“While clearly an impregnable masterpiece, Don Quixote suffers from one fairly serious flaw: that of outright unreadability.”
So says Martin Amis of Cervantes' 1000 page plus masterpiece he wrote in prison, considered one of the first novels ever written and also one of the best. It is one of those books that when you read it, it is easy to appreciate its brilliance, but its also extremely dense, opaque and very, very long. When I tried to read it, I found myself dozing off multiple times. So much for my degree in English Literature.
Nevertheless, not to be perturbed by this difficulty of comprehension, Disney are pushing forward with their production of the infamous Spanish novel. It has been announced that Billy Ray, of Captain Phillips and Hunger Games fame, has been hired to adapt the novel for the screen. According to the producers it will:
"take its cues from the rollicking, adventurous tone of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise."
Whilst you might disagree with this approach to the source material, it remains welcoming news — especially for me, a literature student — that five hundred year old novels are still attracting the interest of big studios such as Disney. But who else has tried to adapt this supposedly unfilmable novel, and have they succeeded? Let's take a look at two intensely personal visions that never made it to screen. May they serve as cautionary tales...
Orson Welles And When Are You Going To Finish Don Quixote?
The man behind Citizen Kane (Donald Trump's favourite film!), Touch Of Evil and Chimes At Midnight, Orson Welles is one of the great names of Hollywood as well as one its biggest victims. Having had complete creative control with Citizen Kane, his subsequent unique visions were constantly compromised by meddling producers, leading many concepts never to make it to screen.
One of his unfinished passion projects, along with The Merchant of Venice and The Other Side Of The Wind, was Don Quixote, which he first shot test footage for in 1955. As he said to Peter Bogdanovich:
"What interests me is the idea of these dated old virtues. And why they still seem to speak to us when, by all logic, they're so hopelessly irrelevant. That's why I've been obsessed for so long with Don Quixote"
Initial filming on the streets of Mexico City in 1957, production had to stop due to financing problems and Welles going over budget. Welles pledged to raise funds himself by acting in several other films, delaying production even further. He wanted to show Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as anachronisms in the present day, and showed them confused by contraptions such as airplanes and cinema screens. The 60s saw him shooting fragments in Pamplona, Malaga, Rome and elsewhere in Italy and Spain. By the end of the 60s, lead actor Francisco Reiguera died, yet Welles maintained he had finished the scenes with him.
Nevertheless, the concept for the film kept changing, leading to more and more delays. He spoke of the film that it was:
"My own personal project, to be completed in my own time, as one might with a novel"
He later said that he could only finish Don Quixote if he stopped going back to Spain, because every time he went back he would have a fresh perspective. These constant delays, which lasted all the way until his death in 1985, led Welles to consider calling the film When Are You Going To Finish Don Quixote? Further complicating the process for Jesús Franco, the Spanish director tasked with finishing the film after his death, he deliberately split up the reels of his movie and mislabelled them. The 1992 unfinished version that was eventually released, sadly screened to unfortunate reviews. It has been described as:
"the archetype of an unfinished Welles film, unfinished because it was unfinishable"
In his doomed folly to make the adaptation, it appeared Welles became a Quixotic figure himself. Yet, maybe it will be his zany successor who will finally make the version fit for the novel:
Terry Gilliam Is Still Lost in La Mancha
The man behind such bizarre visions as The Life Of Brian, Twelve Monkeys and Brazil, Terry Gilliam has been trying to adapt Don Quixote ever since 1998. The delayed production of the film has been described as one of the most infamous examples of development hell. His vision will also update it for modern times, featuring Sancho Panza briefly, before him being replaced by a 21st Century marketing executive being thrown backwards through time. It will be called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
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Initially skipping American financing and opting to film in Europe with a cast including Jean Rochefort, Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis, the $32.1 million production was disturbed by overhead jets and flash floodings. Production was further halted when Rochefort discovered he had a double herniated disc. After Gilliam realised Rochefort would not return to the project, filming was finally cancelled. This failed attempt was made into the documentary Lost In La Mancha which one critic described as:
"A fascinating record of how the movie fell apart, piece by piece, with everything short of a natural disaster conspiring against the filmmaker."
Watch The Trailer Below:
A six year lawsuit on behalf of the investors followed, with Gilliam losing then regaining rights to make the movie in 2006. In 2008 he restarted production efforts, with Robert Duvall, Ewan MacGregor and Johnny Depp to star. But once again, production fell through by 2010. Somewhat exasperated, Gilliam expressed in an interview regarding the films that:
"I've wasted far too much of my life doing it. If you're going to do Quixote, you have to become as mad as Quixote... I've wasted how many years? Fifteen?... It's kind of the determination to be crazy and unreasonable. Every intelligent person around me says, 'Walk away from it.'"
Amazon Studios picked up production in 2015, but was delayed once again as actor John Hurt (as Quixote) was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In March of this year the production started up again with Paula Branco producing and Adam Driver and Michael Palin in the lead roles, yet the most recent reports confirm that delays have struck once again:
“I had this producer, a Portuguese chap, who claimed he’d get all the money together in time. And a few weeks ago, he proved that he didn’t have the money. So we are still marching forward. It is not dead. I will be dead before the film is.”
He later went on to say that:
“I want to get this film out of my life so that I can get on with the rest of my life.”
Naturally Disney have a lot more money to play around with than both Gilliam and Welles, but these two woeful productions do show that if you want to adapt Don Quixote for the big screen, you better be ready for a world of frustration and pain. I know the feeling: its hard enough just to read the bloody thing!