermo del torohajime ohataharuki murakamihouse of leavesinfernal desire machinesjean pierre jeunetkavalier and claykrakenlars von trierlost girlsmark z. danielewskimichael baymichael chabonmichel gondryneal stephensonneill blomkampnick harkawaysally pottersnuffsophia coppolathe baron in the treesthe metamorphosiswild sheep chaseyoshihiro nakamura
RachelJune 18, 2013 3:00 PM

Hell, I'd like Gondry to adapt ANY Murakami novel!

Todd BrownJune 18, 2013 3:15 PM

We just need Murakami to start letting the rights get out there ... he's been really reticent, but I think he's got a handful that would make AMAZING films.

brettJune 18, 2013 3:16 PM

House of Leaves should go to Charlie Kaufman. He has experience with things that are bigger on the inside.

Todd BrownJune 18, 2013 3:19 PM

That's an intriguing option, too.

JasonJune 18, 2013 3:25 PM

While I'm starry-eyed at the thought of a David Lynch directed Black Hole, I always thought David Cronenberg would be the right man for that job.

Todd BrownJune 18, 2013 3:53 PM

Ha! Cronenberg was my initial pick but I had a last minute change of heart and traded Davids!

Benoit LaflecheJune 18, 2013 3:57 PM

Great piece Mr Brown...not only have you made me discover some new books but by associating a director you actually help me visualize and understand the feel of the books....bravo.....oh and in case you read my comment....let me go waaaaaayyyyyy off subject...when can we expect footage from the raid Berandal? I've missed those mini behind the scene Gareth had for the first one

Todd BrownJune 18, 2013 4:00 PM

Thanks! Not all me here (two of the entries were completely written by other people and a number of others were suggested by other writers) but very much appreciated!

As for Berandal, the PR machine is largely controlled by Sony on that one. Shoot's getting quite close to the end now and the footage looks amazing but we haven't had really clear word as to when they'll be putting some footage out. We want to share it as much as you want to see it!

dustin changJune 18, 2013 4:08 PM

Oh man, This is right up my alley! All the choices are stellar, except I don't know who Ohata Hajime is and Alfonso Cuaron or Claudia Llosa would be a better choice for 100 YEARS OF SOLITUDE...

My Picks:

Wasp Factory by Lynne Ramsay
The Left Hand of Darkness by Michael Winterbottom
Master and Margarita by Alexandre Sokurov
The Possibility of an Island by Tom Tykwer
not a Sci-fi or fantasy but on my wishlist (unless you count early 80s New York as fantasy), Just Kids by Chantal Akerman

Todd BrownJune 18, 2013 4:15 PM

Winterbottom would be AWESOME on Left Hand. Big yes to that.

Todd BrownJune 18, 2013 4:17 PM

And here's a trailer for Ohata's Henge. It's super low budget but pretty damn awesome.

John HorusJune 18, 2013 4:27 PM

Small correction: Michael Chabon's MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURG was also adapted as film.

FerreteiroJune 18, 2013 4:27 PM

Paul Thomas Anderson's "Blood Meridian" / David Lynch's "House Of Leaves" /Terrence Malick's "At The Mountain Of Madness" / Tetsuya Nakashima's "The End Of Alice"

Todd BrownJune 18, 2013 4:35 PM

You are correct, I overlooked that on his IMDB page.

kidlazarusJune 18, 2013 4:38 PM

Agree with you about David Cronenberg. Hell, son Brandon might be up to it. Another one I can think of doing Black Hole is Carter Smith. His Yearbook short has similarities.

Snoop LionJune 18, 2013 4:39 PM

Personally I want to see Peter Weir do another Aubrey-Maturin novel. Master and Commander is pretty fantastic on all fronts. "The lesser of two weevils!"

dustin changJune 18, 2013 4:45 PM

oh perfekt!

Ard VijnJune 18, 2013 4:58 PM

"To sweethearts and wives. May they never meet."

NorbertJune 18, 2013 5:11 PM

Lynch for Black Hole would be horrible. It would be a total mess and he is out of form. Darren Arnofsky, Marry Harron or Alfredson are way better choices.

NorbertJune 18, 2013 5:12 PM

Why Kraken and not Perdido Street Station? Way better book.

