Unfilmable fiction?

As I was watching the trailers lately for Star TrekThor IIWorld War Z, and a few others, and thinking of what’s coming down the pipeline (The Hobbit IISnow CrashEnder’s Game, and others), as well as reading all the talk lately about the Star Wars franchise and what’s happening there, I was thinking it’s a pretty good time to be alive for those of us who enjoy good science fiction-fantasy films (or enjoy making fun of bad science fiction-fantasy films).

Giant talking trees that throw rocks!!Clearly, one large reason for the explosion in such films’ popularity is the relatively recent ability to simply film the kinds of scenes we expect to see. It wasn’t too long ago, for instance, that conventional wisdom thought that the Lord of the Rings, for instance, was unfilmable: “A thousand page story with giant, talking trees and a disembodied villain? Yeah, good luck with that on-screen.” The same was true of Cloud Atlas, albeit for different reasons than the visuals: “Six different stories?. All with different characters? And then you stop telling each one in the middle? And pick them up later? But backwards? Get out of my office.”

All of which got me to thinking, with all that can be done nowadays with CGI and motion capture and all the other special effects, is there any fantasy or science fiction novel out there that is still “unfilmable,” whether it be due to visuals, or topic, or structure (yes, there are some people who would argue the movie only showed Cloud Atlas was indeed unfilmable). How about it? Any books still out there you think can’t be filmed? Not the ones you don’t want to see filmed — that’s a different question (“Leave me my vision!”), but ones you think can’t be filmed?

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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  1. sandy ferber /

    An interesting question, Bill. Offhand, I’d have to say that David Lindsay’s “A Voyage to Arcturus” might be pretty much unfilmable; heck, it is only borderline readable (IMHO), and as strange a sci-fi book as I’ve ever read….

  2. No idea. I don’t watch films so I can’t even say how well films are done these days. I saw a few clips of Harry Potter and thought everything was dank and dark rather than realistic. Or maybe the acting was bad. Or maybe you can’t judge a film by a clip or six on the internet. I’m quite sure my imagination did a much better job.

  3. David Gilchrist /

    The chronicles of thomas covenant. Too internal to make the transition to visual media well.

  4. Danielle /

    Kushiel’s Dart (the Kushiel’s Legacy series) by Jacqueline Carey. Very involved, tons of locations, lots of characters, lots and lots of background. One of my favorite book series ever, but I think I would cry to see any sad attempt made to justify it on film.

  5. Paul Connelly /

    When you say “can’t be filmed”, my guess is you mean “can’t be filmed and stay reasonably faithful to the book”. Anything can be filmed if the filmmakers use the title, the names of the main characters, and keep some of the more fantastic aspects of the setting. Then, just add car crashes, sex and a bit of climactic mano a mano with blasters, light sabers, ectoplasm or swords.

    But would any of this result in something that resembled a book such as Always Coming Home, or Humpty Dumpty: an Oval, or Fourth Mansions, or Lavondyss? Would you really want to see what some misguided soul in Hollywood thought they could do with any book by Michael Cisco or Greer Gilman?

  6. Alex Avero /

    The Silmarillion because of it’s complex story lines over a very long timeline.

  7. The Female Man by Joanna Russ – can’t be done. At least, not unless you abandon all pretense of the movie following the book in any real way.

    I think there was a time that some of the very long books and multi-volume stories couldn’t be filmed, due to length rather than special effects, but Harry Potter and Game of Thrones have proved that wrong as well. I have no interest in a 15-20 season (or however long it would take) Wheel of Time macro-series, but it’s certainly possible.

    While I think someone could film anything, the ones that couldn’t be done well are those where huge parts of the story are internalized and/or quantum. I suspect it’d be very difficult to film some of Zelazny’s works (Amber Chronicles, Lord of Light). We have ample evidence that many of Philip K. Dick’s works are unfilmable unless you completely change it into a different story, retaining only the title and *maybe* a germ of the concept (it’s also telling that for the most part, the films have been based on his short stories…very few of his novels have been filmed…in fact, only two off the top of my head). To be fair, I would have said “A Scanner Darkly” was unfilmable and they pulled it off moderately well.

  8. Brent /

    I’d say the Malazan Book of the Fallen because it’s A) huge in terms of amount of story and B) because it’s very magic heavy. If tv becomes more special effect oriented to might be able to but at the time I think it would cost too much money to film for tv and a company wouldn’t pick 16+ book series which would cost many millions to make and would have a huge cast.

  9. I would agree with Danielle- the Kushiel’s series is unfilmable, despite how much I would love to see it on the big screen. For one, it would have to be R or X-rated; and a huge part of the beauty of the books is the language and the politics which I don’t think would translate well.

  10. True “Space Opera” is still tough to do well I’d imagine. I’m thinking here of stuff like Iain M. Bank’s Culture novels or Alastair Reynolds House of Suns and Revelation Space. Most of them exist on such a ridiculous scale and have plots that are so complicated, they’d never make it to the screen in a workable form.

    A movie of A Fire Upon the Deep could be cool, but again, a LOT going on, and I don’t think hive-minded puppy aliens would ever not look ridiculous onscreen.

  11. There are probably a ton of books that are unfilmable… if you intend to stick exactly to the way that the story was told in the novel. One of the fun parts of adaptations is that you get to play around a little with presentation, and tell the same story in a different way. Look how well that worked out for Lord of the Rings, as a perfect example.

    But there are definitely some books that would be very hard to adapt. And adapting them WELL is another challenge entirely. Books where a lot of the action is internal, or where it all comes across better through words and pages than it would through images. I think that most of what people would class as unfilmable ultimately boils down to it being too complex or unsuitable to film well while still staying largely true to the book. Anything’s filmable, if you use enough artistic license. Whether one would consider it a success or not is entirely a personal decision.

    Long non-answer is long.

  12. I think that The Demon Cycle books by Peter V. Brett would be really hard to adapt to film. There are so many different POV characters, it would be really difficult to capture the essence and motivations of each of the characters. Also, the story constantly shifts between different time periods, and there is a lot of history that is described throughout the novels. I feel all of that would be hard to capture on film.

    Heck, just capturing the motivations and development of Jardir and Arlen would be a lot to ask.

  13. April /

    I can’t say that I have ever read a book that was unfilmable – these days they can do just about anything with special effects and whatnot. Even internal dialog can be done well, just think of that recent zombie romance movie – can’t think of the title off the top of my head though.

    The basic problem with book to film is time. In a book, there is leisure to develop history and camaraderie that just can’t be shown in the time of a conventional movie – 2 hours plus. Add in any character backstory and worldbuilding and without even a plot you have two hours of film.

    The magic is in picking and choosing the right things that bring the same atmosphere, characterization and story to the smaller amount of time allotted.

    I would love to see Outlander done like The Game of Thrones – or at least serialized in some way that would allow more of the story to come through than a film would have time for.

  14. Jonathan /

    Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series. It’s just too bizarrely metafictional.

    I also think Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series would be challenging. I love the series, but the climax of the first book prominently featured dramatic editing (in another language, no less), and the characters spend a great deal of the second book as shapeshifted whales, which are some of the least expressive mammals on the planet.

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