A really disappointing list ....

.... of "the Unfilmables" -- novels that would be near-impossible to film. What he means, of course, is impossible to film well.

The expected modernist achievements are here (Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, Samuel Beckett's Trilogy, Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu), although what isn't mentioned about Beckett is I'll Go On, the great actor Barry McGovern's brilliant (and brilliantly funny) one-man theatrical distillation of the Trilogy. Presumably, THAT could be filmed.

But strangest of all is the complete lack of anything on the list by Virginia Woolf, even though works like To the Lighthouse may be the most evanescent/impressionistic novels of the period (and yet Orlando was made into quite a good film by Sally Potter). "Anything by Thomas Pynchon" is listed -- which is nonsense; The Crying of Lot 49 could make a very interesting film. And Pynchon's old Cornell prof, Vladimir Nabokov, wrote several novels far more unfilmable than anything by his student. Consider Ada and Pale Fire.

Actually, most any lengthy novel that, following Proust, is a monument of deeply personal memory and style, would be difficult to film. I'm thinking in particular of Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities. Of contemporary writers, people who wrote into Screen Head got most excited about Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. I think David Mitchell's work, especially Cloud Atlas or Number9Dream, would be more difficult than Catcher in the Rye (which, oddly, is on the list). And wait till someome tries to condense this 864-page monster.

The list is fun but futile. The old maxim, "Great book, bad film; mediocre book, great film," is worth recalling here. An author's vision and style may simply be too singular, too consciously literary, to be broken into 24 frames per second.

But consider the aforementioned Orlando or Michael Winterbottom's recent adaptation of Tristram Shandy, which although strictly speaking is not much of an actual adaptation of Laurence Sterne's book, it still did a remarkable job of capturing much of Sterne's antic humor and nattering spirit. Or what about the incredible Street of Crocodiles? Who would have thought that Bruno Schulz' novel could ever have been made into a puppet film by the Brothers Quay-- and such a hallucinatory work which seemingly has nothing to do with the book and yet beautifully conveys its dark, airless surrealism?

In short, sometimes the film-credit phrase "inspired by" isn't a bad sign. Films "inspired by" books, rather than literal-minded adaptations of them, often are the best celluloid homages to great literature.

January 14, 2007 3:37 PM | | Comments (4)



"anything by Pynchon" is impossible to film because he would be unavailble to acquire the film rights. Yes, I would die to see a film version of "The Crying of Lot 49" especially if they get the pre-Silicon Valley period right.

There have been attempts to film part of Proust. "Swann in Love" with Jeremy Irons captured some of the oppressive silliness of Swann's pursuit of Odette.

Good point. It's precisely the ability of film (or music videos) to co-opt one's visual imagination that makes many of them so irritating, even insidious. One can't imagine those characters or that tune now without these invasive pictures. And they can overwhelmingly influence our impression of a work. Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange is a tremendous film, for example, but its bright, sassy pop-art future actually bears little resemblance to the post-war-shortage world of the Anthony Burgess novel -- dreary and grey, a world of gang violence not out of exultation but dead-end frustration.

Pale Fire is one I cannot imagine seeing on the big screen. I tend to hold off on seeing the film until I've read the book, so I can enjoy the process of creating and imagining. Otherwise I get particular actors stuck in my head.


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