Todd BrownJune 18, 2013 5:18 PM

I address that directly in the text.

kidlazarusJune 18, 2013 5:44 PM

I think the real x factor to Jean Pierre Jeunet doing another City of Lost Children or Delicatessen is obvious: Marc Caro. Would love to see the two reunite on any project. Maybe Pitof, in a visual artist capacity, should hitch along for the ride, too.

c71incJune 18, 2013 5:45 PM

Interesting list. Thanks for the new titles - of both mediums - I want to explore.
Interestingly enough, I had heard that the Coen Bros. had optioned Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union a few years back. I would have enjoyed that more than a little.

Andrew MackJune 18, 2013 6:04 PM

I'll take the blame for Kraken as it was my suggestion (I never thought our lord and master would actually include it! heh). I've made my way through a lot of Mieville's stuff, just not Perdido Street Station. But after I finish a Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane I also picked up Perdido Street Station this weekend and will be diving into that! You may be right. Perdido Street Station could be better. Give me a couple weeks and I may just agree with you on that one! I just love Kraken and it's urban fairy tale vibe.

Todd BrownJune 18, 2013 6:11 PM

Yeah, that'd be an awesome one, too.

Todd BrownJune 18, 2013 6:12 PM

Totally agree. And Caro's stuff solo has been close to unwatchable. Would be great to see them back together.

kidlazarusJune 18, 2013 6:24 PM

Great subject. Very thoughtful pairings.

Thinking of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian there are a number that come to mind: Coen Bros and John Hillcoat (both parties have tackled McCarthy and Westerns), Terrence Malik, Paul Thomas Anderson, Andrew Dominik and Tommy Lee Jones.

Gaspar Noe for Snuff. Cryptonomicon - Tomas Alfredson. Brave New World - Tarsem Singh. The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman - Neill Blomkamp or Tom Tykwer. 100 Years of Solitude - Fernando Meirelles. Kraken - Guillermo del Toro. House of Leaves - Christopher Nolan.

Giles des RaisJune 18, 2013 8:06 PM

What about Moebius and Jodorowsky's "The Incal"?

[A]June 18, 2013 9:21 PM

Guys, you need to put a "view all" option or something like that. Please?

knewsomethingJune 18, 2013 10:49 PM

What about Perdido Street Station by Michael Arias? The most important character in the book is New Crobuzon and Arias did a fine job of capturing Treasure Town. Animation would make it realising the fantasy elements (technology, xenos) somewhat easier and cheaper.

ErnestoJune 19, 2013 12:03 AM

One difficult book I'd like to see adapted to film is Clive Barker's WEAVEWORLD. It's a massive and epic tale, but it'd be great to see it onscreen in some form. Off the top of my head, I'd give it to Guillermo Del Toro, who could effectively balance the fantasy setting with some of the darker aspects.. Or maybe just let Barker direct it himself.

william chandraJune 19, 2013 12:40 AM

i they put kickstarter project of A Wild Sheep Chase with Michel Gondry on board i will sell whatever i had and give it to them

NorbertJune 19, 2013 3:40 AM

I didn't find that a good explanation. Because it's smaller? It's a dream list anyway and Kraken is filmable. The only problem is that it isn't a big enough property for studios to be interested. Though JPJ just doesn't fit the movie for me.

AJJune 19, 2013 4:10 AM

Paul Thomas Anderson would be a no brainer for "Blood Meridian", but he's done the western in a way already with "There Will Be Blood" (which should have won over "No Country For Old Men"). My wild card pick would be Michael Haneke for "Blood Meridian". He has said he always wanted to do a western, and it would be interesting to see how he handles all the violence in the novel. I don't think it would be a project that would interest him though. Gaspar Noe's "Blood Meridian" would be a brutal film though, probably a lot of over head crane shots-haha probably not though, that was just a technique he was interested in when he came up with the idea for "ENTER THE VOID." I'm rambling...

orchidalbionJune 19, 2013 4:42 AM

Had the same thoughts as well, David Cronenberg from the late 80s and he's a book adapter

orchidalbionJune 19, 2013 4:55 AM

Baron in the Trees is my favourite story - who said that - I love it so much that I've been too precious and haven't had the film debate about it - somebody has done a one man play of it

orchidalbionJune 19, 2013 5:00 AM

I've always thought Perdido Street Station would be great as a TV series as its so sprawling and immersive one of those ten episode (hourly episodes) one - in debates I've had over this we've argued the merits of whether to do this or the Scar. Agree with the rationale for Kraken to be a film, a film just wouldn't do the Scar and Perdido Street station justice - need another list of books best done through a TV series - I would add Weaveworld in this (as mentioned above) - but this is a film site!

orchidalbionJune 19, 2013 5:03 AM

In my discussions about this I've always thought that it would be a hard book to film as you needed to get across the brutal atmosphere of it without making it a grim slog, the approach would be to make it a very stylish visual film that would sweep through your senses and leave you stumbling out of the cinema woozy - that was the sensation i got from the book as well, it made me a little woozy - on this criteria Noe is one of the best suggestions I've heard, thinking about it I think would need somebody to do to the violence what Oshima did to sex in the Realm of the senses, if that makes any sense, I'm rambling now as well

orchidalbionJune 19, 2013 5:04 AM

I've always thought that would make a great book to film, never thought about the director, but this match is just perfect, seems so obvious

orchidalbionJune 19, 2013 5:18 AM

I love Baron in the Trees - its my favourite story, never thought about a film as I love it too much if that makes sense, there was a one man play of it.

I love this topic, and your suggestions and discussion as I've talked about this topic a lot, particularly in relation to particular books and when articles like this are written. I have a rough categorisation in my head of:

unfilmable books (and a list of reasons why a book would be unfilmable i.e. having such a specific feel that it just wouldn't be captured in film or a lot of the joy of the book is through words phrasing that naturally a film wouldn't be the same - Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien)

very difficult to film books (I think many of what people say are unfilmable books are books that are very difficult to film but get the right director and right approach it could work which I guess what this topic is about - for example I've always argued that Blood Meridian isn't unfilmable just very difficult to do - or the technology/budget/logistics etc isn't quite there yet - I guess this is a subcategory books that are filmable if the correct conditions exist)

books that are unfilmable but it would be interesting to see what somebody does with its ideas, themes etc - I guess i mean it would be interesting to see a director use the medium of film to do what the author did through the medium of book which would make this category overlap with the first category (I guess Winterbottom's Tristam Shandy would come in this category)

renpJune 19, 2013 7:54 AM

not sure about Coppola x Lost Girls... what about newcomers like Julia Leigh (Sleeping Beauty) or Rebecca Thomas (Elektrik Children)

Todd BrownJune 19, 2013 8:37 AM

We talked about this, actually, but couldn't settle on a director for it! Who would you want to see at the helm?

Giles des RaisJune 19, 2013 12:36 PM

Nobody I know is more familiar or respectful of the source material than me, so I should do it. And yes, I am a director and wouldn't mind giving 10 years of my life to make a trilogy for this magnificent story.

Paul HuxleyJune 19, 2013 3:03 PM

I always thought Linklater for Black hole (he could get someone in to do the freaky stuff).

The Seafairy June 19, 2013 3:13 PM

Awesome article and great list. Love things like this. I can't stand most peoples half-assed stances on adaptations. The directors you've chosen are good ones because they'd make the adaptions their own, which is what all good adaptations do. I'd love to see Jeff Nichols take an extremely dark turn towards the Blood Meridian. Even Steve Mcqueen would be interesting. I don't think Gasper Noe is as comparable to narrative content as Cormac McCarthy. Now that could be a good thing, meaning he already has this amazing narrative to work with, but he might latch onto wrongful content, withering Cormac's intellect.

Todd BrownJune 19, 2013 4:32 PM

Hey, thanks! Much appreciated! I think we have a pretty similar feeling about Gaspar ... there's a fighting chance he's got the highest risk / reward ratio on this list (to my mind only the Lynch / Black Hole pairing is comparably risky) but if it worked, it'd REALLY work.

The Seafairy June 19, 2013 4:39 PM

Yeah, I definitely see what your thinking, given Noe's ability to portray uniquely cinematic taboo.

PatrykJune 19, 2013 6:12 PM

The Master of Go (Yasunari Kawabata) by Andrew Bujalski. It's like Computer Chess...but with Go!

Tybalt June 20, 2013 12:11 AM

The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocolypse by Ridley Scott. This book and its material blew my mind and still does to this day.

Michael BatesJune 20, 2013 6:34 AM

I would love to see Caleb Carr's THE ALIENIST be either a mini-series on HBO/Showtime hell even the BBC. This book screams to be filmed and I had heard at one time DeNiro was interested.
On the epic side I would love to see Lucifer's Hammer be a mini-series also.